The tragedy earlier this month off the coast of the island of Lampedusa, which left more than 300 dead, is a cruel reminder of the treacherous journey across the sea to Italy's southern coastlines made by so many would-be immigrants. But Italy is typically just the entry point for immigrants, a springboard for other European destinations.
AOSTA — Arop is 20 years old. He left Eritrea to avoid the mandatory army service — and to chase his dream to become a professional soccer player. “I’m good,” he says, shivering in a hospital bed in Aosta, in northern Italy. “I want to show how good I am here, in Europe, in Germany."
Arop says he left on his own, "without my family, without my friends.”
Beside him are the other nine whom he met along the way, all aged between 18 and 30, who preferred not to be named. None of them speak Italian, but a few understand English, though not much.
The group was on their way to Switzerland to find work. “Yes, we want job.” Work, and freedom: “Freedom, freedom,” they repeat. These ten Eritrean refugees only arrived in Italy 15 days ago, surviving the treacherous journey to Lampedusa that so many in recent days have not.
But the tiny Italian island was just the starting point on their long journey northwards. The young men were soon sent to Foggia in the southern region of Puglia, where they requested asylum at a reception center. Then they went north to Milan by train.
At some point on Friday night they arrived in the midsized city of Aosta, where they ran into an unlikely autumn snowstorm, while piled into an Opel Zafira minivan, the ten of them plus a driver — another locally-based Eritrean.
Shelter from storm
As they were passing through the Aosta Valley, the snow began to fall, and the vehicle's tires began to slide, forcing them to stop a few meters away from the Great St. Bernard Pass, at an altitude of 2,200 meters. To avoid running out of gas, they turned off the engine, which froze just a few minutes later. Outside it was still dark, with the snowflakes falling harder and the mercury dipping to -7ºC.
Not too far away was a building, a road inspector’s house. They forced open the door, desperate for warmth, but the house was used only for storage and had no heating.
Huddling together, they tried to keep warm and to sleep, hoping that the storm outside would subside so they could carry on with their journey. But the cold continued and the temperature stayed between -5º and -7ºC.
At 5:40 the next morning, a road worker came in and the group of immigrants panicked and ran out of the building into the dark and cold, sinking into the snow that had been falling all night. They only had sneakers on their feet; some were wearing tracksuits, others jeans, with only sweatshirts and no jackets.
An hour later, the police caught up with them. “The first thing,” a police officer recalled “was to warm them up, give them something hot to drink.” Then most were taken into custody to be identified, with two of them taken straight to the emergency room. Shivering, afraid, and exhausted, several were having trouble seeing — often a symptom of hypothermia.
The driver had lived in Switzerland for some time and officials had suspected him of illegally accompanying other Eritreans over the border. He was arrested for aiding and abbetting illegal immigration and will be tried in Aosta. The refugees, instead, spent the day in the police station.
“They have said little or nothing,” says the police officer. “They’re absolutely terrified of being sent back to Eritrea. Some of them haven’t even opened their mouths, not even to talk to each other. We thought that they might be mutes.”
After they had been identified, they were released. With Eritreans' right to request political asylum, they were free to go. Talking afterward to local journalists, they still seemed disoriented. “Milan? Is this Milan?” one asked. “No, you’re in Aosta.”
The brother of one the refugees lives in Milan — he's probably the one who put them in contact with the driver who was going to bring them to Switzerland. “Once you're in Milan, what would you like to do? Still go to Switzerland, or Germany?”
But they weren't ready yet to plan the future. “Now, Milan ...” was the only response.