Migrants arriving to Port Augusta, Italy await Red Cross assistance as Italian police monitor in June 2015.
Credit: Valeria Fraschetti

PORT AUGUSTA, Sicily— Ramadan, the month of reflection and daytime fasting for Muslims, was underway on June 20 when a woman sheathed in a brown dress, a veil covering much of her face, stepped onto the dock from a Swedish coast guard vessel.  

She led a boy and a girl in jeans and tennis shoes, followed by a man about 40, ostensibly completing the family.

“Syrians,” murmured an Italian Red Cross worker, wearing a mask over the mouth to shield off possible germs from the recently arrived ship.

Syria’s civil war has driven professionals who once had stable lives to take the rickety boats from Tripoli,  joining African migrants who come in streams from sub-Saharan repression and poverty. According to new UN data, 137,000 people fleeing wars and poverty arrived at southern European ports in the first six months of this year — an 83 percent increase over last year. Syrians, Afghans and Eritreans represent the largest groups. 

Italian aid workers give the dazed, sea-tossed migrants bottled water and orange juice before they enter small tents for processing and medical attention, then to larger tents for transitional lodging.

Italy is ground zero in Europe’s greatest humanitarian crisis since the exodus of Jews in the 1930s.

Cettina Di Pietro (L), mayor of Augusta, and Giuseppe Schermi (R), local minister for economic affairs observe as a ship full of migrants is processed by Italian police in June 2015.

The drownings of migrants sent out on jammed boats by Libyan profiteers have become major news stories since Pope Francis visited the island of Lampedusa two years ago, and in 2014 bemoaned the Mediterranean as “a cemetery” in remarks to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. 

The pope is trying to prod the EU to adopt a humanitarian policy for the inflow of migrants. For now, negotiations among EU countries over a settlement plan have stalled. 

Prime ministers, NGOs, state agencies — even organized crime — have a stake in changing the EU’s dysfunctional policy.

By virtue of geography, Italy absorbs the most  migrants, and greater costs, under a 2003 EU covenant that said migrants must register where they land.

As of the beginning of June, 1,848 people had drowned or disappeared in the Mediterranean. Of the 137,000 who entered Europe, roughly 55,000 reached Italy, according to the International Organization of Migrants. 

Despite the influx of people fleeing wars in the Middle East, the largest group entering Italy is still black Africans. They leave as part of the booming commerce of "boat people" from war-torn Tripoli.

Italian authorities prohibit interviews of migrants at the time of arrival. Africans more typically seek asylum, officials say. Syrians head for Syrian enclaves in northern Europe, and the prospects of a skeletal support system to help them rebuild their lives.

Guards at the port towered over African men sitting on the concrete waiting for the short-term dormitory tents.

Security is tighter than several weeks ago when another rescue ship from Frontex, the EU border patrol, brought another load of lost people of whom 70 Africans bolted at the dock, making it through the gates, presumably heading north toward Rome.  

“We found this boat 145 nautical miles from Crete. We rescued 213 people,” said Swedish Coast Guard Captain Klaus Jacobsen of the Poseidon. “We don’t know how many days they were at sea. The small wooden boat took a lot of water.”

His vessel had rescued more than 600 people off of four boats in the three weeks of June.

The same morning, in a graphic sign of the schizophrenic EU policy, an AFP photo in Corriere della Sera showed a French policeman at the port of Calais, raising a club to keep seven African migrants at bay, men on the downside of a grassy hill, blocked from the English Channel tunnel.

Calais has a camp of 3,000 migrants. Sylvie Kauffmann in a New York Times op-ed wrote of a “‘jungle” of people “who in their desperation try to jump on trucks bound for Britain.”

Down in Italy, 40 miles west of Augusta, amid Sicilian fields and slopes ribboned with orange trees, just outside the town of Mineo, sit former US military apartments where the state houses some 5,000 African migrants.

Two hour after the Poseidon docked, a dry, trash-strewn ditch along the wire fence of the camp site formed a shabby sign of human warehousing. Military and police guards monitored the arrivals as young people in T-shirts of a local aid organization filed in to work. Nobody bothered to picked up the trash.

Since December, Italian authorities have arrested 81 people for extortion, money laundering, fraud and embezzlement linked to public funds for migrant needs, much of it allegedly centered in Sicily.

“Do you have any idea how much I make on the immigrants?” said an alleged ring member, Salvatore Buzzi, in wiretap transcripts quoted in the press. “Drug trafficking is not as profitable.”

An official with the government agency that oversees public bids called the 100 million-euro procedure for the Mineo center “blatantly illegal” and recently asked the the state of Catania to take the camp into temporary receivership.

African men on 72-hour passes walked the highway outside the residential camp, toting bags of oranges from hourly work in the nearby fields.

A Gambian with a sack of oranges, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that he had lived at the camp for 16 months. His petition for asylum had been denied. He said he earned 10 euro, or $11.50 for four hours’ field work, saving money for travel costs to meet with an immigration attorney in the state capital of Catania city to appeal his case.

“The camp is fine,” said the man. “You get breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The water is clean.”

Men slept four to five to a room, he said, with the women sleeping in their own quarters.

Back home, he said, the government took his land. 

“They will close you in jail or kill you. I want to stay in Italy, work in Rome or Milano, go to my house — have what you have.”

Sicily’s soft economy relies on summer tourists. Tensions occasionally flare over the migrant influx. 

The head of the railway police in Catania city, where condos overlook a beach, is under investigation for Facebook posts in which he said that migrants should be “burned alive” and “thrown into the sea.”

But behind the Catania railroad station, Father Piero Galvano, who directs a soup kitchen for Caritas, the Catholic relief service, is more sanguine. 

“Most Italians are showing generosity,” he said, referencing Sicily’s long history of assimilating disparate peoples.

Caritas serves 400 meals a day, and provides toilets, showers and medical check-ups for people in a volunteer program of 350 locals.

“The migrations are a result of European and North American politics,” said the priest. “They said they were exporting democracy but they were pursuing economic goals in Iraq and Libya. They wanted the oil. Western countries destroyed these countries. We can’t wash our hands like Pontius Pilate and turn away from the human issue for which we are responsible. We can’t just close the borders.”

He said that 162,000 migrants have residential permits in Sicily and about 16,000 are in Catania, an urban area of half a million with outlying villages. Those numbers seem sure to escalate as creaky boats leave the port of Tripoli across the warm months ahead.

Many asylum-seekers are economic migrants for whom it is much tougher to gain status than for people fleeing war or persecution.

Karamo Ceesay, 20, left Gambia three years ago. He lives in a complex with several men from Nigeria and other countries in a government-subsidized building on the outskirts of town. State social workers oversee the residential complex in amiable interactions with the men.

A hundred yards away stands a dormant crane and an unfinished apartment building.

Karamo Ceesay, 20, left Gambia three years ago. He lives in a complex with several men from Nigeria and other countries in a government-subsidized building on the outskirts of Augusta, Sicily.

Ceesay occupies the gray zone between exodus and an opaque future for thousands of people from broken countries to the south.

His mother was one of three wives to a man whose compound was rife with tensions among the many children. Several of them, in Ceesay’s telling, made his life miserable.

“I do not know the identify of my real father,” he said. “Life was very tough for me. To put my mom at ease, I separated to live with a teacher, a man from Sierra Leone, who came after their civil war. I stayed with him from age 12 to 14.”

A Muslim, Ceesay attended a Seventh-day Adventist primary school; after moving back to the polygamous compound with his mother he attended a Catholic high school.

The head man with three wives treated him with such scorn that at 17, he cleared out.

“Every man has to have his own liberty and as I got older, I could not resist the pain and sorrow,” Ceesay continued. “I wanted to live independently with happiness.”

In 2012 he left for Senegal, seeking work. He was homeless in a city called Kaolack when a market vendor let him sleep in her stall at night in exchange for helping her. After three months, scraping together money from bit work, he set out again, traveling through Mali and Niger, meeting other young men on the roads.

“‘Libya has work’ – that is what you heard from Nigerians and people from Senegal,” Ceesay said.

After a blistering, five-day desert crossing by truck he reached Sabha, in Libya, a city that has become notorious for slave labor.

“When we arrived we were kidnapped by men who said it is 500 dinar ($365) to get free,” he said. “After I resisted beatings for two days, they came to understand I had no people to call for money.”

In the afternoon light of the dining room in the residential complex at Catania, Ceesay told of picking tomatoes and onions for a landowner in Sabha, working alongside men from Niger and Nigeria.

“The man promised he would let us free after we paid him off with our work. He was a black Arab; he said the country was not safe because of the war, we were safer there. The man did not put a guard on us. The two Nigerian boys and I escaped.”

They caught a ride with a sympathetic truck driver, wedging themselves among crates of tomatoes.

In Tripoli he found work with as a day laborer, living in a room with 15 men of various nationalities, sometimes delivering cartons of Pepsi to grocery stores.

“Tripoli was not safe. Boys with guns and knives roamed the streets You can be arrested by police or bandits can collect your money or cell phone. I have a dream of being free. This is the reason for my movement.”

One of the Libyans he worked with had a brother in the Navy who told him Africans were going to Lampedusa, the Italian island south of Sicily.

He paid 300 dinars he had saved to buy a seat on the boat.

“We spent two days at sea and were rescued the third day. We were out of food and water. We reached Syracuse at midnight on Oct. 11, 2013. They took us to a warehouse with beds.”

Two weeks later he was sent to the sprawling camp at Mineo. He said he liked it there.

Given Karamo Ceesay’s transitional status in Italy, it would be hard to imagine him saying otherwise. He arrived at age 18 and after two lost years of  adolescence was glad to be a student again, including the Italian language classes.

“You have to stay ten months to apply for a refugee status commission or political asylum. In my case, it was humanitarian protection [given] for two years.”

As he got grounded in Catania, Ceesay’s self-described “journey” intersected with members of the Sant’Egidio Community, a progressive Catholic movement that embraced the cause of migrants in 2013.

On Aug. 10 of that year, Mbaye Gueye, then 21, went down to the beach with friends to greet a load of people from a rescue ship disembarking from Eritrea, Syria, Sudan and other countries.

“Six young men died when they jumped off the boat, thinking it was shallow water,” said Gueye, a philosophy student at the University of Catania, sitting in a church hall where Sant’Egidio meets.

Gueye is a first-generation Italian born of Senegalese parents. His father, who arrived in Italy on an airplane in 1985, did well as a salesman, and several years ago moved back to Senegal with his wife and two younger children. Mbaye was finishing high school and decided to stay. 

Gueye attended a memorial service in the city cemetery for the six drowning victims, which prompted his activism in Sant’Egidio’s outreach work with migrants. That is how he became friends with Karamo Ceesay. Another member of the group, Ceesay’s Italian teacher, became a mentor and friend as well.

“They didn’t see me as black and Muslim,” said Ceesay, standing on the balcony, the Mediterranean a shimmering blue horizon in afternoon light.

“They invited me to Christmas lunch in Catania with poor people in the church. The love they showed me, that I feel. It gave me courage to know, you are not alone. There will not be a day in the world when race and religion are not an issue.”

He earns 300 euro a month from the state agency that oversees his residential complex by doing translation work with other Africans, and from working odd jobs.

In September he must move again, where he is not sure. His residential status is an ongoing issue; his ties to Sant’Egidio make a difference.

“They changed my life form zero to one,” he said in the waning daylight. “I would not wish anybody to come on this journey I have been on. Life is a most precious gift. In life, when people help you, you help others. No one should be left alone.” 

Valeria Fraschetti assisted with reporting and translation. This story was produced with support from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Mary Catherine Bunting Foundation, and Dan and Sheila Daley. 


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