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Eritrea: No Welcome in Italy
Nov 15, 2009 (091115)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
"We were fortunate to spend two days in a small coastal town of
Agrigento where in the central part of the city stands a Catholic
church with the figure of a black priest carved in stone perched
high above in the church tower. It is a statue of Saint Calogero,
an African priest who came to Sicily around the 14th century and is
revered as the town's patron saint. But in the 21st century,
African refugees who traverse the treacherous waters of the
Mediterranean Sea find Calogero's city, indeed the entire country,
unwelcoming, even hostile to them. A well-known Italian Bishop is
said to have remarked that if the saint-priest were to arrive in
Agrigento today, he would find himself in similar circumstances as
the refugees who are detained and disdained." - Nunu Kidane and
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains the first two entries in Kidane
and Lenoir's blog on African Immigrants and Refugees in Europe,
from their trip to Italy and to Greece. This web-only Bulletin is
one of a series of three released today. "Eritrea: Perilous
Journeys," sent out by e-mail as well as posted on the web, is
available at http://www.africafocus.org/docs09/er0911a.php
"Eritrea: Press Freedom Updates" is available at http://www.africafocus.org/docs09/er0911b.php
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Eritrea, visit
For a selection of recent books on Eritrea, see
For a related discussion paper on Migration and Global Justice in
the context of African immigrants to the United States, see
++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++
African Immigrants and Refugees in Europe
Nunu Kidane, Director of Priority Africa Network (http://www.priorityafrica.org) and Gerald Lenoir, Director of
the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (http://www.blackalliance.org) are spending two weeks in Italy
and Greece to learn more about the plight of African refugees as
they make their way to Europe to find work to support themselves
and their families back home. They are also attending the Global
Forum on Migration and Development and the People's Global Action
on Migration, Development and Human Rights, both in Athens.
They are filing a series of reports about their impressions,
conversations with migrants, and what they are learning.
The blog is available at http://blackallianceblog.blogspot.com
The first two blog entries are below.
Blog #1: African Immigrants and Refugees in Europe: A PAN and
Agrigento, Sicily, Italy, October 26-28, 2009
Monday, November 2, 2009
We were fortunate to spend two days in a small coastal town of
Agrigento where in the central part of the city stands a Catholic
church with the figure of a black priest carved in stone perched
high above in the church tower. It is a statue of Saint Calogero,
an African priest who came to Sicily around the 14th century and
is revered as the town's patron saint.
But in the 21st century, African refugees who traverse the
treacherous waters of the Mediterranean Sea find Calogero's city,
indeed the entire country, unwelcoming, even hostile to them. A
well-known Italian Bishop is said to have remarked that if the
saint-priest were to arrive in Agrigento today, he would find
himself in similar circumstances as the refugees who are detained
Agrigento is situated far west in the region of Sicily, an island
off of the coast of mainland Italy . We spent the better part of
two days in the city at Progetto Tarik, a shelter for male
migrants from many countries, including Eritrea, Nigeria,
Somalia, and Sudan - 37 men ranging in age from 19 to 37. We ate
with them, sipped cappuccinos with them and even attended an
Italian language class with them. During the course of our stay,
we were fortunate to gain their trust and engage in personal
conversations about their migration experiences, their hope and
dreams, their frustrations and setbacks. They opened up to us and
shared the details of the nightmare that they had experienced.
While we try to capture much of what they told us, it is
impossible to convey the full account of the emotional highs and
lows we all felt in response to their stories. These young,
intelligent, beautiful men had stories that were hard to believe
and yet were told calmly and at times, even with humor.
They came from Eritrea to avoid forced conscription into an army
that had no time limit; many were forced to act as the personal
servants to high-ranking officers. They came from Darfur, Sudan
to escape war, from other parts of Sudan fleeing from forced
conscription and repression, from Nigeria escaping the conflict
in Niger Delta and from Somalia to escape from a so-called failed
state and a never-ending war. Whatever the reason for their
departure, their asylum cases depended on whether or not they had
a good case for substantiating grounds for fear of persecution
which is the basis of the U.N. Refugee Convention protection for
asylum seekers. Those escaping poverty or looking for better
opportunities for themselves and their families would be
considered "economic refugees" and subject to automatic
All of the young men we talked to arrived in Italy aboard crowded
boats that set sail from Libya, normally, just a day's sail
across the Mediterranean Sea to Lampedusa, an Italian port
further south. One of the Eritrean young men reported that his
voyage took five days, the most excruciating experience he had
been through in his entire 19 years.
The sea is infested with "big fishes" that circle the small boat
at all hours. At night, there is total blinding darkness. During
the day, the heat from the sun is relentless with no water to
quench their thirst. The salty waters are "like acid" as their
skin begins to peel off from the intensity and dehydration. Of
the 300 migrants on the boat, there were a few women, one of whom
was eight months pregnant. Assuming they would reach their
destination in a day, they had no water and no food.
He recounted that the deaths begin to happen the longer they are
at sea. But that most die, ironically at the moment of sighting a
rescue ship when panic sets in as each individual competes to be
first to go up the ladder to safety. It is a fight to death as
people get pushed aside, some falling into the sea, others
remaining on the boat when the rescue ship departs having filled
its quota. Those who have not been picked up know this is their
last chance. With no food or water, it is a matter of hours
before they would die in the sea.
Before embarking on their voyage across the Mediterranean, almost
all of the young Eritrean men left their country by making their
way to neighboring Sudan. From there, they embarked on the
perilous journey across the Sahara Desert. Another 20-year-old
Eritrean man recalled memories of sand as far as he could see, of
thirst beyond belief, of the daily fear and uncertainty about
living another day, of the people who died along the way and were
buried in the sand, nothing to mark their graves, just a mound of
sand. Each mound in the otherwise flat desert was an indicator of
someone who did not make it. He wondered if that would be his
The migrants are loaded on trucks packed as tight they can fit. A
young Eritrean teen recounted a story of a Somali boy who had
been seated very close to him for the better part of the journey.
When the truck stopped and it was time to stretch their legs, he
stood up to find the body next to him slumped and fell. He
suddenly realized he had been sitting next to a corpse for the
past few hours. His expression was somber when he remembered the
"I had never seen a dead body before, his eyes remained open as
if he could see" I didn't know what to do," he told us. Like
others before him, they buried him, but not deep in the sand. No
one had the energy left for a proper burial.
We asked about their families, those they left behind, evidently
a difficult and emotional topic for the young men who have not
seen their loved ones in a long time. The Eritreans know that
many of their families have been imprisoned or subjected to huge
fines by the government because of their departure.
Each trip across a border is undertaken with the full realization
they may not survive. This is especially true when leaving
Tripoli (Libya) where the Mediterranean Sea leaves no trace of a
body. Each young man told us that they leave word behind with
trusted friends at different point in their journey in case they
do not make it to their destination. They said leaving word
behind gives them comfort knowing that should they not make it,
their families will at least know of their demise.
Many felt dejected after reaching Europe and not finding the
promised land of their dreams. They expressed frustration with
the endless bureaucratic entanglements that kept them in camps,
detention centers and with little hope of education, employment
or supporting the families they had left behind.
All of the young men we talked to said they left home largely to
find ways to improve conditions for their families back home by
sending money back. But Italy does not offer them employment or
cash assistance, education is limited to language classes, and
they have no means to improve their lives. Once in a while, an
individual is able to work as a day laborer and earn a small
amount. But a good portion of those earnings are spent on phone
calls and Internet access in order to stay in touch with their
loved ones at home and in other countries.
Despite these horrors, the young men were not depressed and in a
state of remorse over their journeys. They shared their stories
openly and with a sense of hope (and trust) that we would convey
their messages broadly. They expressed no regrets of what
happened in the past but were pessimistic about what the future
holds. They have been in Italy anywhere from four months to three
years. Although grateful for their lives, they foresee no change
in their circumstances.
They have the temporary permits to remain in Italy and can travel
to other parts of Europe. But they are not allowed to remain in
any other country, only the first point of landing. One young man
told us that he managed to get to Switzerland, where refugees
receive much more government support. So desperate was he to get
out of Italy, he used a lit cigarette to burn the fingerprints
off of his ten fingers. He was caught and detained until his
fingers were completely healed. Because of the fingerprinting
system that is shared with border control agencies throughout the
European Union, he was immediately deported back to Italy.
Despite all they had been through, these young men are realistic,
reflective of where they are and what the future looks like, and
most of all, able to laugh at the insanity of it all.
On the last day of our visit, there was news of the arrival in
the port of Lampedusa of a large contingent of refugees, mostly
Eritreans, Ethiopians, Somali and Sudanese. This was indeed
surprising news as the recent agreement between Libya and Italy
had almost ceased the boat arrivals. Libya received several
billion Euros in exchange for detaining and preventing refugees
from making the journey across the Mediterranean Sea. The
bilateral agreement was celebrated in Italy as a major victory
for the right wing government of Prime Minister Silvio
Berlusconi. According to Berlusconi, the pact would put an end to
the refugee problem. For migrants now trying to get to Europe,
the cost of the journey across the sea alone has gone up from
$1,200 before the Libyan blockade to $2,800.
The facts of the boat's arrival as we learned later in the day
were that it contained 298 refugees who had been rescued at sea
in bad condition. About 15 were women and 9 children. One young
Somali man was dead for reasons that could not be determined.
Fearing the breakout of illness because of this, the entire group
was quarantined and prevented from meeting any outsiders,
including members of the media.
As the stories unfold in the course of our visit, we will
continue to share with you the details of our findings.
Blog #2: African Immigrants and Refugees in Europe: A PAN and
This is the second of a series of reports from Nunu Kidane,
Director of Priority Africa Network (http:.//www.priorityafrica.org) and Gerald Lenoir, Director of
the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (http://www.blackalliance.org).
Rome, October 29 - 31, 2009
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
The historic city of Rome is known for breathtaking sights from
the Vatican to the Coliseum and beyond. However, there are little
known areas not far from the historic routes frequented by
tourists, areas where large numbers of refugees from a number of
countries reside in poverty but with dignity.
We spent a day visiting with activists and refugees who live in
these areas. The most well known are Ponte Mamolo, Ana Nina and
Colitana where refugee squatters desperate for shelter inhabit
As our hosts informed us, the Italian government does not take
responsibility for providing permanent housing for refugees.
After their initial processing, refugees are provided with
documents and a place to sleep in camps for a period of six
months to a year. They are then released into the public to find
housing on their own. One activist told us that there are over
30,000 refugees in Rome but only 3,000 have housing.
Unemployed and with few resources, many people sleep on the
streets with nothing but cardboard walls to fight the bitter
winter cold that sweeps in for the better part of the year. The
majority of them frequent the area around the Statione Termini
(the central terminal for trains and buses). But police
discourage them by making their rounds regularly and forcing them
With few options for housing, a group of Eritreans we met
recently took over an office building in Colitana. After the
completion of the building, engineers found that the water below
the foundation made it unsafe for occupancy and the owners
abandoned it. A group of Italian activists known as "Movement
Action" who are fighting for the rights of the homeless to have
shelter informed the refugees of its availability.
It is one of the most coveted living spaces because it has solid
walls, access to water and even heating. About 200 individuals
live there. Of these, we were told that less than ten percent are
women and there are no children. There is no security in these
quarters because police can move the refugees out at any time.
There is also the constant fear of having their space invaded by
gangs and outsiders, which makes the women in particular highly
The site we visited is in Ponte Malomo located near the center of
the city of Rome. The space, originally an open 'garden' area
with one little shed, was discovered by chance and inhabited by
an Eritrean individual. Soon others came seeking shelter from the
cold. As the community grew, they started constructing structures
with cinder blocks and sheetrock, using tin roofs to keep out the
rain. Shabby to look at and structurally unsound, the makeshift
housing is a welcomed haven from the open streets. (See the video
tour at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bnBkpzV87Sk.)
It was difficult for us to believe that such a place exists so
close to the cities most beautiful tourist attractions. We had
spent a couple of days walking the streets with packed with
hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, bars and well dressed people
from all parts of the world. There were no indicators that so
close to us were people living in a shantytown.
There is an undeniable resemblance to the shantytown areas of
Soweto that housed hundreds of thousands of families during the
days of apartheid and that is still home to so many outside
Johannesburg, South Africa. The mark of apartheid in the city of
Rome is there in full view and yet virtually invisible to most
The residents are mostly young men; of the 70 or so people who
live there, only about four are women. They were grateful that
their neighbors do not give them a hard time and the police
hardly come to harass them.
About four years ago, a fire broke out in the housing units.
Luckily, no one was killed but some people were seriously
injured. The residents called the fire department, which
responded to the fire three hours later. By then, the fire had
died down, having done extensive damage. Many were again left
It took a lot to put the community back together again. They
received donations from churches and generous individuals to help
them rebuild. They used their hands and their skills to construct
new homes that resembled the small multi-family row housing units
in the city of Asmara, Eritrea. They showed great ingenuity by
building five breakers that connect to a nearby streetlight to
provide lighting to the houses. Unfortunately, the power is weak
and cannot generate enough energy for cooking and refrigeration,
so they use gasoline-powered hot plates to cook. Water is
available from only one source and each housing unit uses buckets
to carry the water home for washing their cloths, cleaning dishes
Anyone viewing the video clippings will be appalled to see such a
standard of living in a European city and a country that is
supposedly a "first world" economic and military superpower and a
member of the G8 that supposedly donates millions to eradicate
poverty in the "Third World."
For food, those who have intermittent incomes from day labor work
purchase food and cook in their units. Others go to the homeless
shelter run by Caritas, a Catholic charitable organization, where
they can get one meal per day. One of the young Eritrean men told
us how ashamed he is to go there for a meal and does it only as a
desperate measure. The soup kitchen, he says, is full of people
who are old, handicapped and unable to take care of themselves.
He said he is young, able and willing to work and wants to
maintain his dignity and earn his keep. But Italy does not have
jobs, not even for many of its own citizens. The economic
conditions do not seem to be improving and the future looks bleak
for the refugees of Rome.
One of the refugees we met talked about the Dublin Regulation,
one of the least known of the European Union's immigration
policies that went into effect in 2003. The regulation
essentially follows the Geneva Convention in stating that the
first country an asylum seeker lands in is the country that will
process his/her application and where the refugee must remain.
This has meant that the border states that are closest to the
Mediterranean Italy, Spain, the Island of Malta and Greece have
been the recipients of disproportionate number of refugees. If a
refugee lands in any one of these countries, their application is
processed there and they are expected to remain in the country.
Given the lack of adequate housing and opportunities in these
countries, refugees are constantly moving further north.
Although the Regulation went into effect nearly six years ago, it
has only been since 2008 that the fingerprinting system and
exchange throughout the European Union countries became
operational (EURODAC-European Union automated fingerprint
identification). Should a person leave the country of their first
arrival and attempt to unite with their families or even exercise
their free choice of movement to change to another country, their
fingerprints are traced and they are returned to the country
where they first arrived.
This regulation has brought countless hardship to the refugees we
spoke to. Unable to work and make a living, with no access to
shelter or food or any of the basic necessities, and in many
instances, with the desire to unite with their families, refugees
attempt to leave repeatedly. Knowing full well that their
fingerprints will identify them, they attempt to destroy any
trace of fingerprints using means that cause of unspeakable pain.
These are three ways commonly used to remove fingerprints. A
refugee will burn his/her own fingerprints and palm prints with a
lit cigarette. This painstaking and slow process can take several
hours. It leaves a person with their fingers and hands in
constant pain and unable to use their hands. Soon blisters appear
and infection can spread.
Another method used by many refugees is to place their hands
directly over a gas, charcoal or electric stove or immerse them
in scalding water to remove their fingerprints and palm prints.
This is no less painful than using a lit cigarette.
The third process requires a person to rub sandpaper against
his/her skin. It may seem comparatively the less painful, but not
so. It takes two or three days of rubbing fingers and palms with
sand paper to entirely remove the top skin, leaving raw, blood
Each individual who showed us their hands felt they were driven
to this extreme as a desperate measure to escape what they
consider as unlivable circumstances. They said these painful
steps are deeply damaging to their physical beings but are "only
temporary." If they succeed in making it outside the countries,
they consider it worth the price of such pain.
Unfortunately, the authorities in other countries know of these
steps. One of the Eritrean brothers brought out a piece of
sandpaper and demonstrated to us how he used it to obliterate his
fingerprints. Another young man told us that he was able to
destroy his prints and made it to England to find work. But
eventually he was arrested and when his hands healed two week
later, a fingerprint check gave him away. He was deported back to
Italy, back to no home and no work.
This policy that is bringing inhumane pain and suffering to
refugees is fully known by all immigration authorities in Europe.
There is already a proposed change to the Dublin Regulation that
is expected to take place sometime in 2011. The change is not out
of consideration of the difficulties refugees are facing but is
in response to the outcries and demands of the frontline
countries in Europe that are pushing for equitable
"burden-sharing" of the number of refugees that are coming across
The young men we met with seemed in a quandary about how to
change their dire circumstances. "Without hope, people will
perish," one young man said, paraphrasing a famous quote, the
author of whom none of us could remember. But, as if to buoy his
own spirit, he quickly added, "Hope springs eternally."
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