(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Libya's migration crisis is about more than just security

    There’s no shortage of news on Libya’s migration crisis, but there is a serious dearth of policy solutions.


    Late last month, the International Organization for Migration announced what passes for good news at the moment: no deaths on the Mediterranean for 20 days. This followed reports, later denied, that Italy had been paying militias to prevent people from leaving Libya’s shores.


    But the risk of drowning is far from the only danger facing migrants attempting the central Mediterranean route into Europe. Migrants are subject to arbitrary detention, arrest, harassment, bonded labour, slavery, and sexual exploitation.


    And even as drowning numbers are down, IOM says there has been an increase in trafficking rather than smuggling on the central Mediterranean route – the former distinguished by the coercion and extortion that continues after arrival at the destination. This trend is partly because fewer Syrians (and migrants in general) are making the journey, so those plying the route are seeking ways to keep profits up – sub-Saharan African women appear to be paying a horrible price in this shift, finding themselves forced into the sex industry in greater numbers.


    Human rights groups, humanitarians, and governments are naturally concerned, but some rights advocates feel the anti-trafficking policies of the European Union and others are more aimed at stopping migration entirely.


    “The war on traffickers has been something that – time and time again – when politicians find themselves with the backs to the wall, they reach to,” Mark Micallef, a specialist researcher on the subject at the Global Initiative Against Transnational and Organized Crime, told IRIN.


    Fighting trafficking or fighting migration?


    The EU’s Operation Sophia, which aims to disrupt the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks, in part by taking apart the boats themselves, has come under fire for muddling the fight on traffickers and smugglers with stopping migration altogether.


    “Trying to stop slavery at the point of destroying boats in the middle of the Mediterranean doesn’t actually help people,” Claire Seaward, humanitarian campaign and advocacy manager at Oxfam, told IRIN. “As we are seeing, migrants will just use different types of boats. They used to be on large wooden boats and now they are on inflatable dinghies."


    Tim Eaton, a research fellow with the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, believes one of Operation Sophia’s major flaws is looking at migration – and migrants – through a one-dimensional lens, when it’s really about so much more, like economics and hope. “On a policy level, the problem comes when you look at this solely as a security problem,” Eaton told IRIN.

    Disposable Africans - migration and its consequences

    Securing borders and clamping down on criminals including traffickers may be useful in some respects, but it won’t stop desperate migrants from coming, nor does it take into account the dangers they face while inside Libya.


    Limited options


    But there don’t seem to be a whole lot of viable alternatives, especially when many parts of Libya are so dangerous it’s impractical to put aid workers on the ground.


    Where NGOs can help is in assisting suspected trafficking victims and training law enforcement officers and emergency responders. Annemarie Loof, operations manager at Médecins Sans Frontières, said the charity gives “[migrants in Libya] a telephone number they can call anywhere from Europe. We talk to them about trafficking and the sex industry. We flag it to the [Italian] authorities.”


    Izabella Cooper, spokeswoman for EU border agency Frontex, said it has trained staff to recognise signs of people-trafficking on the ships it deploys as part of Operation Triton, the EU naval mission that backstops Italy’s own rescue operations. “In many cases these girls do not know they are being trafficked,” Cooper told IRIN. “Many of these girls have no idea what they are heading for.”


    Fernando Calero/MSF
    Smugglers have increased the number of migrants they pack into a boat, making the journey even more dangerous

    But the reality is that many migrants are also not trafficked, at least not technically. They leave their homes by choice – driven by a variety of factors including poverty and conflict – and are now stuck in Libya’s detention centres, trapped in what MSF called, in an open letter published 7 September, “a thriving enterprise of kidnapping, torture and extortion”.


    Andre Heller Perache, head of programmes at MSF UK, described the abuse in detention centres as “borderline between human smuggling and trafficking”, a “weird system of exploitation”.


    To give migrants a chance to escape the abuse, IOM offers voluntary repatriations: It sent 2,775 people home from Libya last year and is aiming for 10,000 in 2017.


    Loof at MSF believes voluntary repatriation can be a welcome option for those trapped in the country’s crime-ridden detention centres, but stressed this point: “I am against arbitrary detention to begin with.”


    IOM runs training sessions inside some of the detention centres aiming at introducing the staff to the principles of human rights. Maysa Khalil, one of the programme officers, told IRIN she had seen an improvement in health and hygiene awareness in the centres after the training. However, she admitted that the migrants don’t report abuse while they’re still trapped in the centre so it’s difficult to accurately measure the programme’s impact. Plus, IOM has no access to detention centres run by Libya’s many militias.


    Too much faith in training programmes like these would be misplaced in a situation where migrants desperately need help now, according to Sherine El Taraboulsi-McCarthy, a research fellow with the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute. Changing attitudes towards human rights, she told IRIN, “will take time, maybe a decade”.


    Chatham House’s Eaton agreed. “[The training programmes] are certainly valuable,” he said. “But, you’ve got armed groups that are making significant income off of it. Just telling them that they need to respect people’s rights is not going to change people’s minds. So, that’s a challenge.”




    Eaton said what’s often lost in the discussion of smuggling and trafficking is money. “People still have to survive,” he said, and that should be taken into account in policy decisions.


    Men in the back of a truck
    Tom Wescott/IRIN
    Migrants travel across the Libyan desert from the border with Niger

    In the south of the war-torn country, moving human beings around and the extortion that involves – often across borders – has become big business. A recent report from the International Crisis Group points out that European governments have turned their attention to the economic development of the south in an attempt to control people trafficking.


    An EU official familiar with an Italian development project in the south told an ICG researcher: “if you want to peel away people from the human trafficking business you need to co-opt them and to do so you must buy them over”.


    But the people trade generates such high profits and supports so many people that those involved are unlikely to give it up, even if offered alternative sources of employment.


    Humanitarian agencies and development organisations are wary of methods to control migration, or trafficking, through development. Take Oxfam’s Seaward, who questions European motivations. “The EU is very keen to do work which is about livelihoods to stop migration. That’s something we’d be quite critical about. [It should be] about development [for development’s sake], not about [stopping] migration.”


    For many aid organisations, the best way forward would be to open more legal channels for migration, including humanitarian visas.


    “Anti-trafficking measures are not useful,” said Arezo Malakooti, an independent researcher and author of several recent IOM reports. “The way to combat the horrific trafficking stories that are happening is to create legal avenues for migration – and any other way has missed the point.”




    Libya's migration crisis is about more than just security
  • Meet the Gambian migrants under pressure to leave Europe

    The Gambia’s leader of 22 years, Yahya Jammeh, used to give Gambians good cause for claiming asylum, even if the majority were fleeing poverty rather than persecution.

    But with the autocratic president’s exit in January, Gambians’ grounds for international protection have suddenly become shakier, making them prime EU targets for rapid return, although they are not the only ones.

    Gambians are one of the top nationalities among the 93,000 mainly West African and Asian migrants who have arrived in Italy already this year. The majority, as in preceding years, are unlikely to qualify for asylum. And yet Italy, like most EU states, has had little success in forcibly returning them home or persuading them to leave voluntarily.

    Italy’s threat to close its ports to foreign rescue vessels at the end of June prompted the EU to come up with an action plan promising more support, not only in deterring migrants from crossing the Mediterranean, but also in stepping up returns of those already on Italian soil.

    Left to fester

    Ebrima Gaye was 17 when he disembarked a rescue boat in Pozzallo, Sicily in July 2016. He spent seven months in a centre for minors near Syracuse. After turning 18 in March, he was shunted around several times before being sent to the Frasca Centre in Rosolini.


    Jason Florio/IRIN
    Ebrima Gaye in his room at the Frasca Centre in Rosolini

    Like many of the 2,000 extraordinary reception centres (CAS) scattered across Italy, Frasca was once a hotel. A white behemoth of a building, it sits on top of a scrubby hillside on the outskirts of town.

    Residents congregate in a large living area with a pool table, where young men sit slumped on chairs, staring at their phones while daytime television babbles in the background. Others lie on their beds in dorms that sleep up to 30, immobilised by the stultifying heat and boredom.

    The centre is meant to be an “emergency” short-term facility, but the overwhelming demand on Italy’s reception system means camps like this one have become holding pens, while migrants’ asylum claims move through the glacial legal system. Some residents have been there for a year.

    Under Italian law, asylum seekers who have a residence permit can seek work, but residents reported that they had been forbidden from working while living in this centre.

    Gaye’s asylum application was rejected in May and he is waiting to appeal the decision. Almost a year after arriving, the reed-thin boy glumly admits he regrets making the journey.

    Before leaving, Gaye worked as a barber in his home village on the banks of the River Gambia. “I am the firstborn son, so I contributed to my family, but the money I was saving was very small. Many of my friends had taken ‘the back way’ [the irregular route to Europe via the Sahel and Libya], so I decided to go,” he said.

    But Gaye’s savings only got him as far as Agadez in Niger, then he had to beg his family to send him $2,400 to complete his journey.

    Prisoners of hope in Italy migrant camps

    Jason Florio
    Prisoners of hope in Italy migrant camps

    Prisoners of hope

    Gambia’s new government has received unprecedented amounts of development aid from the EU to tackle its “back way” exodus with youth training and job creation programmes. But none of the young Gambians IRIN spoke to were persuaded by the promise of what has been dubbed “New Gambia”.

    “I spent a lot coming here,” Gaye said. “I could have had a good business in Gambia, but now I’ve been here a year and I have gained nothing. So it is better I stay here and try to find something for my future first.”


    Jason Florio/IRIN
    Boredom can be the most frustrating aspect of camp life for the migrants

    In a camp for minors in Messina, IRIN found another Gambian, Yahya Damfa*, much of the same opinion. “I’m not thinking about returning anyway,” said the 17-year-old. “I haven’t heard of any improvement yet (in The Gambia), I think it will take some time. I tell myself, ‘if I have made it to Europe I’d rather manage here’.”

    Once migrants like Gaye and Damfa have crossed the Mediterranean, the financial and psychological costs of the often-harrowing journey make the prospect of returning home empty-handed too much to bear. They become prisoners of hope.

    That hope, however futile, combined with the EU’s poor record on returns are the fundamental factors perpetuating Europe’s migration crisis, believes Gerald Knaus, chair of the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based think tank.

    “Anybody from West Africa who makes it to Libya [and] survives the boat trip is in Europe forever, irrespective of whether they get refugee status or not. Unless this changes, the flow will continue,” he told IRIN.

    Low return rates

    Last year, 12,000 Gambians arrived in Italy, but just 15 were forcibly returned, according to Eurostat figures.

    There is currently no readmission agreement with The Gambia. The Italian government attempted to negotiate one with Jammeh’s government in early 2016, but was unsuccessful. The Ministry of the Interior did not respond to IRIN’s request for information on whether new negotiations have started.

    Knaus is hopeful that the Italian government will seriously consider ESI’s policy proposal, which is being released this week. The so-called Rome Plan is based on a premise of “return realism”, explained Knaus, who was involved in drawing up the controversial EU-Turkey Agreement.

    Knaus’ new initiative urges the EU and member states to accept that poor countries that rely heavily on remittances currently have nothing to gain from taking back their citizens. According to the Rome Plan, member states should offer migrant-sending countries a certain amount of legal access in the form of scholarships or work visas in return for taking back their nationals who do not qualify for protection.

    “Legal access has never before been linked to controlling irregular access,” Knaus said. “With this [plan] you have less suffering, it benefits the development of the country of origin and it’s in line with the Refugee Convention.”

    For now, Italy’s response to its clogged up asylum and migrant reception system has been a series of immigration reforms introduced by interior minister Marco Minniti in April. They include the creation of 16 new repatriation centres. But without more readmission agreements with countries of origin, detaining more irregular migrants in the new centres will be pointless, believes Flavio di Giacomo, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Italy.

    “By law, migrants will only be able to stay [at the repatriation centres] for 60 days,” he told IRIN. “If they cannot be repatriated, they will get an order to leave by themselves. It will only increase Italy’s irregularity problem.”

    The bottom line is that most Gambian migrants, who are unlikely to qualify for international protection or be deported, face a future of trying to survive in Italy’s informal economy.

    Hustling to get by

    In Catania and other Sicilian cities, each migrant nationality has a speciality: Bangladeshis clean car windscreens, young Nigerian women, most trafficked from Edo State, sell themselves, and Gambians push drugs. 

    They loiter in alleyways in Catania’s red-light district of San Berillo, sleep in derelict squats, and wheel their worldly possessions along the streets in shopping trolleys. One Gambian teenager, holding a can of beer, staggers over to slur a greeting to staff from Oxfam’s Open Europe programme, which supports irregularised migrants in Sicily. Back in Muslim-majority Gambia, such behaviour would be taboo.


    Jason Florio/IRIN
    Migrants rejected for asylum but unable to return home often end up homeless and dependent on charities

    Migrants like Mouhag Nyang, a 29-year-old Gambian, are completely reliant on charities to support their needs.

    Nyang, who arrived in Italy in 2014, has been living in a homeless shelter in Catania for the past two years since failing to qualify for protection. Nevertheless, he would rather stay in Italy than return home. “For me, I see Italy is better; here they give us a place to sleep. I would have nothing to go back to in Gambia. My uncle sold my family compound to travel [the backway].”

    Di Giacomo believes that helping more of these migrants to return home with at least a small amount of cash could go some way towards addressing the shame issue.

    “Nobody wants to return empty-handed,” he explained. “AVR [Assisted Voluntary Return] is trying to solve this through reintegration packages worth 1,600 euros, plus they are given 400 euros in cash at the airport in Italy, so that there is a possibility to start again when they return.”

    The EU’s action plan urges Italy to partner with IOM to increase the use of AVR and reintegration procedures. However, only one Gambian has opted to return via the programme so far this year.

    IOM is working with the Italian Ministry of the Interior to raise awareness with migrants about the opportunity to leave voluntarily with financial support, but di Giacomo is worried about a surge in demand. “We can only assist a maximum of 2,500 AVRs,” he said, adding that funding for AVR still represents only a small portion of the overall EU budget for returns.

    For Gaye, such an opportunity could go some way towards addressing a difficult homecoming. “We are all praying to go back to our homeland, but to go back without achieving nothing is going to be so hard for me,” he said.

    “My family would not agree to that, it would hurt them so much. Nobody wants to go back a loser.”

    *name changed

    (TOP PHOTO: Ebrima Gaye onboard the MOAS rescue ship 'Phoenix' as he waited to disembark at the port of Pozzallo in July 2016. Jason Florio/IRIN)


    The production of this article has received funding from the Migration Media Award, funded by the EU. The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

    Gambians in crosshairs of EU migrant return drive
  • Italy’s migrant reception system is breaking

    Italy’s migrant reception system is buckling under the pressure of record arrivals and ill-thought-out reforms that are leaving asylum seekers with no access to state healthcare and choking those trying to help with red tape, an IRIN investigation reveals.


    Irregular migration by sea from Libya to Italy has been overwhelming state institutions and personnel even before peak arrivals begin mid-summer. So far this year, Italy has received 19 percent more people than during the same period in 2016, itself a record-breaking year. In response, Italian officials are working to radically restructure the nation’s migrant reception system.


    The reforms have been spearheaded by the Minniti immigration decree, passed in April and named after Interior Minister Marco Minniti. The law aims to overhaul an asylum system long mired by backlogs of applications and appeals, largely by expediting court proceedings and deportations of those denied asylum.


    Key provisions include the creation of 16 new repatriation centres, the first of which is expected to open in August, adding to the nation’s existing four. The decree will also abolish secondary appeals on asylum rulings. In the past, asylum seekers were able to repeatedly appeal negative decisions on their claims, with individual court hearings taking years to process through Italy’s slow-motion bureaucracy.


    The Minniti decree is an attempt to reduce paperwork in state offices and close loopholes long exploited by irregular migrants wanting to remain in the country. But aid workers say the changes have opened up new gaps in the system, which they say remains poorly monitored and continues to underserve people with legitimate asylum claims.


    Most notably, the new system leaves migrants without access to state health services until they are issued identification documents containing ID numbers, usually four to six months after arriving. As recently as February, migrants could access free public facilities for emergency healthcare. Now, the medical costs of those without an ID number must be covered by the privately contracted reception centres hosting them.


    How is it (not) working?


    In most cases, the Italian government leases under-utilised properties such as shuttered hotels or unoccupied apartments to house migrants. The owners then hire staff or work themselves, receiving 35 euros a day per adult and 45 euros a day for each minor they accommodate. That money must now also cover private medical fees.


    Diego Cupolo/IRIN
    Three Bangladeshi migrants stand outside Hotel Circe, an abandoned building turned into a migrant reception centre, currently housing 102 migrants on the outskirts of Naples

    Flavia Calò, a psychotherapist with Doctors for Human Rights (MEDU) who treats torture victims, said cases of newly arrived mothers giving birth at the expense of cash-strapped centres have already been recorded.


    For the many migrants exposed to physical, sexual, or mental abuse during their journeys through Libya, a prolonged period without healthcare can be disastrous.


    “Just last week, we received one patient who had five teeth extracted by force in Libya,” Calò told IRIN. “This person is in need of serious, long-term medical attention… and is one example of the many migrants who carry scars from the places they have been before coming to Italy.”


    Upon arrival, migrants receive a basic health check up at the “hotspots” where they are fingerprinted and given information about filing asylum claims. At these initial landing sites, scabies treatment and emergency healthcare is administered before individuals are transferred to reception centres, usually within a few days. Conditions not treated in hotspots then become the responsibility of the reception centre operators.


    In one centre in southern Sicily, social workers speaking on condition of anonymity told IRIN they became aware of the new healthcare gap only after one of their residents was denied treatment in March. Asked how they were treating sick residents without access to the state system, one social worker pointed at a first aid box on her desk and said, “this is our health care system now.”


    As the social workers spoke, they handed bandages and antiseptic pads to a resident with chemical burns on his feet and buttocks. They said he had open wounds, several layers of skin deep, and that many new migrants arrived with such burns after sitting for prolonged periods in boats filled with a mixture of salt water, motor oil, and gasoline.


    Even when migrants are finally issued with ID documents, they face the possibility of another interruption in access to public healthcare when those documents expire after six months and must be renewed.


    Tied up in red tape


    Social workers said the system creates excessive paperwork for centre employees, who are responsible for handling renewals as well as managing individual asylum applications. In the first five months of the year, 61,800 asylum claims were filed in Italy, compared to about 40,000 during the same period in 2016, according to data from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.


    “They are completely dependent on us to handle their documents,” one employee told IRIN. “I’m a social worker. I’m supposed to take care of their personal issues, make social connections, get to know them… but I barely get to do any of that because I’m always trying to keep up with their cases, always trying to keep up with the treadmill of paperwork.”


    To further complicate matters, operating standards and administrative requirements differ from one Italian province to another, meaning the reception system is anything but uniform. While one district may require centres to provide Italian language classes and work-study programmes, others do not. Quality standards are set by municipal governments, and social workers told IRIN they depend on how involved local authorities want to get in an issue that’s not always popular at the ballot box.


    State evaluations of reception centres tend to be limited to structural integrity and a checklist of basic items, such as whether they have an adequate number of beds and working bathrooms, said Lucia Borghi, who monitors eastern Sicily for Borderline Sicilia, an Italian NGO. With the fundamental programmes for successful integration, such as Italian language classes, left unmonitored by authorities in some districts, many centres deliver only the bare necessities for day-to-day existence.


    “They have a place to eat, a place to sleep, but they don’t have ways to enter society, to find work, or learn new skills,” Borghi said. “This creates depression and boredom in many centres, where migrants have little to do with their time, aside from watching TV or surfing the internet.


    “Eventually, we see them take jobs in the black market, often in agriculture, where they become part of exploitative networks,” she added.


    Italy’s largest centre, Cara di Mineo, houses more than 3,000 migrants and often makes local headlines as a hive of criminal activity. But Borghi also highlighted smaller centres located in isolated rural areas, like Le Mole, a former hotel in southern Sicily that houses about two dozen migrants.


    “Le Mole was a hotel, so it’s nice inside. But there’s nothing there,” Borghi said. “When the place first opened, the residents wouldn’t see anyone aside from the groundskeeper for six months at a time.”


    Alessandro Penso/MSF
    Sylvester Paul, 26, from Nigeria, at a hotel converted into a reception centre in the province of Trapani

    New approaches?


    Outside of the state reception system, privately funded centres have been experimenting with alternative approaches in the management and integration of asylum seekers. A home for 30 minors and single mothers run by Mediterranean Hope in Sicily, gives new arrivals direct access to the local community and its facilities simply by being located in the centre of Scicli, a small city in the province of Ragusa.


    The centre also employs a full-time psychologist, an education expert, and a cultural mediator to help formulate programmes and activities best suited for its residents. Giovanna Scifo, project manager for the centre, which is funded by the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy, said flexibility and creativity were vital to the delicate task of integration.


    “The success of migrant centres depends on the will of employees and how motivated they are to help migrants through their first few months in our country,” Scifo said. “This is never an easy task.”


    Explaining the difference in the centre’s approach, Scifo said, “We are a home not a house.” She pointed out that the Italian word for reception, accoglienza’, has no direct English translation but generally means taking a person into one’s home and accommodating them.


    A recurring theme in discussions about Italy’s reception system and changes under the Minniti decree is criticism of the emergency mode under which authorities continue to operate. Humanitarian aid workers such as Calò, of MEDU, said lapses in migrant healthcare and burdensome paperwork were consequences of patchwork legislation that seems to have been written with limited foresight.


    “If the Italian government would stop viewing the phenomenon of migration as an emergency, we would be able to have adequate standards that are applied to everyone in the reception system,” Calò said.


    “Because we continue to pursue the dialogue of emergency, despite the many years that have passed with repeating trends, every decision is improvised from the state level to individual districts and we are left with the system you see today.”


    Officials with the Italian Ministry of Interior did not respond to IRIN’s repeated requests for comment for this report.

    (TOP PHOTO: Emmanuel, 23, from Nigeria, in his room at former hotel in Custonaci, in the province of Trapani. Alessandro Penso/MSF)



    Italy’s migrant reception system is breaking
  • Explaining the Bangladeshi migrant surge into Italy

    Seemingly out of nowhere, Bangladeshi nationals have become the second-largest group arriving in Italy behind Nigerians, on a route more commonly used by migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. This IRIN investigation from Bangladesh and Italy gets behind the rising numbers and looks at the motivations and pressures underlying this unexpected new trend.


    Several abandoned lots west of the Catania bus station in Sicily, Naheen stands on a street corner selling packets of tissues while his brother cleans car windscreens for spare change.


    Taking a break, Naheen holds out his palm. It bears a long scar, a reminder of being robbed at knifepoint as he was leaving Libya just over a week ago.


    The 24-year-old Bangladeshi paid 1,000 euros for a spot on a wooden boat, but there were other costs too. Before departing, his smugglers stripped him and his 300 fellow passengers of all their remaining valuables.


    “There were many Somalis and people from other African countries,” he recalled. “It was so dangerous. I can’t swim, but I did it because I couldn’t stay in Libya.”


    Naheen had worked as a medical assistant in a Tripoli hospital for three years. Like most of the 20,000 Bangladeshi workers still in Libya, he got the job through a recruitment agency back home. The agency arranged his visa and travel for a fee of 3,000 euros. The overseas employment of Bangladeshi contract labourers has become synonymous with exploitation and low wages, but the poor working conditions and deteriorating security situation in Libya proved more difficult than Naheen was willing to bear.


    Now in Catania, Naheen works the streets to earn money with his brother, who arrived seven months earlier. The two represent the latest shift in Europe-bound migration: a steep increase in the number of Bangladeshis arriving by boat from Libya.


    Fleeing Libya or dreaming of Europe?


    From the beginning of the year until 22 May, 5,650 Bangladeshis arrived in Italy, accounting for 11 percent of all arrivals of undocumented migrants to the country, according to the Italian Ministry of the Interior. During roughly the same period last year, just 10 Bangladeshi nationals had arrived by boat, although by the end of 2016, 7,578 had disembarked in Italy, according to Ahmad Al Rousan, who tracks migration numbers for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Italy.


    According to Al Rousan and other experts IRIN interviewed, the new arrivals from Bangladesh can be divided into two main groups.


    The first are those, like Naheen, who after working in Libya for several years, have begun to flee the country as security conditions have worsened in the past year.


    Experts estimate that between 50,000 and 80,000 Bangladeshis were working in Libya at the beginning of the civil war that ousted former dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and that only a fraction were able to flee the country in the immediate aftermath, as they struggled to secure resources or state assistance for transportation.


    The second and faster-growing group of new arrivals are Bangladeshis who travel to Tripoli via Istanbul or Dubai with the explicit goal of reaching Europe.


    Al Rousan said agencies in Bangladesh are charging migrants between $7,000 and $10,000 to facilitate the journey to Europe, the majority of which they keep for themselves. While there are no direct commercial flights from Bangladesh to Libya, non-stop flights from Istanbul to Tripoli start at about 200 euros. From Dubai, the price is roughly 500 euros.


    Once in Libya, migrants must still pay smugglers for the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, where 1,569 people have lost their lives so far this year.


    Detained en route


    Mehedi, a teenager who arrived in Sicily a few months ago, flew from Dhaka to Tripoli via Istanbul on a fake work visa issued by a Bangladeshi agency.


    When he arrived in Libya, he was met at the airport by an intermediary and taken to a safe house. From there he called his parents who, having confirmed his arrival, paid the agency 6,000 euros. But shortly afterwards, he was picked up by police in Tripoli and jailed for six months. Asked about conditions in detention, Mehedi only frowned.


    Numerous organisations, including MSF, have highlighted the appalling conditions and levels of abuse inside Libya’s migrant detention centres.


    Eventually, Mehedi was released and his family wired him over 800 euros to pay a smuggler for an Italy-bound boat. After being rescued at sea and brought to Sicily, he was sent to a state-run reception centre where he applied for asylum.


    Applications are decided on a case-by-case basis that could take years, given the volume of claims Italy is dealing with. In the meantime, those migrants who make efforts to learn Italian and integrate themselves into the local economy, are more likely to be allowed to stay.


    For now, Mehedi is staying at a privately-run shelter for young, unaccompanied migrants near Catania’s bus station. He shares his dorm room with five other Bangladeshis. Like most of his peers in Catania, he spends his days looking for work or cleaning car windscreens for an income of between five and 15 euros per day.


    “This is the only work we can find. It’s better than nothing,” said 19-year-old Jahid, squeegee in hand. Jahid also flew to Tripoli from Bangladesh via Istanbul for 7,000 euros, arriving in Sicily four months ago.


    Diego Cupolo/IRIN
    A Bangladeshi migrant cleans car windscreens near Catania Bus Station

    False promises in Dhaka


    A low-income nation with high levels of unemployment, Bangladesh has a long history of labour migration to the Gulf states, Malaysia, and Singapore.  In 2015, 7.2 million of Bangladesh’s 165 million citizens were living abroad, according to the UN. Migrant workers play an important role in the Bangladesh economy, sending home more than $15 billion in remittances last year alone.


    “Bangladeshis have been working abroad since the 1970s,” explained Benjamin Etzold, a senior researcher at the Bonn International Centre for Conversion and an expert on Bangladeshi migration.


    “It’s a normal part of life, and families in Bangladesh depend on [remittances]…. If you are young man who wants a wife and wants to raise a family… it’s almost expected that you, at some point in your career, go to another country to earn the money to do that.”


    Bangladesh’s state-run Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) licenses and regulates recruitment agencies that link prospective employees with overseas employers. In the past, such agencies have been accused of charging exorbitant fees and using tactics that often trap workers in exploitative situations.

    Mohammad Azharul Huq, additional secretary at the Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment in which BMET is located, told IRIN the government has taken numerous steps to prevent illegal migration to Libya.

    “The government is not sending people to Libya at the moment. People who are going, are going illegally,” he said. “Law enforcement agencies are working to stop human trafficking. Our ministry is also conducting some awareness programmes to make people aware about the danger of going to Libya illegally.”

    But several migrants recently returned to Dhaka told IRIN that agencies were misinforming prospective clients about conditions in Libya and the ease of reaching Italy from there.

    “Many of them do not know the condition of Libya and trust the false promises of the agency,” said Arpon Mahmud, who returned home earlier this year after nine years working in Libya. He added that the agencies avoid sending people via large airports with tight security. “Sometimes the route is Bangladesh’s Chittagong airport to India to Dubai, Turkey, and then Libya,” he said.

    Legal routes closed off

    Another trigger for the relatively sudden appearance of Bangladeshis on boats to Italy may be the end of an important legal route. In 2007, 11,000 Bangladeshi contract workers came to Italy through legal avenues, and similar numbers arrived each year until 2013, according to BMET data on overseas employment. But following a change in Italian policy, a sharp drop occurred in 2014, bringing legal arrivals down to just three by 2016.


    In recent years, Italy has attempted to limit migration flows by reducing the number of visas it issues to citizens of many countries, said Federico Fossi, a spokesman for UNHCR, which is advising the National Commission for Asylum Rights.


    “Bangladesh is no longer included among the countries for which there is a specific reservation of [visas],” Fossi wrote in an email to IRIN.


    Etzold suggested another possible pull factor: the established and growing Bangladeshi community in Italy.


    “Migration usually takes place because of networks,” he told IRIN. “[There are] probably Italians of Bangladeshi origin who help facilitate these journeys.”


    The Bangladeshi community in Italy has grown since the 1990 passage of the Martelli Law, which offered a path to citizenship for irregular migrants in the country. An estimated 100,000 Bangladeshi nationals now live in Italy and a multitude of Bangladeshi-run grocery stores and businesses can be found in Catania as well as in the capital, Rome. Between 2000 and 2010, Bangladeshis in Italy remitted nearly $1 billion, according to Bangladesh’s central bank.


    Although Britain still hosts a larger Bangladeshi community, Etzold said more migrants might now be arriving in Italy because the country still offers them “a chance to make it”.


    “It’s getting more and more difficult to get asylum in Germany,” he said. “It’s almost impossible to enter Britain… so where else to go?”


    “Another place to work”


    Standing among a crowd of tourists in front of the Colosseum in Rome, Khan, a 44-year-old from Bangladesh, watched as police on motor scooters chased Bangladeshi vendors out of the plaza. Khan himself worked as a street hawker when he came to Italy 18 years ago, but after working more jobs than he can count, he now owns a grocery store.


    He said vendors selling iced water bottles and selfie sticks at the city’s many landmarks make between 20 and 40 euros a day. It may not seem like much, but he said many of the migrants share apartments with up to 10 roommates so they can still afford to send money back home to their families.


    While IRIN was speaking to him, an officer approached Khan and asked him what he was doing.


    “Nothing, just standing here,” Khan replied, before being asked for his residence documents, which he provided.


    The officer told him to leave the area. Walking away, Khan explained that he has been a foreign labourer his entire adult life, having worked in Dubai, Qatar, and Russia, before arriving in Italy.


    On the outer edge of the Colosseum plaza, Khan passed a pair of officers who had stopped a young Bangladeshi with a plastic bag full of water bottles. The teenager claimed the bottles were all his, so the officers told him to drink them on the spot. He opened a bottle and began to chug it down until one of the officers knocked it into his face, causing him to choke and spit.


    Khan looked away from the scene without saying a word. Asked what he thought of life in Italy, he responded: “It’s another place to work.”

    [TOP PHOTO: A Bangladeshi migrant selling selfie sticks in central Rome, where police often try to deter street vendors from working in major tourist sites. Diego Cupolo/IRIN]

    *Names of migrants have been changed to protect their identities


    Additional reporting by Mushfique Wadud in Dhaka



    Explaining the Bangladeshi migrant surge into Italy
  • Italy and Germany step up measures to deter asylum seekers

    Those who thought Europe’s refugee “crisis” was over were reminded this week that tens of thousands of refugees remain stranded in Greece and the Balkans. Images of refugee tents shrouded in snow on the Greek islands have sparked outrage about the lack of adequate shelter, and scorn has been poured on the Greek government for keeping refugees in such miserable conditions. But others have pointed out that the real culprits are EU and member state policies that have closed borders and shrugged off responsibility for a more equitable distribution of the refugees arriving on Europe’s southern shores.

    Italy and Germany, along with Greece, have paid the heaviest price for the EU’s lack of solidarity. Germany has received nearly 1.2 million asylum seekers over the past two years, while Italy received 335,000 arrivals over the course of 2015 and 2016. Under increasing pressure from their electorates and with little chance of EU-wide agreement, both countries are pushing ahead with unilateral measures aimed at stemming the flow of migrants and refugees, and more rapidly returning failed asylum seekers.

    Taken in isolation such measures are unlikely to have a major impact, but in late 2015 and early 2016 we saw how the actions of one or two member states can have a knock-on effect on migration policies throughout the EU.

    Agreements with transit countries

    Sea arrivals to Italy reached a new high of 181,000 in 2016 and the pressure on the country’s reception system is immense. Italy’s new government, led by Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who took office mid-December, is wasting no time acting to deter the steady stream of smugglers’ boats setting off from Libya’s coast, even in the middle of winter.

    This week, new Interior Minister Marco Minniti was dispatched to Tripoli to broker an agreement on fighting irregular migration through the country with Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the UN-backed Government of National Accord. The GNA is one of three governments in Libya vying for power but Italy appears unwilling to wait for the emergence of a central government with which to negotiate. This week it also re-opened its embassy in Tripoli, the first Western country to do so in the two years, since conflict erupted between Libya’s rival factions.

    According to news reports, Minniti and al-Sarraj agreed to strengthen cooperation on fighting terrorism, irregular migration, and human trafficking. A statement issued by the interior ministry noted that the embassy would serve as “the principal coordination centre” for the joint efforts.

    The bilateral agreement, due to be formalised in Rome at the end of January, is not unprecedented. Under a “friendship” treaty that former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi made with the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2008, Italian ships intercepted boats carrying migrants and returned them to Libya, where those on board faced detention and deportation. As Human Rights Watch pointed out, there was no attempt to determine whether any of the migrants qualified for international protection or were victims of trafficking. In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Italy had violated international laws with its “push back” policy.

    While it seems unlikely Italy will renew that strategy, it’s still unclear what form its cooperation with Libya will take, besides supplying Libya’s coastguard with eight new patrol boats. Reportedly, one of the goals will be to boost controls at Libya’s southern border, where most migrants currently enter the country in smugglers’ vehicles originating mainly from Niger. But the GNA has limited authority in the south, where regional tribes control the main smuggling routes.


    Men in the back of a truck
    Tom Wescott/IRIN
    Migrants in the back of a smugglers' pickup truck bound for Sabha in southern Libya

    The deal may nevertheless set a precedent for other member states to strike similar agreements, or for the EU to consider a migration arrangement like the one it made last year with Turkey. Malta, which is currently holding the EU presidency, has already suggested that the EU could expand on the agreement Italy has forged with Libya.

    Ramped up detentions and deportations

    The second prong of the Italian government’s hardened approach to irregular migration is to increase the rate at which it deports migrants rejected for asylum. Before heading to Tripoli, Minniti was in Tunis to discuss a repatriation agreement that could smooth the way for Italy to more easily deport Tunisian migrants, most of whom don’t qualify for asylum. Anis Amri, who committed the attack on a Berlin Christmas market in December, had arrived in Italy from Tunisia in 2011. Both Italy, and later Germany, attempted to deport him, but Tunisia failed to issue the necessary travel documents.

    A week after Amri was shot dead by police near Milan, Italy’s police chief issued a directive urging officers to take “extraordinary action” to help deport more irregular migrants, “in an international context characterised by instability and threats”. Later, Minniti announced plans to open detention centres in every Italian region where migrants would be held prior to their forced return. Former prime minister Matteo Renzi, who stepped down in December, had given in to EU pressure to build “hotspots” to screen and fingerprint migrants, but had stopped short of detaining them. 

    In the wake of the Berlin attack, Germany is also under pressure to increase the rate at which it returns failed asylum seekers. It deported 25,000 of them in 2016 (up from 21,000 in 2015), and another 55,000 returned home voluntarily, but the figure is not enough to satisfy a public fearful of more extremist attacks and struggling to absorb hundreds of thousands of newly recognised refugees.

    German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière is pushing a plan that would make it easier to detain rejected asylum seekers considered a potential security threat, and to deport them from “repatriation centres” at airports. Starting in March, Germany also plans to restart returns of newly arrived asylum seekers to Greece, reversing the five-year EU-wide suspension of the Dublin Regulation, which requires asylum seekers to remain in the first country where they register a claim. This couldn't come at a worse time for Greece, which is already struggling to process the asylum claims of an estimated 62,000 refugees stranded by border closures in the Balkans and the EU-Turkey agreement.

    Germany has threatened to cut foreign aid to countries that don’t cooperate in accepting back deportees. There’s also renewed talk of adding Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco to Germany’s list of “safe” countries of origin. Rejected asylum applicants from “safe” countries can be fast-tracked for return, although repatriation agreements are usually necessary to actually carry out deportations.

    Despite the rhetoric from Italy and Germany, the reality is that deportations are hard to do. In a year in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government will be fighting for re-election and in which early elections in Italy are also a strong possibility, the first priority for both countries is to slow the rate of new arrivals.

    Caps on asylum seeker numbers

    Germany already saw a massive drop in arrivals in 2016 compared to 2015 (280,000 compared to 600,000), but that may not be enough to satisfy voters.

    Last year, Austria introduced a cap on the annual number of asylum seekers it would accept, a move widely criticised at the time as a contravention of international refugee law. But Austrian Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil is now proposing a system that would see caps imposed across the EU, in conjunction with the offshore processing of asylum applications in countries such as Niger and Jordan.

    In the past, Merkel has dismissed the idea of setting an upper limit on asylum claims, despite pressure to do so from the Christian Social Unity (CSU) party, which forms part of her coalition government. But now Merkel’s own Christian Democrat (CDU) party is proposing annual targets for numbers of asylum seekers based on the humanitarian situation in conflict zones around the world, and on Germany’s ability to absorb newcomers. The proposal stops short of setting a figure for 2017, but it suggests that Germany may now be more receptive to the Austrian plan, which will be presented at a meeting of Central European nations in February.

    2016 saw border closures and the EU-Turkey deal make it a lot harder to get into Europe, but 2017 promises to be a year in which the doors close even further on those seeking refuge and asylum.

    (TOP PHOTO: MSF vessel, Dignity 1, rescued 937 people in five different operations during one day in June 2016. Fernando Calero/MSF)


    Italy and Germany step up measures to deter asylum seekers
  • Alpine migrant route into France a dead-end for many

    Standing in the kitchen of an old ochre-coloured stone house in the Roya Valley near France’s southern border with Italy, four young men carrying backpacks are eating a hurried meal. They are smiling, but clearly anxious. On a signal from the homeowner, they leave the house and duck into two cars waiting outside. A few minutes, and kilometres, later, eight more young men emerge through some olive trees and slip down a muddy path before getting into the vehicles. The convoy zigzags along a valley road, which winds between the steep wall of a mountain and the bed of a river swollen by autumn showers.


    The 12 passengers are all Eritreans; the drivers all French. The former arrived to France covertly, without visas. The latter are risking arrest and prosecution for the smuggling of undocumented migrants.


    In the Roya Valley, convoys like these have become a regular occurrence for the past year. Surrounded by Italy to the south, east, and north, this area of the French Alps, which starts about 30 kilometres north of the Riviera, has become an entry point for migrants who have made their way north from southern Italy and then become stuck in Ventimiglia, where the border was closed in June 2015. After being pushed back from train stations and roads leading into the French Riviera, a growing number of migrants are trying to find a route through the Alps. But the journey into the valley is proving a dead-end for many.

    “They don’t understand that after Ventimiglia, they get into France, but if they continue north, they’ll end up back in Italy,” explains Nathalie Massiglia, who lives in the village of Breil-sur-Roya in the valley. A professional clown, she is part of the Roya People’s Collective, which hosts and feeds migrants who wander into the valley and then transports them to small, distant train stations so they can continue their journeys. “We have become [active] because of the circumstances,” Massiglia says. “How can you close your eyes when there are men, women, sometimes children, wandering along our roads, exhausted, lost, starving?”


    Farm camp


    No one knows how many migrants have passed through the Roya Valley, but those helping them say it’s in the thousands. “The first people came to my house about a year ago; for the past six months, it hasn’t slowed down,” says Cédric Herrou, a 37-year-old farmer who is currently facing smuggling charges. His farm, where he raises laying hens and cultivates 800 olive trees, sits just outside Breil-sur-Roya and is the first property migrants come to when they exit a railway tunnel on the winding, mountain road from Ventimiglia.


    “Every night, I go to bed wondering how many will come to me. Almost every night, my dog starts barking and I make bets with myself: three, four, 10, more?” Herrou says.


    On this wet Sunday in November, there are about 20 migrants staying at a camp Herrou has set up a few metres away from his small house. Accessible only by foot, it consists of two caravans that Herrou had delivered by helicopter last summer, five tents, a wooden shed, and a large canvas sheet to protect it from the elements. A group of young Eritreans and Sudanese are sitting around a campfire scrutinising a charred map of Europe and discussing their next move.


    Patrick Bar/IRIN
    A group of Eritrean and Sudanese migrants staying at Herrou's camp discuss their next move

    Weghe, 17, left Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, a year ago to avoid compulsory and indefinite military service, and so that he could practise his Protestant faith freely. He did stints in Sudan, Libya, and Italy before arriving at Herrou’s farm last week. “We understood quickly in Ventimiglia that the border was shut; the trains and the roads to France were watched by police,” he says. “Some migrants had tried going through four, five, six times. Every time, they were sent back to Italy. So we walked along the railway at night, for seven hours [until] we saw some light.”


    Unaccompanied minors


    Weghe had no idea that getting out of the valley would be even more difficult than getting in and that his status as an unaccompanied minor probably wouldn’t help him if he was caught.


    “We see increasing numbers of unaccompanied children arriving,” says Françoise Cotta, a local lawyer whose large house often hosts up to 10 migrants. “They are supposed to be taken in by social services, but we have evidence of children being taken back to the border.”


    She filed a complaint of child neglect against the prefect of the Alpes Maritimes department on 21 November. The department only took in 238 unaccompanied migrant children this year, compared to 1,500 in 2015, despite the increase in young migrants passing through the region in the past 12 months. Cotta views the figure as proof of a hardening of attitudes against migrants, including children.


    Patrick Bar/IRIN
    Abdallah, 15, from Sudan, was returned to Italy after being removed from a train near the French border

    Abdallah, a 15-year-old from Sudan’s Darfur region, says he was arrested on a train near the French border. “I told the police I was 15, but the officer wrote down 1997 as my birth date. I told an Arab-speaking policeman there was a mistake, but they still sent me back to Italy.” Abdallah and two friends then crossed into France on foot, following the railway line. Now he is stuck in the valley, along with dozens of other young African migrants.


    A community divided


    Police officers, and even the foreign legion, have been deployed in and around the Roya Valley. Officially, they are fighting terrorism as part of the government’s Operation Sentinel. In practice, soldiers patrol train stations and small roads, while police officers check trains and set up roadblocks, effectively sealing all exits out of the valley. “Of course we are looking for illegal migrants,” a police officer admits, checking a car boot. “We catch them every day.”


    But the migrants keep coming and winter is fast approaching in the mountains, where temperatures can plummet dangerously quickly. “Will there have to be deaths in order to get the state to take responsibility and stop putting it on our shoulders to take in these people?” asks Alain Creton. He and his partner Camille, mountain guides and farmers, often receive messages from locals asking them to take in migrants they’re afraid to host themselves.


    Patrick Bar/IRIN
    Alain Creton and his partner Camille with a group of migrants they're hosting until transport can be organised

    Not everyone feels a duty to help. On 22 September, the department voted against hosting any of the migrants removed from camps in Calais. Some local people in the Roya Valley report sightings of migrants to the police, while others are sympathetic but prefer not to get involved for fear of getting into trouble themselves.


    On 23 November, hundreds of supporters gathered in front of Nice’s criminal court, where Herrou’s case was being heard. His trial ended up being postponed until January, but another local man, Pierre-Alain Mannonis, went on trial for transporting three young, injured Eritrean women, one of them a minor. He said he acted out of a sense of duty and humanity, and the prosecutor requested a six-month suspended sentence. He could have faced up to five years in prison, as well as 30,000 euros in fines. Herrou still could.



    Alpine migrant route into France a dead-end for many
  • The problem of medieval villages and earthquakes

    In Japan and California, they’ve spent billions on state-of-the-art earthquake and tsunami preparedness schemes. In poorer countries like Nepal, Haiti, and Indonesia, they’ve resettled survivors in less quake- or flood-prone areas. But Italy presents a fairly unique challenge for earthquake engineers: how do you make historic, medieval towns and villages safer without knocking the whole lot down?

    Precariously perched along the spine of the Apennine mountain range, villages like Amatrice that were destroyed by Wednesday’s earthquake are cultural jewels, set in some of Europe’s most beautiful and unspoiled landscapes. You’re not going to stop people wanting to live there; you’re not going to prevent tourists from visiting; and the tectonic activity is unlikely to cease any time soon.

    All you can do is try to mitigate the damage, try to keep the toll as low as possible. A strict building code is clearly a good place to start, but Italy already has one of the most stringent in the world.

    In 2002, a moderate earthquake in relatively safe seismic territory – *Molise, east of Rome – led to the collapse of a primary school in the town of San Giuliano di Puglia. A teacher and 27 primary school children, including an entire year group, died. An exhaustive seismic remapping followed and a new building code was drawn up based on Europe’s existing code, but adding even tighter restrictions. It took effect in July 2009, due to public pressure following the L’Aquila earthquake that claimed more than 300 lives in April of that year.

    So why, if Italy has such a stringent building code, did so many people die – 267 and counting – in Wednesday’s earthquake, and why will people continue to be at risk the next time a similar seismic event rocks the picturesque Apennine region?

    The old and the new

    A cursory glance at the images tells you a great deal: many of the dead were sleeping in homes constructed centuries before building codes even existed.

    “The law that was enforced after 2009… it’s a code that only deals with construction and renovation,” Michele Calvi, a professor of earthquake engineering at IUSS Pavia, told IRIN. “So, [there’s] no obligation to do anything if you’re keeping the building as it is.”

    "What should be done is to create very significant incentives for people to spend money retro-fitting these buildings"

    Advances in construction and technology have resulted in modern structures that can better withstand the impact of earthquakes. But there were also reports of some modern buildings collapsing, including a hospital, a police station, and a school, raising questions about the hundreds of millions of euros allocated for seismic retro-fitting following L’Aquila.

    “Obviously the buildings weren’t all retro-fitted,” Brigitte Leoni, communications officer with the UN’s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, told IRIN. “You need to do a risk assessment and evaluate your priorities – usually the critical infrastructures like hospitals are first priority. In Italy, they’re aware of it, and compared to other countries they’re really well advanced, but they have a lot of old buildings. After 2009, this was a measure they increased [retro-fitting], but it can’t be 100 percent.”

    What can be done?

    “There is not a safe and unsafe building. It’s just what you can do to decrease the possibility of collapse,” said Calvi, explaining that different prescriptions apply to different types of structure.

    “When you’re dealing with a stone building, like most of these in this area, you can look at minor things like the connection between different floors and the walls, elimination of any structure that’s pushing against it, like arches. It’s not very expensive at all to do these things.”

    For more modern, concrete buildings, Calvi suggested the addition of diagonal ties to take care of horizontal forces, the cutting of columns, and the insertion of seismic isolation units.

    The cash-strapped Italian government doesn’t have the wherewithal to pump billions of euros into earthquake preparedness. It did commit 965 million euros over seven years to seismic prevention following L’Aquila, but this is a drop in the ocean compared to the infrastructure needs of thousands of remote, historic villages.

    Following the latest disaster, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has pledged 50 million euros for rebuilding and announced a new initiative, "Italian Homes", to bolster best practice in construction.

    Private or public responsibility?

    Given the number of these villages and their rapid depopulation, disasters like L’Aquila and Amatrice have profound cultural implications for the region.

    ICCROM, a Rome-based intergovernmental agency dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage, is liaising with Italy’s culture ministry and civil protection department to see how it can help in terms of technical assistance, crisis mapping, and rapid assessment.

    Paul Arenson, ICCROM’s manager of knowledge and communication services, pointed out the distinction between private ownership and public buildings.

    Unless somewhere is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, in which case special protection protocols apply, the onus is on the local municipality or the individual owner to ensure their properties abide by the national building code.

    Calvi said the areas hit on Wednesday were largely inhabited by elderly people on relatively low incomes or consisted of holiday homes, so there was little motivation for the owners to do anything – and it was no surprise that most of the buildings hadn’t been retro-fitted.

    “What should be done is to create very significant incentives for people to spend money retro-fitting these buildings,” he told IRIN. “In most countries, including Italy, there’s no such policy. Considering that the state pays most of the costs of rebuilding after an earthquake, it would make sense to do this. I’ve tried to recommend this many times but people aren’t interested until the earthquake comes. In a few months, no one will be interested in these issues anymore.”

    For ICCROM conservation specialist Alison Heritage, the technologies exist and the building codes, at least within Europe, are very vigorous, so it boils down to implementation and awareness.

    “Now that comes down to an issue of coordination, most probably at the level of the municipalities,” she said. “But it also really does come down to an issue of public awareness, awareness of risk, and whether or not it is necessary to have an additional seismic check taken out on your building.”

    What else can be done?

    But it’s not simply a question of improving the earthquake-resistance of buildings. This latest disaster highlighted the need for better preparation generally: from education to regular emergency evacuation drills, to having rubble-clearing equipment close by.

    “In one of the villages, the mayor was organising the search-and-rescue from a square because there was no building left that was safe enough for this purpose,” said Calvi. “Even the municipal building wasn’t safe enough. Suppose it had been raining?”

    “In places like this that are in high areas, there should be more knowledge about how many people are there,” he added.


    Italy earthquake shaker map
    How the shaking spread out across the Apennines

    Enzo Boschi, an expert in seismology at the University of Bologna, saw proof of what is needed in the Umbrian town of Norcia, which lies near the epicentre of Wednesday’s quake.

    “There was an earthquake there in 1979, which led to seismic protection being carried out on the buildings,” he told the Italian Insider. “As a result, the town was practically unscathed by last night’s quake.”

    “We are good at constructing seismic-protected buildings, but only after an earthquake occurs,” he commented.

    Calvi agreed, saying: “I think this country is relatively well-organised in terms of what to do after an earthquake. I think what needs improving is what to do before.”

    *(An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Italy's 2002 earthquake was in Modena)

    (Additional reporting by Kristy Siegfried)


    The problem of medieval villages and earthquakes
  • Cracks widen in “impossible” Italian asylum system

    Closed borders in the Balkans and the EU-Turkey deal have drastically reduced arrivals of migrants and refugees to Greece, but arrivals to Italy have continued at a similar rate to last year. The key difference is that fewer are able to move on to northern Europe, leaving Italy’s reception system buckling under the pressure and migrants paying the price.

    So far this year more than 100,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. During recent summer months, as many as 10,000 migrants have disembarked from rescue vessels in a week.

    After the chaos witnessed at the height of last year’s refugee “crisis”, the EU’s hotspot system, introduced late in 2015, was supposed to impose some order in the arrivals process. Above all, it was designed to rapidly weed out so-called economic migrants, who could be swiftly deported, from those with the right to remain and apply for international protection.

    The new approach was also designed to facilitate the relocation of asylum seekers from the overwhelmed frontline states of Italy and Greece to other EU member states that had agreed to take in 160,000 people over two years.

    But the relocation scheme has been an abject failure. By mid-July, only about 3,000 people had been relocated, and just 843 of them from Italy. In addition, many of those identified as economic migrants cannot easily be returned to their home countries due to the lack of readmission agreements.

    At the behest of the EU, all new arrivals are now fingerprinted, meaning they can’t apply for asylum in another EU country without the risk of being returned to Italy under the Dublin Regulation.

    This, combined with tighter border controls being implemented by Switzerland and France, means the number of asylum seekers in Italy’s reception system has doubled since last year, to 140,000.


    An “impossible” situation

    Yasha Maccanico, an Italian researcher for civil liberties monitoring organisation Statewatch, says Italy has been placed in an “impossible and unsustainable” position.

    “Relocation was meant to be the justification for the hotspot system, but it simply has not happened,” he told IRIN. “And no matter what effort the state makes in providing adequate reception facilities, it will not be enough to match the numbers of migrants arriving.”

    Under the hotspot approach, migrants are supposed to be identified and screened at ports by mobile teams or at one of four dedicated hotspot centres: two in Sicily, one on Lampedusa, and one on the mainland in Taranto.

    In reality, fewer than half of the new arrivals are channelled through the hotspot centres and the majority of disembarkations happen at ports outside hotspot areas. The Italian interior ministry, under pressure from the European Commission, is in the process of setting up more mobile hotspot teams, but, until these are fully implemented, the majority of migrants are being taken to other facilities for processing.

    “We know that currently at least 38 percent of all arrivals are going through those centres where the hotspot procedure is applied,” UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami told IRIN. “The rest are transferred to police stations for identification and to reception centres in other territories. In this case there is no presence of [outside] agencies.”

    Although UNHCR provides basic information to almost all migrants and refugees arriving at Italy’s ports, only those processed in the hotspot centres receive the more in-depth information and support available from teams working inside the centres. “Those who are transferred to other centres can miss this further information,” Sami said.

    “It’s very important for migrants to be provided with strong legal assistance in the centres and also at the police stations, but that is not always the case.”

    Refusal of entry

    Giulia Capitani, migration and asylum policy adviser at Oxfam Italia, is also worried about the difficulty of monitoring what happens to the migrants transferred directly to reception centres around the country for processing.

    She fears it could lead to “people being fingerprinted and rejected in a very spread-out way” that will be difficult for migrant rights groups and lawyers to respond to.

    The basis for these concerns is the widespread issuing of refusal of entry notices (“respingimento differito”) that followed the implementation of the hotspot approach.

    Between September 2015 and March this year, Oxfam Italia estimates that more than 5,000 migrants from countries with low asylum recognition rates – mainly North and West Africans – received these decrees, which give them seven days to leave from Rome airport by their own means.

    Fausto Melluso, who works for migrant support organisation Arci Palermo, says the procedure has forced thousands of migrants underground.

    “Ninety percent of people didn’t appeal the notices; there is an enormous number of people who now have to hide from the state and do what they can to survive,” he said. In Sicily, this often means they end up exploited by criminal networks through slave labour on farms or in the drugs trade.

    The battle to exercise the right to apply for international protection is only the first phase of an excruciatingly drawn-out asylum process involving requests, rejections, and appeals that can take up to two years.  “People can get very depressed in this limbo,” said Melluso. It is also part of the reason why Italy’s reception system is log-jammed.

    Fighting for change

    The Palermo University legal clinic team successfully proved that the refusal of entry notices were issued with “substantial and formal” defects.

    “Some migrants were given only very general and ineffective information on international protection. Others were not given any,” said Elena Consiglio, a researcher and lawyer on the team.

    Related stories:

    How Italy's flawed hotspots are creating thousands of "clandestini"

    What happens to teenage migrants in Sicily?

    Bye bye dreams

    A national campaign by lawyers and activists denouncing the procedure was eventually met with new guidelines from the interior ministry in May. These make it clear to immigration authorities that all migrants, regardless of their nationality, have the right to apply for international protection and to information explaining those rights.

    Sicily-based organisations working with migrants say the number of rejection notices has drastically reduced in recent months.

    But they have not disappeared entirely. Simon McMahon, a researcher from Coventry University who is in southern Italy investigating the hotspot approach, said he had heard from activists in Sicily that migrants are still receiving the orders.

    He met migrants there last October who had been transported to reception centres in isolated areas before being given return orders. “They were used as a way of getting people out of the centres to make way for new arrivals because there is a drastic lack of space,” he told IRIN.

    According to McMahon, this practice has continued as a short-term response and is bound to create long-term challenges.

    Because there is often a time lag between the orders being issued and their recipients coming to the attention of support organisations, he said it is hard to gauge the extent of the problem. “It is not clear whether these orders are being issued on a mass scale, but it appears that they are being issued on a discretionary basis… depending on the needs of the authorities at the time.”

    Oxfam is now working with partner organisations to determine how many migrants are being issued with refusal of entry orders, a process that, in their words, is creating “a new group of invisibles”.

    (TOP PHOTO: Jamal, from Somalia, arrived in Italy in May and was transferred to a reception centre where he received no information about his right to apply for asylum. Pablo Tosco/Oxfam)


    Cracks widen in “impossible” Italian asylum system
  • IS involvement in people smuggling is a red herring

    As the number of migrants and refugees arriving by boat from Libya to Italy continues to grow, the Italian government has announced it is investigating whether so-called Islamic State is profiting from people smuggling in Libya. But should the Italian government, which has a dubious record of cooperation with Libya on migration matters, be praised for raising concern about the possible link between IS and people smuggling or treated with suspicion given its interest in preventing these arrivals by sea to its territory?


    It is no secret that organised criminal groups, including the Sicilian mafia, make large amounts of money from people smuggling and trafficking. These profits actually exceed the contributions made by Western governments to address irregular migration. Cathryn Costello from Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre has estimated that smugglers’ revenues in Turkey alone last year were as much as 800 million euros, while a joint report published in May by Interpol and Europol estimated that migrant and refugee smuggling networks earned between $5 billion and $6 billion in 2015. For comparison, the entire EU Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund is 3.137 billion euros for seven years.


    Smuggling has a long history in Libya. For many marginalised southern tribes, it is their main livelihood in a part of the country where few other economic opportunities exist. The lucrative and inter-connected smuggling of drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and migrants by Tuareg tribes and the Tubu ethnic group operating in the south has been well documented by groups such as the Small Arms Survey for some years now, with the smuggling of weapons a more recent and even greater concern. Heading further north to where boats depart for Europe, there is a similar story of exploitation of migrants and refugees at the hands of people smugglers, corrupt state officials, and locals who all profit from their presence in the country. For example, coastguards are paid to look the other way when boats depart, detention centre guards are bribed to allow migrants and refugees to be released and local Libyans benefit from the informal labour of migrants and refugees who may be working to pay for their passage to Europe.


    Similar patterns of exploitation have been identified in other transit countries such as Indonesia and in Turkey, where a whole micro-economy emerged last year in coastal towns selling items such as life-jackets to migrants and refugees. This more locally oriented profiteering may be less obvious and less reported than large-scale people smuggling but it is equally entrenched and just as lucrative.

    Both these micro-economies and the people smuggling market have emerged and flourished as a direct result of increasingly restrictive asylum policies and harsh border regimes initiated by the EU and its member states. As long as there are no legal routes to Europe, people profiting from irregular migration effectively have the sole market share in this booming business.


    If meaningful resettlement pathways were opened up (not just from Libya but also from other countries along the routes from sub-Saharan Africa), or if schemes for temporary labour migration were piloted, migrants and refugees would have viable alternatives to risky and unsafe irregular migration by boat. The EU could also support Libya in establishing an immigration department that could provide migrants and refugees with access to documentation as a first step towards taking irregular migration out of the hands of militia groups and placing it under the control of the government.


    The EU-Turkey migration deal has set a dangerous precedent whereby international protection can be disregarded in order to reduce irregular boat arrivals. Italy has a history of making agreements with Libya to stop irregular migration, such as its 2008 Treaty on Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation with the Gaddafi regime. By voicing “concerns” about IS involvement it could now be paving the way for a similar migration-focused intervention. Irrespective of large-scale people smuggling, the micro-economies of smuggling in Libya and elsewhere will continue to thrive until realistic plans are implemented to regularise migration. Rather than blaming extremist groups for people smuggling, EU governments should look at the role their own policies play in boosting irregular migration and smuggling networks.

    IS involvement in people smuggling is a red herring
  • What happens to teenage migrants in Sicily?

    “The most difficult part was crossing the desert. Three days and three nights, you walk and walk and you look around and it is only desert,” recalls Musa*, 18, from Gambia. He survived the Sahara crossing only to endure forced labour and violence in Libya.


    He finally reached safety in Italy on a smuggler’s boat nearly a year ago but is still living in a temporary or “first” reception centre for unaccompanied minors in Priolo, Sicily waiting for his asylum claim to be processed. His room-mate at the centre is Amadou* who was 17 when he left his home country of Mali. He was rescued from a sinking boat in the Mediterranean and brought to Italy five months ago.


    “There is nothing to do at the centre. We spend the day on the internet and sometimes we play football. I’m trying to learn some Italian online because we don’t have classes here,” said Musa.


    Musa and Amadou should have been transferred to longer-term accommodation for unaccompanied minors known as “communità de alloggio” within two months of their arrival. At one of these shelters, they would have had access to Italian classes and education.


    But Italy received nearly 12,000 unaccompanied children in 2015 and another 7,009 crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa in the first five months of this year, more than double last year’s number during the same period.


    According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), almost nine out of 10 refugee and migrant children arriving in Italy this year were travelling alone and Italy’s capacity to host them is now under severe strain.


    “A quiet tragedy”


    “While all eyes have been focusing on Greece and the Balkans, a quiet tragedy has been unfolding in the Central Mediterranean,” said Sarah Crowe, a spokesperson with UNICEF, which earlier this month published a report “Danger Every Step of the Way” warning of the risks of abuse, exploitation and death that unaccompanied children face as they travel between North Africa and Italy.


    The reasons behind the increase are not yet clear.


    Unlike the Eastern Mediterranean route between Turkey and Greece, few families use the highly risky route through North Africa. Seventy percent of the approximately 28,000 arrivals to Italy between January and June were adult men, but there were also 7,567 children, 92 percent of whom traveled alone.


    Data from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) shows that the top nationalities for unaccompanied children arriving in Italy are Egypt, Gambia, Guinea and Ivory Coast.


    Simona Moscarelli, a legal expert with IOM in Italy, observed that a spike in arrivals from Egypt this year is mostly made up of minors. Economic and political instability in Egypt, as well as family pressure on minors to help out financially may be among the push factors. A readmission agreement between Italy and Egypt allows for the return of migrants who don’t qualify for asylum. However, according to Italian law, children can’t be returned.


    To understand the increase in minors coming from West Africa, “much greater research is needed into what is really going on, what is triggering this. We know that in the case of the Agadez route that it has been used for decades,” said Crowe of UNICEF.


    Agadez, in Niger, is a smuggling hub for migrants coming from West Africa, and heading for Europe via Libya. According to the UNICEF report, unaccompanied children using this route often use a “pay as you go” system to reimburse their smugglers which makes them particularly vulnerable to forced work. Italian social workers report that both boys and girls are sexually exploited and forced into prostitution while in Libya, and that some of the girls arrive in Italy pregnant.


    Children stuck at “hotspots”


    For those who finally make it to Italy, their hardships are far from over.


    “Italy is doing so much to save lives at sea, but the problem really begins when children get to dry land,” said Judith Sunderland from Human Rights Watch (HRW), who visited migrant reception centers in Sicily in June.


    Under pressure from the EU, Italy established four “hotspots” late last year where newly arrived migrants and refugees go through initial registration, screening and fingerprinting. They are supposed to be kept in these initial reception centres, where facilities are basic, for no more than 72 hours before being transferred to others better-equipped for longer stays.


    But the longer-term shelters for unaccompanied children in Sicily are all full and as a result, children are spending weeks or even months at the hotspots, sharing sleeping areas and facilities with adults, in violation of Italian law. A system to distribute them elsewhere in Italy is not yet legally established, unlike adult asylum seekers.


    A recent report by HRW from the Pozzallo hotspot in Sicily found that children as young as 12 were being kept for as long as a month in the overcrowded short-term reception centre. Unlike the adults, they are not allowed to leave the centre during the day. Several Eritrean girls HRW interviewed reported being constantly harassed by adult men and having little access to the psychological and medical care.


    A request by IRIN to visit the Pozzallo centre was denied by the Italian authorities, but Amadou, who spent 10 days at the Pozzallo reception centre before being transferred to the medium-term facility in Priolo, confirmed: “There were a lot of kids sleeping in the same room as adults and families. I just wanted to leave there as soon as possible.”


    Still unprepared


    The vast majority of unaccompanied minors arriving in Italy are teenage boys. Currently, over a third remain in Sicily, distributed between dozens of small shelters while a small minority are fostered and live with local volunteers.


    “For sure,  we have a problem of overcrowding at the reception centres for minors,” said Stefania Congia from the Ministry of Labour and Social Polices who is responsible for unaccompanied minors. “The government is trying to receive everybody… but the numbers are not very predictable. There’s no way of knowing if next week the wind will be good and 10,000 will arrive or 100.”


    Although it is hard to forecast exact numbers, boat crossings from North Africa have consistently peaked during the summer in recent years. Vincenzo Di Mauro, director of Educandato Regina Elena, a reception centre for unaccompanied migrant children in Catania, said Italy has little excuse for being unprepared. “If this is the sixth summer we spend in an emergency situation, there is something not working right,” he told IRIN. His centre hosts 68 children, nearly double its official capacity. Meeting the costs of hosting so many children is a struggle, especially as funding from the Ministry of the Interior to pay staff salaries has been delayed for the past 18 months.


    In an effort to address the situation, the Italian government plans to create almost 1,000 new reception places for unaccompanied minors with resources from the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF).


    *Not their real names



    Photo: Fred Abrahams/Human Rights Watch

    What happens to teenage migrants in Sicily?

Support our work

Donate now