Over the past decade, the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa has become one of the main points of European entry for illegal immigrants. Even though the 90-mile open sea journey from Tunisia has already killed thousands, a new wave of refugees from Syria are following the same route.
LAMPEDUSA — Two Syrian mothers with young sleeping children lie in the corridor outside the United Nations Refugee Agency and Save The Children offices. Other families are camped outside. There are improvised tents and queues to phone home for just one minute, not to mention collective prayers for closed gates to open.
Since the beginning of the year, 6,000 Syrians have arrived on Italy’s Sicilian coast. Five hundred arrived last Friday afternoon in the town of Syracuse. One woman died during the voyage. Unlike many of the sub-Saharan Africans who come here, the Syrians have no qualms about offering their fingerprints. The Africans see Italy as just a stop on their journey and have no intentions of settling here. The Syrians don’t know about the process and don’t have relatives who have done it before. They’re hoping for refugee status here.
The Syrians occupy the last wing of this refugee center, farthest away from the entrance. In the small prefab rooms there are transparent nylon sheets, flagstone floors full of empty water bottles. All those here receive a bar of soap and a toothbrush.
In the middle of it all, while pasta and fish fingers are being dished out, Salim is telling his story via his mobile phone. The social workers look on at the images of dead bodies and ruins pop on the screen. “I ran away when a sniper shot my girlfriend,” he says. “We were walking in the center of Damascus when she collapsed beside me, without saying anything. They shot her from a roof. It was then when I decided I had nothing to stay for.”
Special processing for Syrians
While Somalis and Eritreans are still stuck here in Lampedusa, the Syrians are quickly moved on to other reception centers on the main island of Sicily. In Trapani, more than 100 migrants have been placed in a municipal gym while in another town, Porto Palo, they are in the former fish market. On the east coast historic city of Syracuse, there is uncertainty about where to put them. “We need more space. In the meantime, we must try to increase the transfers to other centers,” says Giulia Foghin of the UN Refugee Agency. “It’s an important decision because more and more people are requesting refuge and asylum.” In other words, all Italian municipalities will need to be willing to accept the refugees.
So far this year, 26,000 refugees have arrived from the sea, an increasing number fleeing wars and violence. That’s twice as many as all of last year. Among them are kids like Mehari and Tesfit, who have seen more pain than most could imagine in a hundred lifetimes. “I was kidnapped,” says Tesfit. “I had to collect money from my relatives. They told me that if my family didn’t pay, they would sell my kidneys and liver and they would bury me here.” They’ve seen violence in the desert and violence in Libyan prisons.
“They’re racist, they kick you between the legs. They whip you. You aren’t worth anything to them,” says Tesfit. Unless you can buy them off. After that ordeal, $500 was enough to escape from prison and attempt the crossing to Lampedusa.
“It’s quite shocking,” says Dr. Angela Maria Callari from the refugee center. “Many of the refugees show obvious signs of torture.”
We really wanted to go into the main refugee center, but the Agrigento prefecture has recently denied all access for “reasons of security.”
Still, here you can hear the children sing babà jablì baloun, or “dad brought me a balloon.” You can see Mehari, Tesfit and the other boys playing football as summer fades. Of the 490 people here in the center, 60 of them are minors, and 30 of those are unaccompanied.
“The children leave their own countries so poor and in crisis that the rest of their families have no power to keep them there,” says psychologist Lilian Pizzi. She calls it a "parental inversion," where the children are often the ones who take charge and begin the travel process themselves.
But, then, the journey is nothing they could have imagined. "Many are unsure if they’ll write home about what they went through to get here," says Pizzi. "They feel guilty. What will they write? ‘Mom, I’m sorry. Sorry I’m here and I haven’t called you. I’m sorry I haven’t sent you money home. Forgive me, mom, if I don’t make it.’ ”