Gimme shelter: the secret struggles of Italy's refugees

The world is facing the biggest migrant crisis since WW2

The world is experiencing the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War.  The global number of refugees and internally displaced people is 65 million, the largest number ever recorded, and half of them are children.  According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over fifty percent of all displaced peoples are coming from three nations: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.  The rest are largely from South Sudan, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, The Central African Republic, Myanmar, Eritrea and Colombia.


 Mainly due to its geographic positioning, Italy has become the frontline of the refugee crisis in Europe.  The country is currently host to 175,000 migrants and refugees, and those are only the ones registered. Furthermore, it shows no sign of slowing down.  In the first twelve days of this year, 730 migrants were rescued in the Mediterranean, which is triple the number of the same period last year, and those are the lucky ones.  Last year more than 5,000 migrants died or went missing on the boat journey to Italy, a thousand more than in 2015.

 Most of the refugees who arrive in Italy come from Libya, but many are originally from sub-Saharan African nations. However, according to Frontex, the European coast guard and border agency, the main source of the problem is Libya.  The chaos and lawlessness that erupted after the fall of Gaddafi have made the country a dangerous place for anyone, but a deep-seated racism exacerbated by current conditions have made it particularly dangerous for black people. The worst stories come from the detention centres for migrants run by Libya's interior ministry.  The centres are severely overcrowded, and Human Rights Watch has taken testimonies, which tell of whippings, electric shocks and people being hung upside-down from trees.  When faced with such conditions, drowning in the Mediterranean sounds like a risk worth taking.

 Relative to other EU nations, Italy has been very generous with the volume of refugees it has taken in.  However, the system that supports them is exhausted.  They can expect to wait months, even years for their asylum requests to be approved, during which time they're not permitted to work. Due to the country's lack of adequate social services, job and housing opportunities for them are virtually non-existent.  This leaves many of them, particularly the 26,000 unaccompanied minors who reached Italy last year, vulnerable to exploitation. 

 The question arises that if things are so bad for refugees in Italy, why don't they leave?  The problem is that many of them can't.  The Dublin Regulation stipulates which country is responsible for a given refugee's asylum status, usually the first country in which they arrived.  When they claim asylum their fingerprints are entered into the EURODOC fingerprint database, making them traceable anywhere on the continent.  European Union law prohibits people from claiming asylum in an EU country if they've already done so in another. Because of this, many of them attempt to avoid registering in Italy and try instead to reach countries with better social services. 

 In this climate, a great deal of the burden is shifted to the public.  One source of support has been the academic community.  I contacted Arianna D'Amico, Director of Admissions and Financial Aid at the American University of Rome, and asked how the school views their role in the struggle.

 “Our position in Rome, at the center of the Mediterranean, has placed us in the midst of millions of refugees fleeing to Italian shores, and we believe it is our responsibility to do what we can,” she said. 

 I asked about measures taken by AUR to address the crisis.

 “We have established the Scholarship for Refugees and Displaced People.  This was borne out of a desire to aid innocent victims of war and natural disaster and we currently have four students progressing through their education at AUR as a result.”

 Another stronghold is represented by private enterprises and NGO's. I attended a benefit for R(home) for Refugees, a local non-profit dedicated to addressing the emergency housing crisis and helping refugees establish themselves in the capital.

 During the event, I was introduced to RFR co-founder and activist Theodora Yardley. We discussed was the difficulty asylum seekers face in finding work in Italy.

 “There are all sorts of tightly-knit social networks that hold people up in Italy.  But if you're outside those networks, and all migrants are, they're very difficult to penetrate.”

 I asked her what she thought could happen on the policy level to improve the situation.

 “One of the things that Germany has is a vocational system within their schools that absorbs immigrants and trains them for the workforce.  I think a model like that would be fabulous here.”

 I continued this conversation later on with RFR founder Jill Drzewiecki at the Jesuit Refugee Service. Both she and Theo emphasized that Italy deserves credit for doing what they can with their limited means.

 “Italy has mobilized to help many thousands of refugees in cities right across the country, but Italy's economic woes mean that financial hardship can and has generated a response of worry and doubt when citizens are presented with extra mouths to feed, extra people to clothe.”

 She conceded that unions, the social networks and racism are obstacles refugees face in finding employment, but that they're far from the whole story.

 “Italy is still struggling hugely with unemployment right across the board,” she said.  “It has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in Europe, currently standing at 37.9 percent, so a lot of the young male and female refugees are coming up against the same problems as locals. Add imperfect language skills, lack of certification or not recognized qualifications which can't be easily converted and the barriers to entry to work remain high from the unskilled right through to skilled refugees.”

 I met with Jill again at the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center.  There she introduced me to a young man named Baba from the Ivory Coast, who’s spent most of his life working as a mechanic.  After ten years of conflict he fled his home country for Libya. Seven months after the revolution began he was dragged out of bed by soldiers, his mobile phone and all his documents were confiscated, and he was forced onto a boat for Sicily.

 “I was directed to Milan to register for asylum,” he says in decent Italian.  “The amount of time between when I applied and when I received my documents was about a year.” 

 Meanwhile, he wasn't allowed to work.  He lived on a campground and survived on a €75 per month stipend.  When his documents finally arrived, the associated fees came to about €100.

 Now he lives in housing subsidized by R(home) for Refugees in Lazio. Since arriving in Rome he's been trying to find work fixing motorinos, with no success.

 Babo works three days a week at the JNRC, cleaning, cooking breakfast and welcoming new refugees to Rome.  He also works with the group Artisans Together, who produce arts and crafts to sell at events. 

 “I'd love to work as a mechanic, but honestly I'd be happy to take any job at this point.”




Babo weaving baskets