Migrant Lives

Europe’s Largest Migrant Center Is Dead End For Refugees

In the small Sicilian town Of Mineo is a sprawling facility where asylum seekers, many of whom have survived perilous journeys, live in limbo and face exploitation.

Gambian immigrant Abu Bakar at the entrance to the Mineo camp
Gambian immigrant Abu Bakar at the entrance to the Mineo camp
Ludovica Jona*

MINEO â€" Dusk sets on this town nestled in the hills of eastern Sicily, home to Europe’s largest migrant center. Once used as a base for American soldiers, the center can host up to 4,000 asylum seekers, as Italy continues to bear much of the brunt of the European migrant crisis.

Over the course of an hour, some 100 migrants can be counted streaming back in from the otherwise sleepy town on their bicycles, alone or in groups, arriving after long hours working illegally in nearby orange groves, picking fruit for just 20 euros a day. A local farmer named Paolo waits at the entrance to the center with his pick-up truck, loaded with fresh vegetables for the camp’s residents. Some of them stop to give him a high five or tell him a joke. Paolo says he used to come every day, and I would make 100-120 euros selling vegetable. But now, he says, asylum seekers are no longer granted 2.50 euros of daily pocket money. “Now the government only gives them a SIM card and cigarettes,” Paolo says.

These days the migrants hold onto every last euro to buy a bicycle they can ride to work. “Only the ones who’ve been here for at least nine months and have saved some money selling cigarettes can afford a bicycle,” says Abu Bakar, a migrant from Gambia. “They give us cigarettes even though none of us smoke.”

Gesturing toward his two friends, one from Nigeria, another from Guinea-Bissau, Bakar recalls how he came to Mineo after nearly three months on the road. He'd slept on cardboard boxes with five other people at the train station in the larger Sicilian city of Catania after a year-long journey that took him through Senegal, Mali, Niger, and Libya, before boarding a boat to make the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean.

When he arrived in Catania, exhausted and with nothing but the clothes on his back, Bakar and several other migrants were stopped by the Italian police, who gave them a notice ordering them to leave Italy within a week.

But the notice was in Italian, and after a few days living on the street, Abu Bakar was approached by a woman working for Borderline, an association that helps migrants facing expulsion.

Indefinite exploitation

The Sicilian NGO was founded by several women lawyers and cultural mediators, and partners with the UK-based NGO Oxfam to provide help to migrants reaching Sicily’s shores. “We monitor boat landings and follow migrants’ asylum requests,” says Germana Graceffo, a lawyer who works for Borderline. “We connect them to basic services like shelter and medical assistance.”

Thanks to Borderline’s appeal against his expulsion order, Abu Bakar returned to the Italian migrant welcome system and received a spot at the camp in Mineo. “If we identify individuals at risk, such as pregnant women, victims of sexual assault, unaccompanied minors, and people with mental disabilities, we refer them to the social services or other associations that can help them,” says Graceffo. “We also monitor the welcome centers, since many of them are isolated and provide little to no services or opportunities for work and integration, leaving migrants to work illegally in farms for years.”

Migrants continue to be exploited and abused for their work in the agricultural industry, even after their asylum requests have been approved. “We know of many cases where young men haven’t been paid for their work,” explains Floriana Bucca, an Oxfam employee that helps migrants through the local offices of UILA, the Italian agricultural workers’ union. “One case is a man from Burkina Faso I’m helping, he wants to go to the police but he’s afraid.”

The recently adopted system of collective mass expulsions from new immigration “hotspots” has worsened the situation for those with no documents and no right to work, leading to more exploitation of migrant workers. The irregular status of migrants makes them vulnerable to blackmail from employers. “Illegal employment of workers for low wages in the black market is common to all agricultural workers, even Italians and Sicilians, but it’s worse for foreigners,” says Nino Marino, secretary-general of UILA. “Integration is at the core of the personal, social, and professional lives (of migrants), and respecting their rights represents a social victory for them and for Sicily.”

*Jona works for Oxfam Italia

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport


Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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