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Migrant Dreams

Issue 220

Fleeing West Africa, refugees who reach Palermo, Italy find their struggles are far from over

Leanne Tory-Murphy Dec 20, 2016

PALERMO, Italy — The rescue ship is already there in the early morning.

So are the police, the Red Cross, the health department, Doctors Without Borders, Catholic Charities, the International Organization for Migration, Save the Children, the European border patrol agency Frontex, the Italian Coast Guard and immigration authorities — in uniforms of red, blue, white or orange — milling around or walking purposefully or setting up tents.

A long line of hearses enters the port and parks in a row. It’s the beginning of another day in Sicily, a Mediterranean island that has been a cultural crossroads for millennia. In the last few years, hundreds of thousands of African migrants have arrived there, hoping to continue on to other destinations throughout a Europe that has become increasingly hostile to the presence of immigrants.

The first person to disembark comes off in a stretcher. He appears to be dead, but the stretcher rolls down to the line for provisions, not towards the hearses. The next one is in a wheelchair and has a bright white bandage around his head. A few more wheelchairs emerge, then a long procession of barefoot women and children with eyes that won’t look. The first stop on the provision line contains boxes of Croc knockoffs, then they move on to water and snacks and waiting.

In a group of five teenage boys, two are from Burkina Faso, two from the Gambia, and the fifth from Somalia. One is wearing pants that are too big that keep falling down. He has no underwear on and tries to conceal himself with the orange plastic-covered blanket that everyone had been given on the ship. Some people find inventive ways to tie the blanket around them in a kind of shift.

They move through registration: name, date of birth, nationality, answering those basic questions in a hodgepodge of handwriting, languages and accents.

‘We Have a President That Is a Dictator’

Foday is a young radio presenter from the Gambia who made this journey about nine months ago. (He asked that his name be changed because he has a pending asylum case.) He describes the “culture of joking” that allows many different peoples to coexist peacefully in the small West African nation, which is almost entirely surrounded by Senegal, then talks about President Yahya Jammeh, who has ruled Gambia for 22 years. He says this is why so many Gambians are leaving.

“We have a president that is a dictator,” Foday says. “Gambian keeps their mouth shut. Even if you were to name the President, you would have to use another name… but not the actual name, because if they even hear you talking about his name, you can be cautioned for that. Many people have been arrested, killed, tortured.”

In early December, Jammeh conceded that he had lost his bid for re-election, but then said he was “annulling the election.”

Foday’s friend Amas (whose name has also been changed) arrived in Italy separately, also about nine months ago. While Foday was able to collect enough money to make the journey quickly, Amas, an actor and student who helped his mother with her small business selling telephones, worked in each country along his way, moving from Mali to Burkina Faso and north to Libya, where he worked for eight months to save the money for the boat. Before he could leave, he was arrested by immigration authorities and sent to prison.

Tortured for Ransom Money

Amas was sent to a prison near Tripoli, Libya’s capital. He estimates about 1,000 people were held there: men, women and children, from Burkina Faso, Mali, Bangladesh, Ivory Coast, Niger, Cameroon, Nigeria and other countries. He received water and a small piece of bread once a day. “Some people die there, every day you see people die sick,” he says. He also shows his scars from being tortured.

“They beat us!” he said. “They, even me, look at my hand here, they take a knife, look here! Every morning they have to beat us, they take cold water and pour it on us. … Every day they have to bring this big pipe, you make a queue, beating each one, each one, each one, every day, they are beating you, every day, yeah, every day.”

The prison guards have them call their families while they are being beaten to ask for money.

“They say, ‘call your people and let them send money for you’,” Amas explained. “And what they ask us, we can’t pay that. Because what they ask us is too many, maybe 2,000 dinar [about $1,400]. Where are we going to get this money? They tell us, you have to pay this money or you die here… . So I don’t even bother myself to call my people, because I know they don’t have it. So I just bear it there.”

Amas and the other prisoners often thought of escape. For weeks they worked on a tunnel through the wall of their cell, using whatever they could find to chip away at the concrete. One day the guard left to buy something, and the prisoners broke the cell door. About 75 people escaped, and each went their own way “to try to save their lives.”

He considers himself one of the lucky ones. Usually the guards shoot anyone who tries to escape. The night he got out, he didn’t see anyone until he got into Tripoli.

The Crossing

Amas went immediately to the house where he had been living to collect the money he had saved. He did not want to be caught again. But he also says that when looking for a boat, “you shouldn’t rush, you have to take your time. There are people who, you pay them and they call the police, they catch you and turn you back so they can make more money. Some people, if you pay them, you are safe, you can trust them.”

Both Foday and Amas crossed the Mediterranean in overcrowded rubber dinghies. Amas traveled on a boat meant to hold 125 people. The smuggler had loaded it with 145.

They both laugh when asked if the smugglers went with them. “No!” Foday says, “They give you a compass, or sometimes they direct you with a star. They show you how to drive, and you are going to drive towards that star.” The smugglers make migrants drive the boats against their will. On Amas’s boat, a man from Senegal was driving, “They forced him. They said, ‘You have to take the boat or we kill you.’ He had to do it because he like his life.”

They were given phones and directed to call international authorities once they were out on the sea. Foday’s boat was picked up four hours after it left Libya, but he says it was still a harrowing experience.

“We all know how the Mediterranean Sea is. Even in calm waters it isn’t safe,” he says. “It is a boat pumped full of air, it can burst any time, it can break anytime, it can capsize anytime… it’s a kind of sacrifice, because you are seeing death coming. You say, ‘Let me go.’ Maybe death will catch me and maybe death won’t catch me.”

On Amas’s boat, the moment they saw a Norwegian rescue ship, everyone started to stand up and yell. Water started to pour in. “Some people are crying ,‘We will die, we will die,’” he recounts. “Even me, I was crying. … In my mind I saw my mother again, I thought ‘I am going to die today,’ so I didn’t think my mother was going to see me again.”

The rescue ship was able to get them all in time. But the U.N. High Commission on Refugees reports that 1 in 47 migrants die on the central Mediterranean route between Libya and Italy, and that as of late October, 3,740 had died on all Mediterranean crossings this year. In 2015, almost 4,000 died.

Neither Foday nor Amas know how to swim. Amas says that when they were rescued, everyone was celebrating and “they even played music, so we are dancing in the boat.” The rescue ship collected people from several other boats until it reached its capacity of about 1,000 passengers. It returned to Palermo the next day.


Disembarking in Palermo is only the beginning of a long immigration process. After registering, being fingerprinted, and receiving emergency medical assistance, the new arrivals are sent by bus to “reception centers” throughout Italy.

There are different centers for unaccompanied minors, single adults, and families. Many young men who are over 18 will say they are younger because they believe that the treatment at the youth centers is better. Some who are under 18 might say they are older so they can stay with people they know or because they will have more freedom to come and go. Very few people carry documents during their crossing.

People are not supposed to live in what are called “extraordinary reception centers” for more than three months, but Amas was just recently moved to more permanent housing. Foday was transferred to a regular camp, but was then sent back to an extraordinary reception center. He believes it was in retaliation for his repeatedly demanding that he receive his documents. The two were reunited at an extraordinary reception center in Palermo in July.

They are fortunate to be in Palermo. Many of the centers are in remote areas and have become known for human trafficking and other abuses. Northern Italy is also significantly more hostile to immigrants than the south. The Northern League, a virulently anti-immigrant and anti-European political party, has often argued that Northern Italy should secede from the poorer South, but in recent years has been seeking to make common cause with Southerners against immigrants. That has not gone over well with many Sicilians, who have historically moved to the north to look for work and were often the target of the party’s ire.

Dario, a 24-year-old former hairdresser in Palermo, says that despite high rates of youth unemployment, he doesn’t believe immigrants are making the situation worse.

“Immigrants do what inhabitants here don’t want to — cleaning windows of cars, collecting rubbish, etc.,” he says. “Young people here want to find a good job. They want a good contract and good working conditions.” The immigrants “are very brave to do what they did,” he adds.

He earned 500 euros (about $530) a month when he was a hairdresser working 60 hours a week. He blames lawlessness and corruption for the unemployment crisis.

“Here the owners are strong, because everyone breaks the law, so they think that if you don’t accept the conditions, there will be another one who will,” he says. He believes the European Union should do more to help, because immigration affects all of Europe and “Palermo can’t do anything, even for its own inhabitants.”

 Demanding Their Rights

In mid-November, a group of migrants living at several reception centers in the province of Palermo issued an open letter, published on the online news site Live Sicilia, that decried the conditions they were enduring, from the long wait for documents to the lack of heat and hot water in the centers. “We have left our countries fleeing from suffering, but in this country we have only found it yet again,” it said. Many immigrants who want to move to other countries in Europe are stuck in Italy because they have not received their documents, it added.

There is overwhelming frustration with Italian bureaucracy, which many Italian citizens also find extraordinarily difficult to navigate. “Many people have not even been told what asylum is: That you may have been persecuted for political or religious reasons, or for being gay, and that each case will be treated with the appropriate attention,” the letter said. “The incredibly slow pace in receiving documents leaves us extremely worried and unclear about our future. We simply want to know the truth, and for someone to tell us what’s going on, instead of avoiding us and always telling us to wait till tomorrow.”

The waiting period for asylum applications can last up to two years, longer if the request is denied. During it, the migrants cannot legally work, travel or find independent housing.

The letter also said that the running water in one of the centers is only turned on for one hour in the morning and one at night, and is “always cold.” When it’s not on, the only source is a cistern where the water is “putrid” and “not even good enough for animals.” As winter neared, they said, they asked for the heat to be turned on during a police check of the building, and were told that they “don’t have heating in Africa.”

Earlier this year, immigrants at a reception center in Palermo blocked the street every month to force the police to come and deal with their issues. (The police in Italy are partially responsible for immigration matters.) After several months of such demonstrations, Amas and Foday say, the immigrants are now collaborating smoothly with the police, and things have started moving much faster.

“Some people are there for 11 months, and they don’t do anything for them, just eating and sleeping, not even going to school,” Amas says. “So we close the street. It’s not because we want to fight the people, we want to fight for our rights. We wait for one month, two months, they don’t do nothing again. Again we close the street, again they come. Now they are doing what we want, there is no problem now. Everything is okay now.”

The Future

“I’m waiting to see my life after documents,” Foday says. “If there’s a way for me to do something in Italy to earn my living, then I would stay. But if I’ve got no job, I would have to look for another living.” Both young men hope to be actors and participate regularly in theater programs for migrant youth.

Amas also wants to help other arriving immigrants. “There must be a translator,” he says. “If you can speak the language, then maybe I can translate between the Italian guys and the African guys. I want that job also.”

“I don’t think a normal human being would risk your life in the Mediterranean Sea if your life is not in danger,” Foday says. “But most don’t understand this. Africa is hard. If human rights are observed in Africa like in the U.S. and Europe, I think migration would be very limited. But it’s also very important that people can migrate, so people can go wherever they want to go to experience new things, new lands. So I think it’s a fact that immigration should be, but with the right way. The reason people are using the wrong way is because they are left with no other choice.”

Leanne Tory-Murphy is a freelance reporter currently living in Palermo, Sicily, pursuing research on migration issues as a Fulbright scholar.

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