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Sun 3 May 2015 09:15 AM

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“It’s better to die at sea in search of liberty than to die in a foreign country where you’re treated terribly”

As civil war and militancy convulse the Middle East and North Africa, hundreds of thousands of Arabs are risking everything in the hope of a better life elsewhere. In an exclusive report from Italy, Arabian Business speaks to some of the ‘lucky’ refugees who have made it across the Mediterranean into Europe and finds that their tales of hardship are by no means over.

“It’s better to die at sea in search of liberty than to die in a foreign country where you’re treated terribly”

Sicily is an island bathed, not by the Mediterranean, but by death.”

That’s the dark assessment of Salvo, a waiter in a bustling bar based in the historic centre of Catania, on the Italian island of Sicily. His words may seem grim, especially while sipping a good cappuccino, but you won’t find many people disagreeing with him.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), between September and January, 3,072 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, a figure that equates to roughly 75 percent of all migrant deaths in the world. Nearly a third of those are from Arab countries, largely made up of Syrians and Libyans escaping civil war, and another 40 percent are Africans.

“When they talk on television about all those who have drowned in the sea like animals, it brings tears to my eyes,” Salvo says, before running off to serve another customer.

The reason why Sicilians pay such close attention to the drama of immigrants drowning in the Mediterranean is because it’s an issue that’s so close to home. The island is the destination of choice for the majority of those who have landed on the Italian coast — more than 170,000 last year alone.

In fact, Sicily is the seat of what has been defined as the “largest reception centre for those seeking asylum” in Europe. The hosting centre for asylum seekers, or CARA, in the village of Mineo, already holds more than 4,000 people, including 22 survivors of the shipwreck in which 800 migrants are feared to have died off Libya between 18 and 19 April.

“The migrants received by the CARA in Mineo are walking cadavers, people physically and psychologically devastated,” says Milena, a Sicilian humanitarian aid worker who preferred not to provide additional information about her identity.

“We’re talking about people who have undergone every type of trauma and violence. The Mediterranean crossing is a gallery of horrors, a true suspension of life.”

In order to embark from the Libyan coast and make their way towards Italy coast via the so-called ‘central Mediterranean route’, not only are migrants forced to pay an enormous sum (between $800 and $2,000), they also run every risk imaginable, from drowning with the entire ship, to being tossed overboard. They also undergo every type of abuse imaginable from ‘scafisti’, or human traffickers.

Even if the trip goes well, there’s always the risk that they wind up in the wrong place. Instead of landing on the Sicilian coast — ironically, often at popular beaches — they could end up in Malta, the tiny island described as the “big prison” for the way in which authorities there treat the so-called boat people.

Ephrem is a 26-year-old Ethiopian and lives in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Catania. Thin as a rake, he entered Italy illegally a year ago and is terrified of the police.

“I arrived in Libya by passing through Sudan. It was truly devastating, I nearly died of thirst,” he says, his language a strange mixture of English and Italian, with some Sicilian dialect thrown in. “When I saw the sea I thought I had made it, that in no time I would be in Italy, but I was wrong.

“The boat crossing not only cost me nearly €1,000, but it was very long, the boat was at risk of sinking, and the Nigerian scafista was awful. He continued to insult me and beat another boy until he lost all his senses.”

Ephrem gets by doing odd jobs, and is paid cash in hand. In the summer he sells hats, bracelets and mats to beachgoers. Regardless of the fact that he has a hard life, he’s happy.

“I hope one day to open up a small gelato [ice-cream] shop; I’m already putting money aside,” he says.

Ephrem’s optimism is contagious and confirms one thing that Milena has learned in her years of experience in the humanitarian field.

“After overcoming such terrifying trials to reach Italy, migrants have strong willpower and incredible tenacity, a true love of life,” she says. “They are people who believe, who are convinced that in their lives, sooner or later, something will happen. They represent an example of courage and moral strength for us Sicilians.”

The migrant emergency doesn’t only affect Sicily but all of Italy. The Italian Navy, and also the Coast Guard, continues to save tens of thousands of migrants, and there’s a standing local joke that it could be the first navy in history eligible for the Nobel Peace Prize.

As a whole, however, Italy doesn’t seem able to tackle one of the worst humanitarian crises Europe has faced since the Second World War.

Enrico Labriola, an Italian consultant for various UN agencies, says: “Italians are doing everything possible to avoid tragedies, they are looking to limit the damage, but I don’t believe that they’re equipped to deal alone with an emergency of this type.”

According to Labriola, the Italian government now finds itself between a rock and a hard place.

“On the one hand it must save the migrants and receive them in a decent way, on the other hand it’s being called to take on a clear political decision, and this isn’t easy, because you then have to justify this decision in front of your electorate.”

The challenges facing young, liberal prime minister Matteo Renzi are immense. Italy, as a whole, has less than 80,000 beds for immigrants and in 2014 alone, 170,000 arrived in the country. Thus, while the government is busy with the emergency, and the media talks about a million migrants ready to leave Libya, ordinary Italians’ antipathy towards the newcomers rises.

It’s not by chance that the most popular leader in the country, after the prime minister, is populist Matteo Salvini, head of the anti-immigration party Lega Nord (Northern League). Every day the energetic Salvini attacks the government via social media, blaming it for the deaths on the Mediterranean, arguing that Italy should no longer receive “presumed refugees”.

“Not all immigrants are good people. Among them could be some ISIL infiltrators,” says Daniele, a young Roman bartender, referring to the militant group that has brought chaos to Syria, Iraq and, more recently, North Africa. “In my opinion the Italian border should be closed. Immigration from Africa and the Middle East only brings tensions and trouble.”

Riccardo Noury, a spokesperson for Amnesty International Italia, doesn’t share this view. “Migrants aren’t a threat,” he says. “Instead, in cases like Syria and Eritrea, you can actually say that they are the ones threatened in the country they’re fleeing.”

According to Noury, the crisis is so serious that Italy would do well to ask for help from the European Union. Labriola thinks the same way.

“The emergency isn’t only about Italy, but all of its European partners,” he adds. “Brussels must abandon the inertia that, until now, has defined it and react in a serious and coordinated manner. Leaving migrants to die on the Mediterranean is a clear violation of human rights, [one of] the very pillars of the European Union.”

The Italian government is actually looking to mobilise the EU to establish a common front, but so far results have been limited. Many EU members suspect that Italy, as the “underbelly of Europe” isn’t doing enough to block clandestine immigration affecting Germany, Austria, France and Scandinavia.

A few days ago, US magazine Newsweek published an unequivocal report that stated: “Italy is allowing migrants who survive the voyage to ‘disappear’ into Europe”.

Whether these accusations are true or not, it’s certainly the case that Syrian and Ethiopian immigrants consider Italy as more of a first stop on their odyssey than a final destination. They dream of Sweden, Germany and Norway.

Majd, a 21-year-old Syrian from Aleppo, is a case in point. He’s part of a group of Arab and African migrants that only a few days ago was camped out at the Milan train station, one of the major transport hubs in Italy.

“I don’t want to stay in Italy, I want to go to Germany,” Majd explains in good English. In one hand he holds, as a relic, a small piece of paper with a simple sketch, almost infantile, of Europe, with the various stops on his trip: Milan, Verona, Bolzano, Munich and finally Hamburg.

Majd knows that Italians don’t want immigrants, but he’s desperate to forge a better life for himself.

“All I want is to work and have a home,” he continues. “I just want to live peacefully, far from war.”

His dark black eyes are full of fear, and his gaze shifts warily from left to right. But when he talks about Hamburg, he smiles. He’s certain he’ll make it.

Ayman - Additional reporting by Valentina Saini

Ayman is Libyan, 23 years old and comes from Tripoli. His favourite film is ‘Lion of the Desert’, which was released in 1981 and stars Anthony Quinn as the Libyan hero Omar Mukhtar, who led a 20-year resistance movement in the first half of the 20th century against Italian colonisation.

“That film is beautiful, I never get tired of watching it,” he says. “Not only is it proof that Libyans are great people, it teaches us that you must always be courageous and stand up to injustice.”

Seated on a park bench in Bolzano, an Italian city close to the Austrian border, Ayman speaks enthusiastically in a mixture of English and Arabic. He has already visited Italy as a teenager, on a vacation with an uncle, but it’s a very different story now that he’s returned as a lone migrant. He’s not sure how to describe it, but it’s certainly not pleasant.

“Libya today is hell, but my family stayed in Tripoli regardless,” he says. “They paid for my trip, $1,500, and I left with other people, for the most part men, on a boat at night. Onboard we didn’t have food, only a bit of water and the women had no place to urinate, they had to wet themselves… the boat’s motor didn’t work, we would have died at sea if the Italian coast guard hadn’t saved us.”

His feelings towards Italians are ambivalent: on the one hand they’re guilty of shooting Omar Mukhtar, on the other they saved his life.

“I like Italy, but I’d prefer to go to Germany. There my family knows some people who can help me, they already called them. All I have to do is take the train to Munich.”

He knows that if the police pick him up his dreams of Germany will go up in smoke, but he’s not afraid. If Omar Mukhtar was in his position he wouldn’t be.

Amin - Additional reporting by Valentina Saini

Amin is 45 years old but looks much older. He’s tired — shattered — and has an unkempt beard and red eyes. He’s from Homs, a Syrian city destroyed by the civil war.

“There, I was a school teacher, I taught mathematics,” he explains in hushed English tones, seated on a marble bench outside Milan’s central train station.

“I left from Turkey with my two children; in Syria I left my wife’s grave and our home, destroyed by a missile.”

Amin is clearly exhausted and can’t stop yawning. He wants to rest for a few weeks. His two adolescent children are beside him and give him a gentle rub on the back every now and again.

“Italy isn’t a bad country, everyone’s very kind, but we need to leave as soon as possible for Sweden, for Malmö,” he points out.

“There are lots of Syrians there. They’ll help me and my children build a future. I could go back to teaching, God willing, but I’m ready to do any kind of work, even wait tables or work as a labourer.”

The situation in Syria is terrifying, he says.

“People are desperate, and they don’t have anything any more. They dream of going to Sweden, Norway or Denmark because they know that Syria is done, only ash. Syria is the new Iraq.”

Rida - Additional reporting by Valentina Saini

From Aleppo to Damascus, Damascus to Cairo, Cairo to Libya and Libya to Sicily. This is the voyage of Rida, a 19-year-old fan of Walt Disney films and Michael Jackson.

“In Aleppo, my father had his own store, he earned well and at home we didn’t want for anything,” she says. “Then the war started and we decided to leave Syria for Egypt where my father once worked. Since Egypt has a lot of economic problems we left for Libya. There the men behave truly reprehensibly with us Syrian women. My friend was even raped.”

When she decided to embark on a raft for Italy with her parents and her brother, Rida knew she was running a serious risk.

“It’s better to die at sea in search of liberty than to die in a foreign country where you’re treated terribly.”

If you ask her about the crew, she makes a disgusted face.

“Bad people,” she says. “They insulted us, screamed. They filled the boat so that there wasn’t even the smallest empty space, like we were animals. Once the Italian Coast Guard found us, we were taken to the Sicilian islet of Lampedusa.

“At the reception centre, we had to sleep on the ground, but at least we were in Italy. In a few days I’ll leave for Northern Europe, but I’d prefer not to say which country.”

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