Sicily, Italy – Hundreds of people gathered at Sicily’s Augusta port on April 8, and while for some it was a routine afternoon, for others it was a much anticipated, life-altering moment.
For the Italian naval officers, police, paramedics, immigration authority officials, and members of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and international human rights groups – it was just another arrival of sea migrants, an almost daily occurrence here since the beginning of the year.
But for those taking their first steps in Europe, the moment was anything but mundane.
“We escaped from our home in Damascus to Cairo, and then to Libya, and then came here,” said one exhausted looking man, who did not want to be identified, minutes after he and his family disembarked from the Italian naval vessel that had rescued them in international waters. “We just want peace.”
The Syrian family was part of a group of 553 people of various nationalities who had left Libya four days earlier. The group included 86 minors and 67 women, two of whom were pregnant. While most of the people arriving are from Syria and Eritrea, there were also sub-Saharan nationalities as well as Pakistani citizens. The youngest migrant was a one-month-old baby from Syria.
“They were on a big fishing boat made of steel, crowded like sardines,” said Panzanaro Tonio of the Italian Coast Guard. “Their boat… was experiencing problems with stability and navigation.”
The rescue, which took place about 200km off the coast of Italy, marked the beginning of an unprecedented week in which some 8,500 people were saved at sea and brought to Italian shores. The weeklong surge was a part of a wider trend. In the first three months of this year, 10,962 migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Italy, compared to 1,524 in the first quarter of 2013.
The dramatic increase in cross-sea migration to Italy is a result of the ongoing war in Syria and increasing instability in several African countries, according to Carlotta Sami, head of media operations for UNHCR’s South Europe office.
Sami praised Italy for improving its sea rescue operations. There has been only one death since the beginning of 2014, after some 8,000 people drowned in the Strait of Sicily during the previous 13 years. But Sami said the Italians must improve their reception system.
“It is sad to see that after many years of experience in receiving refugees and migrants, the Italian government still has not been able to effectively and efficiently receive these people,” Sami said, citing slow bureaucracy and inadequate relations among government offices as the main problems.
Currently, thousands of migrants who have applied for asylum in Italy are waiting for their status to be determined, staying in reception centres throughout the country. The biggest such centre in Italy – and in the entire European Union – is Cara Mineo, which is located in the heart of Sicily, 50km from the city of Catania. There are 3,900 asylum-seekers in Cara Mineo, some of whom have been waiting for refugee status for more than a year.