On the Move

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Italian Coastguard rescues a ship sinking off the coast of Libya

I have joined a bookclub here in Rome and the first meeting I went to, was a discussion of ‘The Optician of Lampedusa’, by Emma Jane Kirby. The book is based on a true story of an optician on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, who goes out sailing with his friends on a Sunday and comes across a boatload of migrants from Africa, drowning after their ship sank.

Migrants on a boat off the coast of Libya
Photo: Massimo Sestini

The scandal of human traffickers packing unseaworthy boats with migrants and abandoning them at sea between Libya and Italy continues. Last year, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, over 181,000 migrants, the highest on record, mostly from north Africa, landed in Italy. Over 5,000 drowned while crossing. The previous year, there were even more as thousands landed both in Italy and Greece from Syria and other middle eastern countries. This eastern mediterranean route is used less now as the EU did a deal with Turkey for migrants to be held there until their status and documentation were sorted out. The migrant crisis in Europe continues and last week, the EU met in Malta to discuss the issue.  One of the decisions was to try and control the central mediterranean route by doing a deal with Libya.

Many migrants don’t necessarily want to stay in Italy but it is the closest point of entry for them from north Africa. EU law dictates that refugees be given asylum in the country they land in so Italy has to screen them all whether they want to remain or not. This can take a long time as there is no good infrastructure to deal with such overwhelming numbers of people arriving on Italy’s shores so they remain in horribly over-crowded camps until they are documented. Many don’t wish to be documented so that they can gain asylum in the country they want to get too where they might have family or friends. Hence they resort to horrendous things like burning their fingertips so that they don’t have a fingerprint. Apart from refugees,  there are economic migrants looking for a better life. Some might have travelled for months or years across sub-Saharan Africa to get to Libya which once provided work. However, the situation in Libya has changed so the next stop becomes Europe.

The documentation process in Italy can take months and the ones who are finally classified as refugees, are either given asylum or are allowed to make their way to their country of choice and given a short period of time to do so. Many try to get to Germany or Sweden but countries such as Switzerland and Austria have tightened their borders so they can’t actually make their way there. The EU countries are not in accord about how many immigrants each will accept and Italy has been left ‘hosting’ more migrants than it can handle as there is nowhere to send them. Recently, it was decided that those not qualifying for asylum will be deported. However, many arrive with no documentation as to their country of origin and it is not as straightforward  an option as it may seem. In addition to the migrants who have been given asylum or approved as immigrants, there is a large number of undocumented illegal immigrants with no possibility of work, often exploited and forced to enter into prostitution and drug rings. Even the ones who are given asylum have a very hard time. Italy is in an economic crisis with an unemployment rate of 40% and although it tries to provide basic housing and food, there aren’t enough centres to house refugees so they end up living in crowded and terrible conditions and there is no work for them.

Increasingly, I see migrants hanging around outside supermarkets hoping to help people with their bags and get a few tips, or openly begging. I imagine that these are ones who have been given asylum as the undocumented illegal migrants likely stay underground out of sight of the police. I spoke to a young man from Nigeria outside the supermarket last week. He said that he was prepared to do any type of work but didn’t speak Italian and found it impossible to get a job. One of the women in the book club teaches Italian to migrants at a charitable institution. She says that it is very difficult as many of them can’t read or write and try to learn from memory. New people arrive on a continuous basis so progress is slow for those who want to get ahead. The Italian government is trying to come up with employment schemes but it is difficult when people don’t speak the language, have no skills and are likely illiterate not having had the luxury of an education. Despite the number of migrants here, the system is disorganized and there’s a scarcity of resources. I’ve heard that it is also open to corruption as there’s EU money involved.

Human migration has occurred since the evolution of Homo sapiens, both voluntary and involuntary, and for various reasons. Given that the world’s population is increasing and that poverty, climate change, as well as war, are forcing people to move, I don’t think we can stop it. Better if there was a way to deal with it in a humane way though I have no idea how that might be possible. There have been some creative attempts here in Italy but more about that another time. And speaking of being on the move, I am going to Cuba in about a week’s time (but not intending to emigrate there) so you may not hear from me for a couple of weeks.

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