News started to spread on a Friday evening that a sea landing with nearly 600 people — including more than 100 minors — was expected next morning at Sicily’s port of Catania. It was the middle of January and an unusually cold, rainy week, but none of that mattered. More people kept coming and more continued to die.
That weekend alone, nearly 2,000 were rescued. Half a dozen others arrived in white plastic bags. In Messina, an imam and a priest led prayers for two of them as their relatives mourned their loss, shivering under blankets.
Others, burned from the mixture of fuel and salt water, were taken directly to the hospital, where those who made the trip before them brought them a phone to call their families and reminded them that they should be grateful to be alive. Since January, 602 people have died or gone missing trying to cross the central Mediterranean route, following the deadliest year yet with 4,600 deaths in 2016.
The reasons behind what pushes this group of mostly Sub-Saharan Africans to risk death and endure beatings, rapes and exploitation on their way to Europe are as complex as the individuals themselves. Yet their fate often comes down to a binary decision: they are either refugees where they happen to land, fleeing war or persecution, or they continue their journey and are economic migrants looking for jobs.
And even as the line between both conditions becomes blurrier, it also keeps moving.
Outside immigration centers, migrants and asylum seekers insist they want to keep heading north. “Germany is my country,” one man from Senegal said. “In Germany they like African people,” he insisted.
What they don’t know or talk about is how European countries are erecting fences to stop people from going north and governments are making deals with countries in Africa, including quasi-states such as Libya, to send people back. Now with rising anti-immigrant rhetoric and upcoming elections, politicians and citizens increasingly say countries like Germany can’t take everyone who comes in, especially the Africans.
So far this year, nearly 25,000 people have arrived in Sicily, a trend that if continues could break last year’s record of 181,000. And just as thousands arrive almost weekly, tens of thousands linger in Italy as they navigate an overwhelmed asylum system, appeal their rejected claims or are stranded here — unwilling or unable to go back.
Momodou Sheriff, a 17-year-old from Gambia, said he never planned to come to Sicily but the situation in Libya was so unbearable that getting on a flimsy boat was better than staying. He arrived in Catania a year ago.
Initially, Sheriff was running away from home after his mother wanted to force him to enroll in a Quranic school. “If I stayed and don’t do what she says, she will continue to hurt me. She had been fighting me,” he said. “In Europe, you have no right to beat your child with a stick or other things.”
Gambia is one of Africa’s smallest countries, with less than two million people, but it’s among the top nationalities arriving in Italy, especially for unaccompanied minors. About 60 percent of the population of The Gambia live in poverty and it’s getting worse. The temporary displacement of thousands in January, when the then-president who had been in power for 22 years initially refused to leave, showed how fragile democracy can be.
“The distinction between a refugee and other irregular migrants coming from the Gambia is hard to maintain in a country where a lack of democracy is accompanied by failures of economic and political governance,” Alexandra Embiricos, head of outreach at Migration Hub Network in Berlin, wrote last year.
And the path to Europe is seldom straight. Sheriff said he first fled to relatives in a nearby village but they sent him back, insisting he must listen to his mother. The then-15-year-old instead left for neighboring Senegal, where he ended up on the streets and met a man who offered help.
He wasn’t sure if he could trust him, but went along anyway. “It’s scary but how will I do? There’s no other choice,” he said from a shelter for unaccompanied migrant children in the center of Catania. “It’s better than sleeping outside. So I go with him.”
When the man said he was going to Libya to work, Sheriff decided to tag along. Libya had long attracted migrants looking for jobs, but the Arab Spring that ended with the killing of dictator Muammar Gadaffi left a de facto failed state. For those landing in Italy from sub-Saharan Africa, 90 percent pass through Libya.
It didn’t take long before Sheriff and the man he had accompanied were chased by armed men. They became lost in the desert in Nigeria. Eventually, they arrived in Tripoli, he said, where houses are riddled with bullet holes and men dressed in military uniforms indiscriminately open fire. “For us, the foreigners who are not Libyans, you cannot walk out by yourself because if you do, you lose your life.”
Human rights organizations describe Libya as a living hell for migrants: a minefield of kidnappings, with gangs and smugglers demanding money from migrants’ families. Women know to take contraceptives before the journey because of the likelihood they will be raped. The German ambassador in Niger described conditions as being “worse than in concentration camps” in a document to the German foreign ministry. “There are executions of countless migrants, torture, rapes, bribery and banishment to the desert on a daily basis,” the German newspaper Die Welt reported.
Even with precautions, Sheriff was kidnapped. “You arrive at so-called soldier checkpoints and they have their guns, they stop you and everybody comes down and check you if you have guns or not and they take you with them, just like that,” he said.
They divide people between those who have family that can pay a ransom and those who don’t. Sheriff, who was among the latter, was sent to work in a farm. There, he survived off bread and tea, without showers, sleeping on the floor and taking beatings. The thought of not making it out of Libya often crossed his mind, he said, but “I also believe that you only die when your time arrive.”
Three months in he found a way out while the guard was distracted and fled, along the same route thousands of others use to reach the coast of Italy. He climbed on board a rubber dinghy with more than 150 people, so cramped that he started losing the feeling in one of his legs.
At sea you can be injured, you can die, you can be rescued, Sheriff explained. “At any moment anything can happen, you understand?”
Increasingly those arriving in Sicily are unaccompanied minors. Nearly one in five of the arrivals by sea in January were young sub-Saharan teens. Those who work with refugees worry that they are being pushed into criminality and prostitution as the Italian system struggles to adapt and the teens are caught between bureaucracy and the mafia.
Many face sexual exploitation on their way or in Europe. Some fall through the cracks, escape the state-sponsored centers and end up prostituting themselves to earn money to continue north.
The International Organization for Migration estimates about 80 percent of the Nigerian women who disembark in Sicily end up being prostituted in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. And more keep coming: last year it was 11,000 of them —twice as many as in 2015.
Di Maria Liliana, who leads the shelter for Italian and unaccompanied boys where Sheriff lives, said human trafficking makes it difficult for her organization, Futura ´89, to open shelters for girls.
“Two years ago we had opened a center for girls, we only had 10 from Eritrea and the 10 of them continued to escape,” she said. Earlier this year, they opened another one with 25 Nigerian girls, but only seven remain. They will soon close the shelter and reopen it for boys, she said.
There’s always someone threatening them or their families back home, so they leave. “We find them in the usual places,” she said, which means the streets of San Berillo.
The historic neighborhood of San Berillo in the heart of the old town of Catania was partly destroyed in the 1950s in a failed urban development plan, and by the 1990s was considered one of the largest red-light districts in Europe.
Today it is a melting pot of refugees, settled migrants, and Italians, said Valeria Giuffrida, a volunteer and cultural mediator. In between the abandoned homes, long-time residents and newcomers eat for a couple of euros at informal Senegalese restaurants run out of home kitchens, play soccer on the dimly lit streets or take free Italian classes inside crumbling buildings.
Groups of young men hang out on the corners and it’s not uncommon for fights to break out, but they’re rarely serious, Giuffrida said. Still, as she walked around the neighborhood she made sure the drug dealers knew she wasn’t looking for trouble, just showing off the area.
“Here is where minors squat,” she said and pointed to boarded up houses with chained doors often covered in colorful murals. “There is no legal work for refugees and if there’s no work, life is no good.”
Before the borders started to close and the European Union pushed for asylum seekers to stay in the country where they first arrived, most would use Italy as a springboard. But now more are requesting asylum here, with about 176,000 people housed in reception centers across the country as of the end of last year.
About 34 miles from Catania is Cara di Mineo, which since 2011 has been housing thousands of asylum seekers as their cases are processed. Europe’s largest migrant center was originally for U.S. Navy families from a nearby base, and the earth tone paint scheme, terracotta roofs and street layout make it look like an American suburb. Except there’s an Italian village overlooking the housing area and the complex is enclosed by a chain link fence with barbed wire and access is restricted by armed guards. Outside, about half a dozen cars line the narrow road, offering rides for five euros.
Some migrants complain about the crime inside, the poor conditions and food; although others say it’s not too bad. The government pays 35 euros per day for each migrant to the center and they are also supposed to get 2.50 euros in pocket money. Instead they get cigarettes they can then sell, which advocates point to as an example of the corruption going on.
If they find a bike, they can work in the nearby orange groves for 25 euros a day, but if they need to be picked up, their pay can drop to 10 euros. Cheap labor is not new, said Alfonso di Stefano, with the Antiracist Network in Catania, but Cara di Mineo provides a constant stream of workers.
The group calls for the closure of Cara di Mineo and makes weekly visits. “We try to monitor the system, unfortunately from the outside,” said di Stefano, since they aren’t allowed in.
“People arrive in Sicily without an idea of what they will have to do here. They think it’s over because they are alive, but they don’t know about our immigration system,” said Antonio Sciuto, who works with di Stefano. “They normally spend eight or nine months in Cara and this is just the start to life in Italy or to be relocated in another EU country. After the final denial, it’s common you are a ghost. You stay or go back but without money, it’s very difficult.”
The system to process migrants has become dysfunctional, said Cristina Molfetta, a researcher with the Italian organization Fondazione Migrantes. “Especially during the last two, three years, the only way to legalize their status is to make an asylum request.” she said. And bigger numbers of asylum seekers overwhelm the system.
Although cases are supposed to be considered individually, in practice the country they come from is a big factor in asylum applications, said Fausto Melluso, who works for migrant support organization Arci in Palermo. Those coming from Nigeria, Senegal and Gambia almost don’t stand a chance, he said.
The impact of sheer numbers of migrants can be seen in Sicily’s streets. During a spate of cold days earlier this year, the Red Cross and other organizations set up emergency shelters to offer people a warm drink and a place to sleep. A man from Chad who stopped by one night said he had been in Germany and France before, but because he was fingerprinted in Italy, he was sent back.
He wanders during the day, he said, and looks for a place to go to sleep at night, “but I’m ready to give up.”
John Oriaifo, a 21-year-old from Nigeria, lived in Cara di Mineo but lost his housing after his asylum application and appeal were rejected. “Here, it’s all about documents,” he said, “you cannot go anywhere without documents.”
He would be living on the streets but he was lucky to meet volunteers from the Catholic community of Sant’Egidio, which offers housing to a handful of those who need it and partners with migrants to serve the vulnerable populations of Italy.
When the bodies of six migrants killed in a 2013 shipwreck washed ashore in Catania, members of Sant’Egidio realized the immensity of what was happening, said volunteer Sebastian Intelisano. “That day we understood we have to answer to this tragedy with our heart, with our body and with our mind.” So they welcome those who arrive and say a prayer for those who don’t make it.
The migrants became the bridge to the Muslim community, he said, and shares the story of a Nigerian migrant giving his gloves to an elderly homeless man on one of the coldest nights of the year. “This is a real experience of integration. If Italians give a piece of their heart to migrants, migrants give this piece of heart to the whole society, and we can create a big network.” On Sundays the church pews are filled with Italians and Africans, organ music mixes with an African drum beat. Italians and the newcomers cook and eat together after Mass.
Oriaifo said he didn’t plan to come to Italy either. He was living in Nigeria’s capital of Abuja when a bomb blast in 2014 killed his mother and sister while they sold produce in the local market. According to news reports, at least 21 people were killed and 52 injured in the attack. The Islamist Boko Haram had been bombing targets in the region. He only escaped because his mother asked him to go home to cook.
He decided to join a friend who had an uncle in Libya. All was going well, but, just like Sheriff, the minor from The Gambia, he was kidnapped and forced to do manual labor until he could escape. He arrived in Catania more than a year ago and focused on learning Italian. After two appeals, his case was finally approved in late March and he can now start a job search.
Stories like this make it difficult to separate refugees from those who came for economic reasons, Intelisano said, which is at the core of current political discussions. “I don’t know why he leaves his country, but one migrant that arrived in Libya is like one that lives in a place with a war,” he said. “And by building this difference we will build a wall.”
While more migrants are reaching Italy, the number would be manageable if all EU countries collaborated, experts say. In 2015, there were two asylum seekers for every 100,000 European residents, according to Molfetta of Fondazione Migrantes. “It’s not the number that put Europe in crisis, but that there is no political accord in how to share the burden,” she said.
“Here in Italy we see people arriving on a daily basis, nonstop, but we have to keep in mind that this is like the tip of the iceberg,” said Marco Rotunno, spokesperson with UNHCR in Catania. “We are not seeing huge numbers like the neighboring countries where a big conflict is happening or a disaster is happening.”
For those already here, failure is not an option.
Sheriff, the 17-year-old Gambian, remains in the shelter, home to unaccompanied minors from Africa as well as with Italian boys, for now. As a minor he is protected by the state and can’t be deported. If by the time he turns 18 he still doesn’t have refugee status, he can enroll in a school or find a job and stay legally in the country. But Sicily has among the highest unemployment rates in Italy, especially among the youth.
It’s been a year since he arrived in Catania. He goes to school to learn Italian, which given the mix of nationalities in his shelter, he already speaks well. In the house with brightly colored rooms, 15 boys, including 10 Italians and five from different African countries, take turns playing soccer on the Xbox, split house shores and watch movies — the integration is almost seamless, Liliana, the president of the shelter, said.
Life in Italy can be challenging, especially when you don’t speak the language. “It’s hard to make friends,” he said. But he is competitive and social. One day in the local park, as the boys from the shelter played soccer with a tattered ball, two young Italian boys just sat and watched. Sheriff and the others asked them if they wanted to join and soon the group of Africans and Italians were trying to score between goal posts marked by rocks.
Sheriff said he wants to be a mechanic or engineer. His father and uncle used to be mechanics. “I always followed my father when he was alive,” he said, as he shifted his gaze down. His father died in a car accident when Sheriff was seven or eight. “I was very close to my dad when he was living. I loved him, he liked me. He would take me to school and say to me I needed to study.”
He still misses his country, his family. Even though he doesn’t speak to his mother, he talks to his two younger siblings and an uncle. In his room, he has a framed photo of himself in Gambia smiling, holding a big snake wrapped around his neck. “I miss Gambia’s smiling coast,” he said.
While he has friends who have left Italy for other European countries after their applications were denied or remained illegally in Italy, for the most part, he said, they appeal their cases and find a way to stay. So far he has a two-year permit to remain in Italy.
“I am hoping to see change in my life so that I can live my life here,” Sheriff said, “if not, I gotta find a solution.”