Catania, Italy – They’ve been coming here for years, by the ship-full, risking perilous Mediterranean waters in crafts that are seldom seaworthy or suited for the number of people packed onto them.
Their numbers have been spiking since the Arab Spring uprisings began in 2011. More and more migrants, mostly from Africa, North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, have been arriving on the shores of southern Italy.
According to Amnesty International, 63 percent of those arriving “irregularly” by sea to the continent in 2013, were from Eritrea, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia – countries rife with violence and rights abuses.
Statistics from the Italian Ministry of the Interior show that in 2013 most of them were in fact Eritrean (9,834) and Syrian (11,307).
Yet the number of asylum requests in Italy from those two countries is fairly low for the same year: 695 from Syria and 2,216 from Eritrea.
Barbara Molinario, public information officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that these numbers may not tell the whole story.
“… Data on how many migrants choose to leave Italy and reach other countries is not available. The difference between arrivals and asylum requests does not necessarily imply that people who do not seek asylum in Italy have left the country,” she said.
However, in comparing the number of arrivals to asylum seekers, it becomes clear that what brings thousands of migrants to the Italian coast is simply an accident of geography – it is simply the closest patch of Europe, or the Schengen Zone, for them.
‘A gap in the law’
Fabiana Giuliani, Catania-based UNHCR legal consultant said efforts are being made to address the needs of those who arrive.
“Sometimes they want to go to other countries in Europe, like Sweden or Norway, in order to reunite with family members or because they perceive they would have a better chance at integration,” said Giuliani. Registering in Italy would prohibit them from doing so, however, because of the Dublin III Regulation, a European mechanism to establish which country should examine an asylum request.
Unless they fall under specific categories, the Dublin III Regulation states that the first country of entry is responsible for examining their asylum request.
However, what it does is make some asylum seekers feel trapped at their first port of entry in the EU, which then prompts them to disappear into the ether, at least in Italy.
“There is a gap in the law,” said Giuliani, referring to the time it takes to fingerprint and register migrants after arrival.
“A huge number of migrants are arriving, and it’s difficult for police to fingerprint [and register] everyone immediately. Maybe they say it will take a couple of days, but in that time a large number of people move on,” she said.
The reception centres are not prisons – “They are open for people to come and go – it is not expected that they will escape.” In other words, if they are refugees, then these centres are seen as their refuge.
And yet, a large number of Syrians and Eritreans tend to leave the centres.
“They have friends and family in other countries … and there is a very strong exchange of informal information,” said Giuliani, indicating that, sometimes, migrants travel to other countries on the basis of what they’ve heard from others, and not necessarily from actual facts and networks.
Hiding in plain sight
Sitting on a patch of grass by the bus depot is Abraham, a 30-year-old Eritrean man who has been in Italy for two weeks.
Having paid $1,500 for a boat ride from Libya, he has no intention of staying here.
“If I get fingerprinted, I have to stay here, but there are no jobs in Italy,” said Abraham, who left his country “because the economy was very slow”.
He’s heard there are other jobs in the north, but for now, he doesn’t even have the money to leave Italy.
Nearby is his fellow countryman, Saeed, 28, who is in a somewhat similar situation. He’s trying to make his way to the Netherlands, where his brother lives.
He’s waiting here, unregistered, for his family to send him the money he needs to get to his brother, who cannot afford to send him money. When asked if he’s worried he might be rounded up, Saeed shrugs, “No, there are so many of us – they don’t do anything.”
A source close to the police, who was not authorised to speak to the press, told Al Jazeera that this was essentially the norm: Too many unregistered migrants, too few police.
There is also the issue of trying to deal with the illegal boats that bring people here in the first place.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi pressed the Libyan government in June to crack down on those who charge migrants a minimum of $1,000 for the journey on the unsafe boats.
Human smuggling is a business based on the misery and desperation of people, according to Aurora Capizzi, 34.
An intern at the Centro Astalli, a Jesuit refugee aid centre in Catania, Capizzi is among those who help immigrants cope, offering legal and medical advice (there also are in-house doctors and lawyers) and language education.
“They should provide a safe way for people to travel, to pass,” said Capizzi, while comforting Sophia Abdellahi, 43, from Mogadishu.
While the Libyan coastguard periodically picks up migrant boats heading to Italy in its waters – 114 people were picked up on June 5 alone – the country has once again erupted in violence. Now African migrants heading there, hoping to sail to Europe, end up in a new hell: being recruited by militias or being jailed.
Like them, Abdellahi, now in Catania after a journey of two years, was jailed in Libya.
Asked about her story, Abdellahi tears up over the deaths she said she witnessed while detained in Tripoli – a stint which cost her dearly as the bribe required for freedom ate into the savings for the trip to Italy.
But after several attempts and $6,000 later, she arrived.
She is one of the lucky ones – she survived the journey and has adjusted to life in Catania.
The centre sees to the needs of all types of migrants, registered or not, but tends to be frequented by those outside the system – the many who sleep on the streets and work in whatever jobs they can, including the sex industry, to earn enough money to get them on trains to other European countries.
In many cases, they simply offer blankets, clean clothes, and showers to those they know are sleeping rough.
‘The only way’
A short walk away from the Centro Astalli is the Mosche de la Misericordia, the largest mosque in southern Italy, where the imam says he sees a staggering number of Syrian migrants.
“I haven’t been counting, but many, many [come], and 99 percent are Syrian – the rest are from other Muslim countries, most in Africa,” said Kheit Abdelhafid.
“The Syrians – including families – want to immigrate to Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Germany or Holland, so they don’t get fingerprinted, they refuse to,” said Abdelhafid, referring to the Dublin regulation.
“In the mosque, I help them – I don’t ask any questions because I’m a person, they’re people, and they’re people who need help. So I help them,” he said, adding that what he’s seeing are entire families fleeing Syria, including small children and pregnant women.
“We give them food, clothes, and information on buses and trains, on how to get out,” he said.
“The problem with Syrians is the war, the bombardments, the thought that at any moment a missile can fall on you… A person in this condition can’t think of another solution,” said Abdelhafid.
“So even if this solution is to get on a boat on the sea, even if you don’t know if you’ll arrive or not, it is the only way.”
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