Features > ‘Men and women like us’

23 April 2015 | by Hannah Roberts in Rome

‘Men and women like us’

One in 10 migrants who embarks on the sea crossing from Libya to Italy dies in the attempt. After the latest tragedy in the Mediterranean in which almost 1,000 people drowned, Italy is demanding more support from its European partners

As the imposing white Coast Guard ship glides smoothly into the floodlit port of Catania just before midnight, a crowd of excited Sicilians wait on the shore yelling and holding up placards.

The Gregoretti is carrying 27 survivors of the shipwreck last weekend that killed an estimated 950 people – described by Pope Francis on Sunday as “men and women like us” – when their boat capsized off the coast of Libya. The tragedy is thought to be the worst loss of life ever in the Mediterranean.

Despite the landing of 100,000 migrants in their city last year, demonstrators are not protesting against the arrival of yet more migrants in Sicily, but welcoming them.

“Europe should be without borders. We are all illegal immigrants,” they chant. “Our Sicilian history tells us that emigrating is not a crime.”

“We want an end to Fortress Europe, so that people can move freely and live where they can be safe,” one girl tells me.

A spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Carlotta Sami, says that the survivors were “quite astonished” by the reception committee that greeted them, which included swarms of police, health workers and politicians alongside the ­protesters.

Many Italians have considerable sympathy for immigrants in Italy, sometimes a reflection of the memory of their grandparents, many of whom in the early twentieth century fled desperate poverty in the southern Mezzogiorno for the United States and Argentina. Others, such as the right-wing Northern League anti-immigration party, exploit fears over lack of jobs and high youth unemployment to create resentment. With almost 5,000 miles of coastline, Italy is at the coalface of Mediterranean migration and faces an ongoing quandary.

After a previous trafficking shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013, and amid much soul searching, the extensive Mare Nostrum (“Our Sea”) search-and-rescue mission was launched. But at a cost of €9 million (£6.4m) a month, it was politically unpopular in Italy, which is still in its longest post-war recession. The £3m a month EU mission Triton that replaced it at the beginning of this year is essentially a border-control exercise and patrols only 30 miles from the shores of Europe. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says deaths in 2015 are 30 times higher than the same period last year, when Mare Nostrum was operating. Efforts by the Italians to increase support from Europe have largely fallen on deaf ears although EU ministers were set to meet on Thursday for crisis talks on migration. For those attempting the crossing, the risks are high: one in 10 dies. But some say they would “rather risk death” than go back to countries like Eritrea, one of the world’s most repressive states, where a recent conscription drive has caused many to flee. (See David Blair, page 7.) Those who do reach European shores in their search for a better life often find that the challenges of the journey are just the beginning. A safe and comfortable life can take years to realise.

Most migrants do not want to stay in Italy, but prefer to move to northern European countries such as Sweden and Germany where there are jobs and generous benefits. Few plan to move to the UK as the crossing between Calais and Dover is so difficult. Syrians tend to be well resourced and internationally connected and leave Italy for other richer countries immediately.  Mohammed, a perfumer who fled Assad’s regime, is no exception. He did not even spend the night at a reception centre but took a taxi to the nearest railway station, from where he was heading to the UK. “I know England is strong,” he said. “It had an empire. It’s a very good country. The language is good, the weather is good. They offered me [transit] to the USA but I don’t want to go there. There’s too much violence and murder. I know England is safe because they have cameras in every street there.”
Unofficial “travel agents” operate at many of the main stations and can arrange a trip at a price. While the Dublin treaty requires refugees to stay in the EU country in which  they first seek asylum, most manage eventually to cross into France without having their ­documents checked. Many of the sub-Saharan Africans, however, who arrive with nothing end up staying in Italy, living in shipping containers in camps for months or years until they get a work permit.

Survivors of the latest tragedy have been taken to Europe’s biggest refugee camp, Mineo, near Catania, with 4,000 occupants. There, migrants claim they rarely receive their state-sponsored pocket money and are forced to find work. They are effectively turned into slaves – the back-breaking work picking tomatoes or grapes pays as little as €10 (£7) a day. Others, often Nigerian and Eritrean women, are induced into prostituting themselves, sometimes in order to pay back money for their journey.

Criminal gangs with links from Eritrea to Marseilles are making millions from what Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has condemned as “a new slave trade”. With a journey costing more than €4,000 (£2,850) each, overloaded and unseaworthy boats carrying 500 desperate souls can create revenue of €2 million (£1.4m).

Proposed solutions include a European-funded Mare Nostrum. Non-governmental organisations including Save the Children called on EU leaders to restart the large-scale search-and-rescue operation and a mandate to patrol the whole central Mediterranean.

But other European governments, including the UK’s, have taken the view that the patrols make life easier for the traffickers. Foreign Office minister Lady (Joyce) Anelay said last year they created “an unintended pull factor”.

The solution posed by far-right Italian groups is for a naval blockade to be mounted. Leader of the Northern League, Matteo Salvini, called for boats to be blocked from departing from Libya: “This is the umpteenth tragedy. Nothing has changed since the disaster of Lampedusa. Do we need another 700 people to die before we block the crossings?

“We must block the departures from the ports. If we block the departures we prevent the deaths.”

Meanwhile Italy’s Interior Minister, Angelino Alfano, has called for migrant processing centres in North Africa to sort the genuine refugees from the economic migrants. “The camps would do a preventative screening,” he said. “Those who have refugee status would be distributed in a balanced way among various European countries, those who haven’t would not be given permission to leave,” he said earlier this year.

The Order of Malta’s director of search and rescue, Mauro Casinghini, said he favoured military intervention in Libya with UN backing, as well as greater humanitarian efforts. He said: “If there is a flood in my house I don’t just turn the tap off, I go to the source. This problem needs to be resolved with humanitarian and diplomatic intervention in the country of origin because otherwise they will keep going to Libya.”

How this conundrum will eventually be resolved is unclear. Italy’s anguish is also being felt more widely across Europe, as authorities balance the dilemmas of a humanitarian emergency against the needs of existing ­citizens. Acording to the EU border agency, Frontex, one million migrants are already in Libya waiting to cross.

Hannah Roberts reports for The Tablet from Italy.

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