Amid Record Waves of Refugees, Italy Finding Limits to Its Compassion

Tattered migrants arriving from Africa bring harrowing tales of escape, and new challenges for Europe.

PALERMO, Italy—On a mid-September afternoon the sun beat down on cruise ships and freighters moored in Palermo's port. In front of white canvas tents—impromptu clinics erected earlier in the day—masked medics from the Italian Red Cross, police officers, fire fighters, employees of the Dipartamento della Protezione Civile (Civil Protection Department), priests, translators, officials with the local prefecture, and journalists waited expectantly. Ambulances and water trucks stood nearby.

New arrivals—442 of them, most having embarked on a perilous Mediterranean crossing from Libya—were due any moment at the port in Sicily. They were hours late: Heavy seas had impeded their transfer from the commercial ship that had rescued them at sea to the vessels of the Italian Coast Guard.

A coast guard patrol boat finally cut the waters around an anchored freighter and came alongside, its deck jammed with women in Muslim head scarves, unshaven men young and old, and crying children. Most were barefoot and wearing soiled rags. They looked dazed and disbelieving. The stench of human filth permeated the air.

Helped by deckhands, they climbed unsteadily over the boat's orange pontoon hull onto the pier. Some had bloody feet and were barely able to walk; others were staggering from fatigue. Italian doctors offered them plastic bottles of water and rubber sandals, and helped them up the stairs to the first-aid tents on the dock.

"Quickly, water! More water!" the doctors shouted. "There are small children here! There's a pregnant woman over there!" Women medics embraced the mothers trailing children and escorted them, holding their hands, to the tents.

Don Sergio Mattaliano, a priest and director of Palermo's branch of the international Catholic relief organization Caritas, had seen such scenes here many times in recent months. "This is a hard moment—their arrival," he said. "But much harder times come when they have to assimilate into society, learn Italian, and start life over again. There is so much fear and uncertainty for them in this new world."

In fact, there is much fear and uncertainty for everyone affected by the massive exodus taking place from war- and poverty-ravaged parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. The influx has scrambled daily life in parts of Italy, and tested the compassion many Italians have felt toward immigrants.

A United Nations report published in June announced that worldwide in 2013, a record number of people—51.2 million, half of them children—had been forcibly displaced by conflict or persecution. The Syrian civil war alone has forced 2.5 million to flee abroad. The majority—33.3 million—are internally displaced in their own countries.

Many migrants are escaping poverty and, perhaps unbeknownst to them, they're landing on the shores of EU member states that are suffering through the worst economic crisis since World War II.

Boot-shaped Italy, uniquely exposed in Europe because of its long, meandering coastline and numerous islands, is often seafaring migrants' point of entry into Europe. The country leads the continent in arrivals by sea, which, in the first quarter of 2014 alone, increased by 823 percent over the same period in 2013. For many, though, Italy is a waystation to other EU countries.

By October almost 140,000 people had landed and been registered by the Italian authorities. (How many step onto Italy's shores unaccounted for, no one can say.) Most came via Libya, aboard or rescued from broken-down fishing boats piloted by human traffickers. Others began their nautical odyssey in Egypt or Tunisia.

Refugees have altered Italy's demographics. With Spain, Italy shares the European record for the greatest growth in the number of newcomers since 2000. Out of Italy's current population of 61 million, 4.9 million are immigrants. Most arrived before the current influx, from poor countries in Eastern Europe, especially Albania and Romania.

The Libyan Connection

For Italy, the crisis escalated in October 2011, with the overthrow and execution of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Previously, in 2008, then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had struck a deal with Qaddafi: Italy would, among other things, pay Libya five billion dollars as compensation for damages inflicted during the colonial period, in return for Libya's preventing migrants from leaving its coasts. Italy suspended that agreement early in 2011, but cooperation between the two countries continues.

In the interim, human trafficking—fed by conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, notably the Syrian civil war—has increased, severely straining the resources of both the Italian government and aid agencies.

Among Italians, the presence of the refugees is fueling xenophobia, fear of crime (36 percent of Italy's incarcerated are foreigners), disease, and terrorism. Some people wonder: Might there be members of al Qaeda or the Islamic State among them? Or individuals infected with the Ebola virus?

A significant number of migrants hope to move on to France, Germany, the United Kingdom, or other prosperous countries of northern Europe, as many did before. But now they find themselves trapped in Italy by reintroduced border controls. France began patrolling its southeastern frontier in 2011, and has since detained and expelled back to Italy migrants trying to enter the country without papers.

The crisis has also fueled disillusionment with, and even anger at, traditional political parties. In May, Beppe Grillo's rebel Five Star Movement, one of the most powerful parties in Italy, won 21 percent of the vote to the European Parliament—a sign that politics in the country are becoming more populist, more reactionary.

In France, anti-immigrant sentiment has propelled the far-right Front National to the top of the opinion polls. Elsewhere in Europe, xenophobic movements are gaining adherents, and demands that governments halt the influx of foreigners are becoming louder.

A Lampedusan Overload

Until the late summer of 2011, the tiny windswept island of Lampedusa (population 6,500), just 80 miles east of the Tunisian coast, was ground zero for immigration to Italy from Africa.

Migrants who evaded border patrols sailed onward to Lampedusa's rocky shores, where they could count on shelter in the Contrada Imbriacola Reception Center, essentially a detainment camp built to accommodate 850 people. With civil conflict raging in North Africa, the number held in the center quickly jumped to more than 1,300, mostly Tunisians demanding transfer to mainland Italy and resolution of their asylum claims.

Conditions in the center were terrible, and on September 20, the migrants revolted, setting fire to the premises, breaking out, and skirmishing with islanders angry about their presence. Bernardino De Rubeis, Lampedusa's mayor, likened the situation to war. "We have a population"—Italian natives of Lampedusa—"that can't stand it anymore," he told the newspaper La Repubblica. "They want to hit the streets and defend themselves on their own, armed with crowbars, because those [in the government] who were supposed to protect them have not." Lampedusa had become a byword for refugees, and the tourism industry, vital to the island, had collapsed.

By nightfall, the authorities had captured the escapees, closed the facility, and begun transferring them to prison ships or facilities elsewhere in Italy. With the closure of the reception center, attempts by migrants to reach Lampedusa diminished.

Then, in October 2013, a boat that had set out from Libya carrying more than 500 people sank just off the island's coast, with 368 lives lost. Eerie video shot by the rescue divers showed the victims' corpses strewn about the submerged vessel's deck, with one particularly heartbreaking image showing a couple locked in an eternal embrace at the bottom of the sea.

The "tragedia di Lampedusa" stirred public opinion and led to the launch of the Italian government's Operation Mare Nostrum ("our sea," in Latin). Scheduled to last one year, Mare Nostrum would save lives, as well as help apprehend the human traffickers piloting the boats.

The operation dedicated five navy vessels at any one time to patrolling between North Africa and Italy, aiming to rescue migrants early in their trans-Mediterranean voyage, before their craft had time to founder.

Lampedusans have embraced the strategy. Damiano Sferlazzo, the deputy mayor, said, "There is total surveillance of seas by radar and helicopter. Rarely does anyone get through to us without being apprehended, or saved, by Mare Nostrum."

Since October 2013, no more than five boats carrying migrants have made it to the island. Tourism has revived.

Out of Africa

For the past six months, Palermo has served as one of the migrants' first Italian ports of call. The city houses them in facilities, both public and private, that provide food, clothing, and a minimal daily allowance (about 1.5 euros, or just under two dollars). Their stories are wrenching—and strikingly similar.

At Caritas's Centro Agàpe, a halfway house on Piazza Santa Chiara in the Old City, Lamin Sawo, a 20-year-old professional soccer player from Banjul, Gambia, cited unspecified problems that prompted him to undertake his two-year journey. He began by taking buses through Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and across the Libyan desert—a five-day journey—to the coastal town of Tajura, outside Tripoli.

Sawo spent eight months in Libya, working to save money for the sea crossing to Italy. During those months he was repeatedly robbed by police, soldiers, even boys.

"Arab man bad, bad man," he told me in heavily accented English, while waiting at the halfway house for his lunch of pasta, salad, and chicken. "Even small boys robbed us. They had guns and demanded money—they could kill you for no reason at all. We had to stay hidden. Even walking around, we tried to hide."

A 24-year-old man from Sierra Leone introduced himself to me as So. He's now living in the Centro Santa Rosalia, after also making a two-year bus journey to Libya, where, he said, he was kidnapped and held for a month until he gave his captors $300.

"The Libyans all had guns," So told me in rough French. "They would beat us Africans with their rifles and smash our legs—even little boys had guns. Or they would throw stones at us. I had to spend six months working there, doing construction. I was never paid in full. I'd work and work, and in the end sometimes I was not paid or given only half. I ended up making about $50 a month."

Adam Marega, a Malian in his early 20s who was waiting in line next to So, said he'd spent two miserable months in Libya. He showed me silver-dollar-size scars on his forearms. "The Libyan police did this, burning me with cigarettes just for fun."

Blessing (her first name), a 23-year-old hairdresser I met in another Caritas center, on the outskirts of Palermo, fled Boko Haram's violence in Nigeria's Kaduna State with her husband, Festus. She lost track of him on her long, erratic journey toward the Libyan coast, much of which she passed lying under merchandise in pickup trucks to avoid discovery.

In Tripoli she found work as a servant in a Libyan home. After four months, when her boss refused to pay her and threatened to hand her over to the police, she escaped and lived on the run.

"I got so tired of boys thieving and breaking in and stealing all my things," she told me. "In Libya you have to sleep in your shoes so you can run from the police if they break in. They often beat me, and I still have scars on my back."

A Ghanaian helped Blessing find another job in Tripoli. She earned enough money to pay for Festus's passage (she'd stayed in cell phone contact with him), and they were reunited at the Caritas center.

Her eyes filled with tears. "During the Boko Haram attack in Kaduna State, I lost track of my baby. My sister has her now. I can't sleep at night, I so miss my baby."

Sea Crossing

To reach Italy, the refugees had to pay human traffickers $500 to $1,300 for a spot on a decrepit, often leaky boat. The traffickers, once paid, locked their passengers in disused buildings by the sea for days, feeding them crusts of bread and water, waiting for free boats or clear weather. Then, at night, they herded them at gunpoint out to the beach and onto the boats.

Sawo left Libya in June. "We were 115 or 120 people in the boat, with just room to stand, no more," he said. "No bathroom—you just had to go standing up. We stayed four days in the boat, waiting to be rescued, with only biscuits for food. Some people died, and they threw the bodies in the sea. The boat traveling with us sank, and only 20 survived."

So, from Sierra Leone, suffered his own ordeal. "At one in the morning," he said, "men with guns forced us out of the house, shouting, 'Hurry! Hurry!' and into a fiberglass boat, just a hull. We were 130 people. It soon sank. A hundred drowned. Some of us emptied gasoline canisters into the sea and used them as life preservers. Our skin was burning from the gasoline! It was hours before the Mare Nostrum boat came and picked us up."

Blessing also had a treacherous crossing.

"It was July 15, 2013. We were 150 people in the dark, crouched down together on the deck, sitting. But the boat broke down, and we drifted seven days at sea. Sun and heat and no water! Fifteen people died. I was so afraid, I shut my eyes. I don't know what they did with the bodies. Finally another trafficking boat came and took only the girls, us 20. We left the others and don't know what happened to them."

Festus, who took a later boat, seemed unshaken. Speaking almost matter of factly, he said, "Our boat capsized six hours into the journey. Fifty-three died, twenty-two survived. I had to swim for five hours, only in my underwear—you had to strip or drown. I prayed to God, please save me! Then the [Mare Nostrum] boat came and saved us. God listened to me!"

The High Cost of Rescues

At some nine million euros ($11.5 million) a month, Mare Nostrum has proved not only expensive but also controversial for a government facing an economic crisis and a nation angry about austerity measures cutting ever more deeply into the social welfare net.

In April 2014, the government depleted the funds allocated for the operation and appealed to the EU for more money. The EU refused, saying Italy had previously received funding and pointing to the Dublin Regulation, which puts a high priority on the migrants' country of first arrival.

Sferlazzo, Lampedusa's deputy mayor, is frustrated. "We have an economic union in Europe, not a political one. Europe needs to see this is their problem too and help out."

Though it has saved 120,000 lives, Mare Nostrum brought unintended consequences. Traffickers no longer had to deploy craft sturdy enough to safely sail from Libya to Sicily. They could cram their human cargo into wrecks that only had to make it out to international waters—12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) from shore—before sending an SOS.

In the year since last October, when Mare Nostrum began intervening, shipwrecks and starvation took the lives of more than 3,000 migrants, 700 in one week alone this past September. An additional unknown number have been murdered by traffickers. By contrast, in all of 2013, 700 migrants died trying to cross and 60,000 arrived safely in Europe.

Since Mare Nostrum began, the number of migrants arriving in Italy has more than doubled. More people to shelter means increased costs. Italy, its recession-stricken economy, can ill afford the expense.

Unemployment, a severe problem since 2008, is now nationally at 12.3 percent—a 37-year high—but in the relatively worse-off regions of the south where most immigrants land, it stands at 20.3 percent, with 56 percent of young people, those between 15 and 24 years old, out of work.

During the past three years, the number of minors (those younger than 18) living in absolute poverty has risen from 723,000 to 1.4 million, out of the country's total population living in absolute poverty of 6 million, while funds allocated to help them have been halved.

On October 9, the Italian government announced that Mare Nostrum would end, as scheduled, on Friday. As of Saturday, Frontex's Operation Triton, a much more limited rescue operation, will step in. (Frontex is the agency charged with overseeing the EU's borders.)

The Business of Altruism

Pietro Forestiere—president of the Augusta, Sicily, branch of the center-right party Fratelli d'Italia (which long opposed Mare Nostrum)—told me that "accommodating the migrants has become a big business, with hotels, food, and clothes all provided and costing a total of 35 euros a day per migrant, 45 if they're minors. This will cost Italy a billion euros in 2014."

Hosting them, he noted, is lucrative. "The actual cost is about 26 euros per day for each, which means 10 euros a day profit!"

There was, as he put it, only one conclusion to draw: "The 'emergency' will continue because it's financed as such. To pay for it, we've had to cut back disability and old-age pensions. This is unjust and hits the most vulnerable parts of our population. We're the first country to finance its own invasion!"

Augusta's prefecture has converted an abandoned school, Scuola Verdi, into a center for housing boys, who numbered 113 at the time of my visit. They were from Egypt, Mali, Gambia, Nigeria, and Bangladesh. Since April, when it opened, it has taken in 3,800 minors. Conditions are spartan: glassless windows, old mattresses and cots strewn about the floors, 8 to 14 boys crammed into a room.

Maria Carmela Librizzi, Augusta's prefect, or top official, explained that financing for Scuola Verdi comes from the town's budget, unlike other migrant-related expenditures, which usually come from the federal government's coffers. This is because Italian law mandates equal treatment of all minors, regardless of their citizenship, and places responsibility for their care on local institutions.

Librizzi, who's employed by the Ministry of the Interior, which oversees Mare Nostrum, characterized the effort as having had "a profoundly positive effect. It's been a humanitarian operation that has saved lives." She commended Sicilians for the "hospitality" they've shown the newcomers.

The boys in Scuola Verdi are free to come and go. Some pass their days begging at the entrances to supermarkets around town; others hang out in the alleys near their new home.

But officers of the carabinieri, Italy's rural police force, are stationed just outside the schoolyard to intervene in case of fights between the boys, which are frequent, and to prevent Augustans angry about the money spent on them from entering the premises to do mischief.

The anger is palpable. Thomas Granata, owner of the Palestra New Paradise Club gym, which is located in an alley beside the school, told me he's lost 40 to 50 percent of his business since April.

Though there's been no rise in crime more serious than the street fights, Granata told me that "people see the youths just hanging around outside, and they're scared. I have fathers calling and saying they think it's unsafe for their children to come here."

A couple of blocks away, Filadelfio Mituri, 57, who owns the open-air Chiosco Paradiso bar, is angry, desperate, and tired.

It took him six years to build Chiosco Paradiso.

"I'm tired of all the stress," he said. "My income has fallen, people don't want to come with all these youths hanging out nearby, and I can no longer pay my bills." Fearing financial ruin, he demanded that the state close the facility. "Look what the state is doing to me, putting this center here and destroying my livelihood. The state has abandoned me."

As Mituri and I were talking, a shouting match broke out between Augustan and Scuola Verdi youths. "I have a knife in my pocket—I'm the boss here!" a Scuola boy declared. In a good-natured way, Mituri tried to calm them down. It worked, but he was distressed. "I'm going to go chain myself to the President's Palace in Rome if they don't close this center!"

What's to Be Done?

Agnese Ciulla, councillor for youth politics at Palermo's prefecture (and thus head of its program for unaccompanied minor migrants), offers this solution: "We should throw our borders open. It makes no sense to make people take a journey lasting many months overland when they could buy a plane ticket for much less money. They will come anyway."

Francesca Parisi, the attorney for Centro Astalli, a Jesuit refugee center in Palermo, said, "We need a coordinated European policy to solve this crisis, so those searching for work can get work visas and come legally. If you have no job in three months, you have to leave. This would end all this criminal activity and trafficking."

Pietro Forestiere summarized Fratelli d'Italia's thinking: Establish processing centers along the coast of North Africa, where potential immigrants can apply for asylum to their European country of choice. That seemed like a good idea, according to Forestiere, but the issue fell victim to party politics, and the parliament rejected it.

In any case, after Mare Nostrum ends on Friday, France, Germany, and Spain will aid Italy in rescuing migrants at sea. Other countries may join, but details about the EU operation have yet to emerge. Two things are certain: Its budget will be two-thirds less than Mare Nostrum's, and boats will patrol waters no farther than 30 miles (48 kilometers) from Italy's shores.

Will the EU member states do more than help patrol Mediterranean waters? Will they join together and share Italy's immigration burden by accepting some of the refugees? That's hard to imagine, given that many European economies continue to suffer slow growth, or no growth. Some may even be sliding into a triple-dip recession, with high unemployment, demographic challenges to the solvency of their welfare states, and growing xenophobia.

European investment in the migrants' home countries, aimed at creating economic conditions that would prompt them to stay home, would be logical, but shrinking state budgets make this unlikely—to say nothing of war and other adverse conditions that discourage foreign investment.

"There's no humanitarian solution," António Guterres, head of the UN refugee agency, told the Guardian newspaper. "The solution is political, and the solution is to solve the conflicts that generate these dramatic levels of displacement."

Until that day comes, Italy's shores will swarm with refugees, and the Mediterranean will continue to claim the lives of the planet's most vulnerable.

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the author of seven books, including Angry Wind, River of No Reprieve, and Murderers in Mausoleums. Follow him on Twitter.

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