Queuing up: it’s one of the first things migrants learn upon arrival in Italy, one of the few that makes sense, that they can understand. Queue up for police checks, queue up to leave fingerprints, queue up to enter the reception centres and then again to board the buses that take them across the nation in different shelter structures.
“Even when they arrive here, it’s the first thing they do”, said Peppe Monetti, the person in charge of the reception of migrants at Casa della Carità (House of Charity) in Milan, a structure that welcomes and helps people in need and between those also some of the refugees from Libya.
A mass of humanity has left North Africa since the beginning of 2011, 44,000 odd migrants have arrived in Italy according to the Italian Coast Guard, most of them in the tiny island of Lampedusa, and around 2,000 in Malta. Many of them are refugees fleeing the war in Libya, others are part of the constant flow of migrants trying to reach developed countries to improve their life conditions.
The European Union has seen different waves of migrations during the years, mainly from Eastern Europe and Africa, but despite having to face the problem time and time again, the EU never developed a unified immigration or asylum system.
This creates problems and contradictions especially in periods of crisis, when larger numbers of migrants try to reach Europe. The Italian government has more than once accused the EU of passiveness regarding help with refugees; Doctors without Borders (MSF), a humanitarian organization that gives medical assistance across the globe, also said that Europe has an obligation to more actively help Italy and Malta in assisting migrants.
Rolando Magnano, MSF Head of Mission for projects on immigration in Italy, said: “The problem is also afterLampedusa. Especially in the newest centers, put up for the emergency of the last few months, there are very serious deficiencies. There are 3 new CIE (centers for identification and expulsion), Chinisia, Palazzo San Gervasio and Santa Maria Capua a Vetere. Those are in fact tent cities converted in detention centers with shocking living conditions. We even recently found many people with skin rushes related to the hygienic and health conditions.
There also are the temporary centres, especially Pozzallo and Porto Empedocle, where people should stay 2 or 3 days at the most and instead they live there for months. There are no services, whether medical or legal, people don’t even have a phone card to call home and let their relatives know they are alive.”
The Italian government claimed that there is a lack of resources for more effective measures and announced a decree for lengthening the time migrants can be detained by law in order, Home Secretary Maroni said, to avoid permissive sentences that allow irregular immigrants to stay on Italian soil.
To reach Italy or Malta, people sail on wrecked ships across the Mediterranean sea that in the last 20 years has become a graveyard for many. Fortress Europe, a blog written by the journalist Gabriele Del Grande, estimates that at least 17,000 people have died at sea since 1988, according to what has been reported and recorded. Half of the bodies have never been found. And then there are all the unreported deaths.
When they manage to reach Europe, often the migrants have been through an ordeal that has lasted for days. Peppe Monetti said: “Those who are arriving right now are groups of migrants very traumatized because they were already fleeing their home countries and were staying in Libya, but were forced to flee again.”
Malta has seen a part of these migrants reaching its shores. Despite the overall number being quite small, for such a tiny island it can represent a challenge. Fabrizio Ellul, media officer for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said: “There are two main detention centres and conditions vary: one of the detention centres, Lyster Barracks, has recently been refurbished and conditions have been improved. At another centre, Safi Barracks, renovation has not yet reached the same level and there are more problems with sanitation, health and overcrowding issues. In both detention centres there are very limited recreation and learning opportunities, although an EU funded project is underway to address this. This situation can affect the physical and mental health of many individuals who have already gone through much trauma in their home countries and during their journey.”
And the ordeal does not end once they have been rescued and housed. Even for those who apply for refugee status, often the wait is so long to lead to despair: MSF denounced the rise in number of suicides in detention centers. And despite being in the EU, the migrants are forced to stay in the country where they first arrived to ask for asylum, according to the terms of the Dublin II Regulation, regardless of friends or family who might be somewhere else.
Tina Gharavi, an award-winning film-maker working in the UK, arrived in Europe as a refugee from Iran when she was a child. Many of her movies and documentaries revolve around the trauma of leaving your country. She said: “Given the choice, no one really wants to leave their homes.” Some, however, do not have a choice.
Hear what experts say regarding the drama of sea crossing in the Mediterranean.
Voice over by Daniel Ash