Thursday

22nd Oct 2020

'In my country there's only war and death'

  • Some 170,000 people landed on the Italy’s coasts in 2014, according to government figures (Photo: Amnesty International Italy)

Over 3,200 migrants died in the Mediterranean last year. This year even more are likely to die. This makes the glittering sea that European tourists love so much the world’s most lethal border.

“The tragedies of the Mediterranean are caused by indifference,” says Abba Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean catholic priest who the Italian media call “the refugees’ angel”.

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  • Kererim detention centre in Misurata, Libya - thousands of migrants attempt to reach Europe each year from the north African country (Photo: Habeshia Agency)

“After each shipwreck, European politicians make their touchy-feely speeches but then take no real measures”, he adds.

Over the years, Zerai, who has previously been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, has helped save thousands of migrants from drowning. Boats in difficulty call him and give him their co-ordinates, which he then provides to the Italian Navy to organise the rescue.

The rescued migrants (as well as the corpses which Italy manage to recover) often end up in Lampedusa, an Italian limestone islet closer to the African coast than to Sicily.

Lampedusa was also a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. It was a gesture to recognise the huge efforts of locals to deal with the tide of migrants who reach its shores. But it changes little on the ground. The island’s cemeteries are filled with migrants’ corpses. The local economy is suffering. Lampedusa’s mayor, Giusi Nicolini, compares the tragedies in the Mediterranean to a “modern Holocaust”.

Some 170,000 people landed on Italy’s coasts in 2014, according to government figures. Many don’t remain in Italy. Eritreans, Syrians and Somalians, in particular, dream of going to Germany, Sweden, and the UK - already home to many of their fellow nationals.

Going north

“Almost half of those who reached Italy in 2014 were Eritreans and Syrians, but only some 65,000 people applied for refugee status here,” says Christopher Hein, director of the Italian Council for Refugees.

“The others went to other European countries illegally, often relying on smugglers,” he adds.

Elsa works in a Sicilian reception centre. She’s a human rights activist, and believes that “everyone has the right to migrate, not only white people. We all are citizens of the world”.

She says that the migrants hosted by her centre are happy at the beginning, but become apathetic while waiting for Italian bureaucracy to decide their fate. They end up sleeping all day long.

Many of them dream of the rich Northern European countries “that offer better assistance for migrants”. But others, such as 27-year old Ayub, a former Somali soldier, prefer to stay in Sicily.

“When [Ayub] arrived he was crazy with anger. He believed another guest belonged to the militant group Al Shabaab,” Elsa says.

“Then he started to calm down and understood that he needed a job to remain mentally healthy. So he started to hang out at a garage in town. At first the mechanic used to throw him out, but he continued to go back to the garage and finally has become the mechanic’s assistant. His wife from Somalia reached him too, and now they live here, well integrated.”

Elsa explains that migrants have the right to go out of the centre and, in theory, can leave for good. Which is exactly what 20-year old Moussa from Mali did. He left his crowded Sicilian hosting centre and now sells trinkets on the streets of Rome. But he wants to reach Germany.

“The sea crossing from Libya to Italy cost me $1,500, on the boat we had nothing to eat or to drink. Two people fell in the water and no one could help them. I thank God for making me get to Rome, now I’ll pray to Him to reach Germany,” says Moussa.

At the huge train station in Milan, a group of about 20 Syrian, Eritrean and Libyan immigrants is gathered. Many of them want to take a train to Switzerland or to Verona, an Italian stop on the way to Austria, Germany and Scandinavia.

Leila belongs to the small group of Libyans.

“In my country there's only war and death, my family and I could not stay. Italy is not a bad place but we want to get to Sweden,” she says.

Many migrants are so eager to leave Italy that “sometimes they rely on the so called scafisti di terra, smugglers-by-land, who promise to take them beyond the Italian border for €400, but who often abandon them in the countryside, in the middle of nowhere” says a volunteer for a Milan municipality.

Assan, 20, comes from Gambia, and crossed the desert and the sea to reach Europe. He sits in the train station of Bolzano, an Italian city close to the Austrian border.

He wants to reach Vienna where the relatives of some friends live. “The Europeans treat us African immigrants as if colonialism still existed. A black guy cannot move without permission, he must stay in his place", he says.

Assan is not the only one who thinks this way.

US journalist Stephan Faris, author of an essay on global migrations titled “Homelands”, says: “The way we deal with the issue of immigrants reminds me of the apartheid regime in South Africa. We try to protect the privileges of a few people through borders and passports.”

Migration has become one of Europe’s top political issues. Yet there are no easy solutions.

“The migrant crisis clearly is a huge one and there is no quick fix or simple answer to it,” says Tim Hatton, one of the world’s main experts on migration.

“The weight of evidence is that if migrants believe that they have a reasonable chance of settling permanently in Europe, they will be willing to undertake enormous hardships and undertake the risks of a very hazardous crossing”, he told EUobserver from Australia.

More deaths

Around 1,700 people died in the first four months of this year, 100 times more than in the same period in 2014.

This is why many NGOs are asking to re-establish the Italian navy’s humanitarian search and rescue operation Mare Nostrum, which saved thousands of lives before being replaced by the EU-led operation Triton.

“Mare Nostrum had managed to decrease significantly the death rate of the Mediterranean crossings, it was a mistake to replace it with Triton,” says Matteo De Bellis from Amnesty International.

“We need to return to patrol the central Mediterranean. As a Somali 15-year old boy told me when I met him in Lampedusa: Europeans should protect lives, not borders.”

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