by Bakary Sambou
At the beginning of each year, on January 6th, Sicilians from the province of Agrigento celebrate the Christian Epiphany holiday through one of the island’s most ancient and authentic festivals. The ‘Pastorale di Nardu’, as the festival is called, has been celebrated for over 70 years in the small town of Santa Elisabetta in the Sicilian hinterlands. But over the last five years there has been a big difference, because now the town celebrates together with the refugees who are living there.
This year, festival started in the morning with the procession of a band down the main street, which the townsfolk follow and sing along with. After lunch, the crowd swelled to over 600 people. Women, children and old people cheered on the local performers in celebration of the Epiphany, the day in which Christians believe Jesus’s divinity was announced to the world. Besides the music, magicians entertain the crowds with magic tricks.
The best part of the festival is the main act, in which Nardu, the town’s traditional figure, a type of jester representing honesty to the point of ingenuity, begins to make the typical pasta with ricotta cheese in the piazza with other people from the town. Nardu wears a white mask and goes around sharing his food with a spoon, putting it in people’s mouth. Many people were scared to get close to him, especially the children, because of the way he dressed.
Unlike in Gambia, the country some of the refugees in Santa Elizabetta are from, most of the crowd stands and watches while only a few people celebrate. In Gambia however, all of the people attending celebrate together. This festival is very different from a festival in Gambia because the people are from a different culture – they wear different masks, play different music, and dance different dances.
In the last part of the Pastorale di Nardu, the acting took on a more religious tone as the village elders and the mayor start reciting Christian prayers. After the prayers, young men smoked their traditional cigarettes, and the moment of the Epiphany was reenacted. Following the reenactment of the Epiphany, the band returned accompanied by young boys in their multi-colored traditional dress, and more acting and games took place. The festival ended by 7 p.m.
Why can’t Italy normalize its migrant reception system?
Corruption and democracy create opposing interests
Almost 600,000 migrants have reached Italy by sea over the last three years, but the Italian government is still struggling to establish an adequate migrant reception system. Italy’s flagship program, the Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees (SPRAR), consists of just 649 centers hosting around 15% of asylum seekers. The majority, around 80%, stay in temporary emergency centers (CAS) notorious for inefficiency, squalor and corruption. Why is Italy unable to move migrants out of temporary centers and into its national protection system?
When migration surged in 2014, Italy gave prefects – territorial representatives of the Ministry of Interior – the emergency powers to commission CAS. Unburdened by the obligation to consult local officials and adhere to the quality and financial reporting requirements that regulate SPRAR centers, the emergency centers quickly proliferated. So too did impromptu entrepreneurs like Pasquale Cirella, a Neapolitan ex-plumber whose yearly revenue increased from €44,000 ($52,010) to €5.5m after opening various CAS between 2009 and 2014, some of which were sequestered after police found them to be nothing but empty restaurants. Far worse episodes of migrants being held in abysmal conditions and punished for asking about their asylum requests are commonplace. Salvatore Buzzi, a businessman facing 19 years in jail for involvement in one of Rome’s largest mafia scandals, succinctly summed up the scope and character of the situation in a wire-tapped conversation, asking, “Do you know how much I make off migrants? Drug trafficking is less profitable.”
Italian politicians have long spoken of phasing out CAS, which now number over 7,000 and form the de facto basis of the country’s migrant reception system. Mario Morcone, ex-chief of immigration at the Ministry of Interior, said in 2015 that if it were up to him, he would replace all of them with SPRAR centers. But the law says that establishing permanent centers requires mayoral approval and so far just over 1,000 of Italy’s 8,092 municipalities have allowed them. Although SPRAR centers are much better regulated than CAS – for example having fixed staff-to-migrant ratios to prevent overcrowding – most citizens do not know the difference between the two. Constant reports of migrant protests and fraud have made them hostile to both. Practical mayors see no reason to challenge voters’ opinions, and find it safer to lament emergency centers being forced upon them than to take responsibility for welcoming a SPRAR center. Furthermore, funds from the central government are
chronically late, often by many months, and struggling municipalities fear being stuck with the costs. Attempts by the Italian government to mollify them through financial incentives have not been effective.
As long as mayors can oppose SPRAR centers, the government will build more CAS. The Italian Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration has been pushing for legislation that would force mayors’ hands, arguing that it is counterproductive to allow emergency measures to flourish while the national protection system is held hostage to popular opinion. More SPRAR centers would mean more migrants with asylum permits, language training and job opportunities, and fewer young men disappearing into the streets. But so far, lawmakers in Rome have been more preoccupied with stopping migrants in Libya than with caring for those in Italy. The problem will have to be tackled eventually, even if seaborne migration were to stop tomorrow. The sooner the better.
ITALY REDUCES SEA MIGRATION IGNORING BIG QUESTIONS AND OPPOSITION
by Lorenzo Holt
Filippo Infantino looked around his bar near the port of Palermo, across from the pier that had once been reserved for migrant landings. Since seaborne migration to Italy declined dramatically in mid summer, the pier – and Filippo’s bar – have been mostly empty.
“During the landings we were full of police, civil workers, medics, everyone,” Infantino said. “It was great for business. Now we’re back to normal, because I guess they’ve found a way to stop them in Africa.”
Almost 600,000 mostly West African migrants have reached Italy by sea over the last four years, picked up by Italian navy, EU and NGO ships somewhere in the waters between Libya and Sicily. Upon arrival, around 40% receive some kind of humanitarian protection while the rest are given expulsion notices but remain in the country. Since the migrant crisis began in 2013, deaths and arrivals by sea have risen steadily. This year was on track to break records until a sudden drop in July and August reversed the trend.
“We’re facing growing numbers that in the long run will test our reception system,” Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said in June, before the decrease in arrivals. “The sea rescue operations have been internationalized but the reception lies with one country only… we’re under pressure and we’re asking for concrete contributions from Europeans.”
But contributions from Europeans did not concretize. The EU’s refugee relocation program, created to relieve pressure from Italy by redistributing refugees across Europe, failed to meet even a quarter of its quota. Eastern European countries like Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic refused to take any refugees at all. French President Emmanuel Macron, despite reassuring rhetoric, maintained a ban on vessels carrying migrants from docking at French ports. And Italy’s northern neighbors, like France, Switzerland and Austria, established border checkpoints to prevent migrants from crossing over.
Meanwhile, pressure on Italy kept mounting. Almost 84,000 migrants came across in the first six months of 2017 – a 20% increase compared to the same period the year before – and many more were on the way. The tipping point was reached on June 28 and 29, when a single massive wave of immigration spurred the Italian government to stop asking for help and start acting alone.
“In 36 hours, 27 ships, 13,000 migrants,” Italian Minister of Interior Marco Minniti said during a panel discussion on August 8. “It became evident in that moment that we would either progress in stopping the migrant flow or, if we continued to have arrivals of such intensity, we would risk breaking the social and democratic fabric of our country.”
Collaborating with the shaky Government of National Accord (GNA) in western Libya, Italy sent naval reinforcements to the Libyan coastguard and placed limitations on humanitarian NGOs picking up migrants at sea. Soon after, Reuters reported on a mysterious new armed group emerging in Libya to prevent migrants from leaving towards Italy.
Italy’s actions have been as successful as they’ve been controversial. Seaborne migration plummeted to around 11,000 in July from about 24,000 the month before. In August arrivals dropped to less than 4,000. Yet humanitarian organizations like the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Amnesty International point out that preventing migrants from coming to Italy exposes them to inhumane conditions in detention centers in Libya.
“It’s disconcerting to see that certain principles have been abandoned in politics,” Gianfranco Schiavone, vice-president of the Italian Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI), said. “With this block we’re risking violating codes of the Geneva convention concerning refugees. And anyway, although fewer arrivals may help lighten the reception system [in Italy] they will not transform it into a good one.”
For now, however, the drop in arrivals has made the situation at ports, aid camps, and migrant reception centers much more manageable.
“We can’t say that the situation is qualitatively better because the less migrants get here, the more are suffering in Libya,” Marco Rotunno, spokesman for UNHCR in Italy, said. “But practically speaking, if there are less people getting off the boats [in Italy] we have more time to do our jobs.”
Rotunno is part of the UNHCR’s 25 person team in Sicily working to give legal information to newly arrived migrants and to identify vulnerable ones to the Italian authorities. Fewer migrants at the landing zones makes it easier for Rotunno to speak to everyone and spot victims of human trafficking or torture, he said.
Federico Saracini, a project coordinator for Doctors without Borders (MSF) in the Italian town of Ventimiglia near the French border, also said that the impact was evident.
“No new arrivals – a few a day at most – and a constant decrease in people at the Red Cross camp, which in two weeks went from having over 500 people to around 250,” Saracini said. “At the evening meal distribution … we don’t see more than 100 people, down from 800 in previous months.”
In Sicily in particular, where most migrant land, the decrease in arrivals has relieved chronic overcrowding in migrant centers, especially those for unaccompanied minors.
Caterina Sanzone, a manager at a center for unaccompanied migrant minors in Palermo, said that her center had been at overcapacity since it opened in 2015.
“Our official capacity is 60 but this time last year we had around 270 minors,” Sanzone said. “Just a few months ago we had around 140 kids and [the prefecture] kept bringing us more.”
Sanzone’s center is technically a first-stage reception center where minors are supposed to stay for no longer than a month before being brought to specialized structures. But the lack of space elsewhere and the high numbers of arrivals meant that minors ended up staying there for years, often coming of age in the process. To cope, the center set up language classes and education programs but the high numbers made it hard to keep everyone involved. Many ran away, Sanzone said.
“Since the landings stopped we only have around 45 minors,” Sanzone said. “Everyone breathes a little easier and we can keep track of them better. Some still run away of course, and others leave when they turn 18, but nobody arrives to replace them anymore.”
A 2017 special commission by the Italian government found that there were approximately 31,635 migrant minors unaccounted for in the country. Hundreds of thousands of adults are also untraceable.
“Overcrowding in centers is only a small part of the migrant reception system’s problem,” Schiavone of ASGI said. “The problem is that Italy does not have a rational system for internally distributing migrants, and it lacks a comprehensive program for their social integration. This block in Libya is not going to fix that, but it may give a window of opportunity for reform.”
Around 80% of migrants enrolled in Italy’s reception system are held in temporary centers, called CAS, that lack national oversight and have become notorious for corruption, poor services and interminable waiting times. Efforts to establish an effective, nationally regulated system have been hampered by legal obstacles.
One West African migrant, A., arrived in Sicily at 16 and has turned 19 waiting for his documents. Although approved for humanitarian protection, bureaucratic delays have prevented him from getting his hands on the papers, he said.
“I am always grateful to Italians, they saved me at sea,” A. said. “If I get my documents, I would like to stay in Italy. I already know the language and have done middle school here. But if I cannot get my documents, I will run away. I cannot wait for nothing.”
A.’s situation is typical. He lives with ten other migrants in a temporary migrant center – simply an old apartment – in an empty town in the Sicilian countryside. He receives 45 Euro a month as “pocket money”, which he spends on phone cards and food because he does not like the meals provided by his center.
“We do not eat the food they bring,” A. said. “Every day it is the same. The rice is too hard. We leave it here and at the end of the day they come and take it to the animals.”
Migrants complaining about food in centers is common, and sometimes results in protests, which pro-migrant activists defend by pointing to cultural dietary differences, months of receiving the same dish, and instances of poor food quality. Indeed, numerous migrant centers across Italy have been flagged for bad services, including poor food, but remain open because authorities are unable to find new structures to place migrants in.
Nonetheless, the issue has been seized upon by right-wing parties whose growing popularity is threatening the ruling center-left Partito Democratico (PD). Frequent reports of migrant protests over repetitive menu items, music being played during Ramadan, or slow wi-fi have been exploited to great effect by politicians who criticize the PD for giving food and housing to “ungrateful” migrants while poor Italians wait for housing and rely on charities for their meals.
Even politicians like the PD’s Matteo Renzi, who during his time as prime minister from 2014 to December 2016 supported search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, has come out in favor of the decrease in arrivals. France, Germany and Spain have all seconded Italy’s move by pledging their support for the Libyan coastguard.
“The sudden shift in Italian policy from picking up migrants at sea to supporting processing centers in North Africa is part of the same phenomenon of established European parties trying to look tougher on migration,” Russell Foster, lecturer in European Politics at Kings College London, said.
Italian elections are due before May 2018, and the current government is unstable. Libya is more unstable, and it is unclear how long the drop in migration will hold. But as of September 8, the block has worked and only 716 migrants have reached Italy by sea.
“For the upcoming elections in Italy I think we’re going to see what we’ve seen elsewhere in Europe,” Foster said. “Renzi and other mainstream politicians are going to try and get back some voters by adopting the mannerisms and the rhetoric of the anti-immigrant right.”
WEEKLY REPORT AUG 24 REUTERS KNOWS WHY: MED MIGRATION SLOWDOWN Reuters stole the show this week with a report on August 21 by Aidan Lewis explaining that a new armed group stopping human traffickers in Libya is responsible for the decrease in seaborne migration to Italy. The article came out, funnily enough, three days after the New York Times published an article identifying the drop in migration and claiming that “nobody knows why” -- clearly they were only referring to their own staff. The Italians, no doubt a driving force behind these abrupt changes, have refrained from popping the champagne just yet. On August 15 the Interior Minister Marco Minniti, regarded as the man in charge of managing the migration crisis, spoke with measured optimism at the end of a press conference about “seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.” “Italy has approached the migrant problem with a dual track strategy, strengthening Libya's efforts to fight smuggling and at the same time putting pressure on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in rescue operations,” Minniti said according to Reuters. Although Italy has been heavily criticized for taking action on migration by the UN and aid groups, Minniti said that aid would be distributed to migrant hubs in Libya like Sabratha and Zowarah. How and how much remains to be seen. The pressure that forced various NGO ships to quit their search and rescue missions over the last two weeks has not relented. On August 17, the Libyan coast guard seized the NGO ship Golfo Azzuro for two hours in Libyan waters, ANSA reported. Other NGO ships are still operating, though at a reduced capacity. MOAS's Phoenix brought 235 migrants to Italy on August 19 according to the Times of Malta, and the MSF ship Aquarius carried over 121 to Italy the same week. However, the number are very low compared with previous months and it is reported that the Libyan coast guard has been turning back hundreds of migrants to Libya. The big question mark, now that migration has been drastically reduced, is what will happen to the hundreds of thousands of migrants waiting in Libya if they can no longer go to Italy. Having already paid for the trip to Libya, most will probably not want to go back home. Deportations do not seem like a feasible solution, although on August 18 Libya deported 135 Nigerians. Some of the migrants will certainly change routes, as was seen on August 17 when over 600 migrants were rescued off the coast of Spain. This year, Spain may see more migrant arrivals than Greece. But nobody knows what the migrants stuck in Libya will do (least of all the NYT). Meanwhile, Italy's neighbor Austria continues to show solidarity by sending 70 soldiers to block migrants at the Brenner Pass in northern Italy. In other news, the anti-immigrant ship C-Star has gone home after running out of batteries for their megaphone. Their mission was a resounding success or a humiliating failure, depending on who you talk to. That's all for this week -- I'm going to be taking a bicycle trip around Sicily in September to research the various migrant centers and informal settlements around the island, so I'm going to publish one more weekly report on August 31 and then stop for a few weeks in order to publish stories about my travels. Stay tuned! SW
WEEKLY REPORT AUG 16:
THE TIDE TURNS: ITALY BRINGS FORCE TO BEAR IN MED
[ This is the first of my weekly reports covering the migrant crisis in the central Mediterranean and international intervention in Libya. It is an exception in that it will cover the last two weeks in order to provide more background and establish the broader narrative. ]
The last months in the Mediterranean have been among the most dramatic since the migrant crisis started in 2014. Over a matter of weeks the seemingly unstoppable exodus from Libya has been reduced to less than half its volume. This article will chronicle events from August 2, 2017, when Italy ordered the NGOs picking up migrants off the coast of Libya to sign a code of conduct, to August 15, by which time most of the NGOs had ceased operations and Italian naval ships had entered Libyan waters.
When Italy proposed its NGO code of conduct on August 2, which NGOs argued threatened their neutrality and diminished the efficacy of their operations, only three of the eight operating in the Med signed it. These were Save the Children, MOAS and Proactiva Open Arms. The other five, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Sea-Watch, Sea-Eye, Jugend Rettet and SOS Mediterranee refused. If it was an attempt to call Italy’s bluff – understandable since Italy had been complaining about NGOs for years without doing anything – they miscalculated.
Italy moved quickly and on August 2 impounded the Iuventa, a small ship manned by the volunteers of the German NGO Jugend Rettet. The Iuventa had refused to sign the code and found itself boarded and sequestered by Italian authorities. An interesting article published by the Huffington Post (unfortunately only in Italian) explains the crew’s globalist ideology that involves social-engineering and the abolition of European nations’ ethnic identities.
The official motivations for the sequester vacillated between a regular search and suspicions of people smuggling, but the main objective was for the Italians to show they weren’t messing around. Their confidence renewed after squashing one of the smallest NGOs in the game, the Italians went after NGO Proactiva Open Arms, which runs the search-and-rescue ship Golfo Azzurro. On August 6, Italy denied the Golfo Azzurro entry to dock and disembark its migrants, forcing the ship to turn back to Malta where it was also denied entry. Three days of wild gesticulation followed until the Golfo Azzurro was allowed to dock in Sicily, but not without having spent some uncomfortable nights at sea and providing a useful reminder (of which there can never be too many) that Malta has been unwilling to take in any seaborne migrants during the crisis despite being a far closer “safe port” to Libya than any Italian one.
While it was harassing the NGOs, Italy simultaneously authorized a naval mission to Libya with the mission of assisting Libya’s array of coast guards/pirates in stopping migrants from setting out to sea. This caused a general hullabaloo about Libyan sovereignty and the danger of Italians re-colonizing the desert, and even attracted some impolite bomb threats from Libya’s de facto ruler of the eastern part of the country, Khalifa Haftar. But much to their credit, the Italians stuck it out and the ship remains docked at Tripoli.
Over the last few weeks the Libyan coast guard has stopped far more migrants than it used to. Over 800 were stopped and returned to Libya on August 6. The number of migrants making it into the arms of NGOs and Italian navy ships was in July was half the amount of the previous month, and so far August hasn’t seen much more than 2,000. In part, this is because the Libyans have been shooting in the air above the NGO ships straddling Libyan territorial waters, causing three of the larger NGOs – Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Save the Children and SeaEye – to call off their operations. Meanwhile, Italian prosecutors also said they were investigating MSF for picking up migrants near the Libyan coast when there was no immediate threat to their safety – an accusation that, if true, could carry charges of people smuggling.
“In general, we do not reject (NGO) presence, but we demand from them more cooperation with the state of Libya … they should show more respect to the Libyan sovereignty,” coastguard spokesman Ayoub Qassem told Reuters on Sunday, in a fit of nationalistic fervor.
Although I’ve not been able to find an actual Libyan saying it, on August 13 Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said Libya was ready to establish a search and rescue area beyond their national territorial waters. The sudden Libyan passion for delineating maritime boundaries is no doubt influenced by the Italians, who have decided to act decisively and, brushing the NGOs aside, needed assurance that the sea wouldn’t immediately fill up with migrants’ dead bodies.
And despite my sometimes flippant tone, there’s no denying that serious consideration must be given to the fate of the migrants who are turned back to Libya where, by all accounts, only suffering awaits them. There is a strong moral argument the countries that led the overthrow of Gaddafi through air raids and naval bombardment – mainly France, the UK and the US – must do something to stabilize Libya.
Of course, since the above countries washed their hands of Libya after launching their bombs in 2011, it is doubtful they will be of any help now. But their moral obligations must be pointed out anyway. In addition to my hollow rhetoric, Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said on August 8 that the UN had to get involved in Libya, which was about as resonant as a tree falling in the woods.
But things are changing fast and Italy’s die has been cast. Migrant arrivals are down, an Italian navy ship in Libya is making warlords’ trigger fingers itch, and NGO boats are being harassed and leaving the scene. The Italians are no doubt patting themselves on the back and enjoying this interlude in which migrants have stopped coming and Libyans haven’t started fighting. Is it the eye of the storm?
Italy’s distant hope is that with migrants unable to set sail, they won’t be drowning at sea and consequently fewer will travel to Libya in the first place, slowly defusing the situation.
But Libyan warlords are dependent on migrant smuggling and so far international players have done little to stop them. Nobody knows how to upset the balance without risking a full-scale war. Yet as more migrants remain in Libya and less income falls into the hands of smugglers and their patrons, it is possible that the economic readjustment will prompt someone to pull a trigger.
The claim that African migration to Europe is an unstoppable epochal phenomenon was bolstered on August 10 when a shocking video emerged of migrants landing on a beach in Spain like drunken Navy Seals. Spain saw four times its usual amount of migrant arrivals in July just as they diminished in Italy.
In lighter news, the C-Star, a boat run by young anti-immigrant Europeans with a vastly exaggerated sense of self-importance, has been having engine troubles off the coast of Libya. One of the NGO ships they despise offered to give them a hand but they declined, claiming that they had stopped in an optimal position from which to shout at migrants with their megaphone.
Until next week,
WRITE TO ME about any factual inaccuracies or gross generalizations/misrepresentations – I will correct them. As for my opinions, they are incorrigible.
“If I catch the Bonga fish, I make money, you know, and my family can eat you know,” M. said smiling, two decayed teeth marring an otherwise perfect set. “But if I don’t catch the Bonga fish, then I have a problem you know, and my family cannot eat. It is a big problem.”
M. looked at me earnestly, and I nodded.
“That’s why I come here, you know, so my family can eat. I come because I want to hustle and make some money to send to my family, you know? So they can have food to eat, for my mother and my father, you know? So I need to find some work to hustle to make some money.”
He stopped talking and his face darkened in concern. His words sounded rehearsed, like they’d been drilled into his brain since he rode across the Sahara or sat wretchedly in a Libyan prison. He’d been on the road for three years, he told me, but Libya was the hardest part.
“Blacks cannot walk free in Libya. If they see you on the street they will take you.”
He said he was regularly beaten and jailed for a year until his captors realized he couldn’t pay ransom and let him go. He lifted up his pant legs to show me his bloodied shins, one from his Maghrebi captors and the other from gasoline burns suffered during the sea-crossing.
Now that he was in Italy though, he was staying with nice people, he said.
M. and I met in front of a supermarket in Palermo where newly arrived migrants hang out. Since he’d only been in town a few days, I offered to show him around the city, and we walked to the migrant-heavy neighborhood of Ballarò where I figured he might find some English speakers and fellow countrymen. M. commented on the richness of the street markets as we strolled past stalls of sparkling seafood and olives.
We sat down on some plastic chairs outside to share an ice tea, and I soon realized he was completely ignorant of the challenges that awaited him. He did not know what an asylum request was, nor of residency or work permits, nor of the long wait for documents. His English was passable but he didn’t speak any Italian, had only done four years of school, and didn’t know how to read or write. But he was happy to be here and eager to work.
My heart sank.
There wasn’t much work here, I told him, and in any case, they weren’t handing out work permits anymore. His best shot was to apply for asylum, but with his story he was unlikely to receive it. I advised him to make something up about persecution or violence and not to tell customs officers what he had told me: that Gambia was a very nice place with friendly people that I should visit if I got the chance.
This troubled him and he replied that he was thinking about going to Germany. So I told him that the borders in the north were blocked and that the Germans were looking for people like him and that even if he did manage to cross the border it would be difficult to find work. He nodded and thanked me for the information, but I wondered how much he believed me.
We kept chatting about his life in Gambia, about how he made a living catching Bonga fish with his father, and how when his father’s eyesight deteriorated he decided to come to Europe. He missed his family, he said. The last time he had spoken to them was before boarding the boat to Italy, and they did not know if he had survived. I asked him if he wanted to use my phone.
“Ok man, no problem,” he said, barely concealing his excitement.
I brought up Skype, found Gambia’s country code, and within seconds he was talking to his father in Mandinka, his native tongue. When he put down the phone he was beaming, obviously relieved. He smiled and thanked me profusely.
Before parting ways I took him to a Jesuit charity that offers language classes, second-hand clothes and medical check-ups hoping he might learn Italian, see a doctor about his legs and get out of his boat clothes. Then we walked back to the supermarket, I gave him my number, and I wished him luck.
M. struck me as a goodhearted guy and it hurt me that his future seemed so bleak. Sicily has a youth unemployment rate of 56%, Italy’s is around 35%. Migrants race to the bottom competing for illegal, low wage work. So what is a 20-year old, illiterate, uneducated, unskilled Gambian man going to find in Italy when Italians themselves are on the ropes? I suppose it doesn’t really matter so long as it’s worth more than a Bonga fish.
After a few days in Palermo I’m able to shop on credit. I only go to the super market for brand items like Barilla because everything else I can buy on the street. Vendors, Sicilian men with faces like leather, sit beside their three-wheeled trucks displaying colorful arrays of fruits and vegetables. Five euros can get you enough produce to last a week. There’s also plenty of street food like arancine, balls of meat wrapped in rice and deep fried in a golden crust, or sfincione, a simple but delicious Palermitan bread and tomato specialty.
Seeing these guys many times a day I’ve developed a relationship impossible with cashiers in a supermarket. I’m friends with the fruit guy, the arancine guy, the fish guy, and the wine and olives guy. The advantage is that if I find myself short on cash I can bring the money next time, and maybe next time they’ll tell me to forget about it. If a pizza costs five euros and I only have four, then the price drops to four. I shop daily, picking up each meal as I feel, so I’m continuously opening and closing little debts up and down my street. The vendors are eager to over fill my bag and their approximate measuring techniques – one man still has a brass steelyard scale – always work in my favor. In exchange, I happily hand over coins that “I don’t need” or round up to the nearest euro.
Little touches like this, over time, turn mundane business transactions into personal affairs. It’s a little bit of theater that demonstrates reciprocal willingness to do a favor, to wink at the rules, to transcend from being buyers and sellers to being friends. As charming as this mentality is in the context of vegetable stands, it points to a darker side of Sicilian culture. The eagerness to make sacrifices and break rules for friends also means disregard towards strangers, civic duty, and impartial application of law. For all business in Sicily, whether public or private, it’s essential to have friends. Without them, expecting that basic services or business standards are met is a gamble.
A conversation I had with two men working in migrant reception centers illuminates the concept:
Adam was criticizing Bob* for allowing himself to be exploited by his employers. Adam said that Bob, at his boss’ request, took on responsibilities far beyond his job description and ran big legal risks. If people like Bob wouldn’t accept such demands from their bosses then the country wouldn’t be as corrupt, Adam said.
For example, at the migrant center Bob is responsible for the safety of the minors. If one of them wants to leave and go into town, Bob needs to alert his boss and get the request approved. But Bob says that there are so many requests, and such poor organization, that it’s implicit that the rules needn’t be followed. So Bob just lets the minors out. The boss is happy because he neither gets bothered with requests nor takes responsibility if something happens. Bob is happy too because he still has a job and even gets paid on time – a rarity for social workers in Sicily.
But Adam points out that if one of those minors gets hurt or in trouble, Bob is the one who will face the music. The boss can claim he didn’t know what was happening, that Bob never informed him of anything, and so Bob would be the one facing court and maybe jail. By contrast, Adam refuses to break the rules and put himself at risk and consequently has a much harder time holding on to jobs. Bob makes friends, Adam doesn’t.
The Sicilian modus operandi is personal. If you have friends the rules don’t apply, if you don’t have friends you can’t apply the rules. Regarding the migrant centers, many people have told me that without political connections it’s impossible to open a successful center. To cut costs at one migrant center, the director had his friend at a hospital prepare meals for the migrants using hospital food and deliver them by ambulance. All, of course, at the public’s expense.
The stories are so outrageous that people can’t help but laugh when they tell them. In fact, there’s often an undercurrent of admiration and envy when Sicilians tell of those who cheat, scam, or steal to game the system. There’s a sense of silent respect for those cunning enough to succeed. Of course, many Sicilians are nauseated by this attitude, but they are typically found in Germany, the UK or the US. A few proud, brave, young Sicilians have decided to remain in Sicily as an act of defiance. These people – and I’ve only met a few – look very tired.
*Not their real names
Seaborne migrant arrivals to Italy have reached 60,200 in 2017 as of May 31, according to the Italian Ministry of Interior. Arrivals in 2017 have been consistently higher than in the previous year and are on track to set an annual record, topping the 181,436 that arrived in 2016.
Arrivals rose by 26% year-on-year in May 2017 to 23,010. Except for January, each month in 2017 has seen more arrivals than the corresponding month in 2016. Higher numbers are expected in the summer months as migrants take advantage of the the better weather.
The largest number of migrants come from Nigeria (8,048), Bangladesh (6,352), Guinea (5,423), Ivory Coast (5,142), Gambia (3,654), Senegal (3,555), Morocco (3,241), Mali (2,710), Sudan (1,840), and Pakistan (1,786).
Picked up in the Mediterranean and brought to ports along Italy’s southern coasts, usually in Sicily, most migrants are then distributed among reception facilities across the country.
Lombardy, one of Italy’s northernmost and economically prosperous regions, hosts the country’s highest percentage of migrants — 13% of the total.
May 29, 2017
PALERMO — Offshore supply ship Vos Thalassa brought 1,042 migrants and seven cadavers to the port of Palermo, Italy around 13:30 yesterday, May 28. The migrants were the first to arrive in Sicily since the island’s ports were closed in occasion of the G7 summit in Taormina.
According to local newspaper La Sicilia, the ship was conducting security operations for an oil rig 40 miles off the Libyan coast when it ran into the first migrant boat. Soon after, Vos Thalassa was asked to stay in the area by the coast guard to assist other nearby migrants.
By the time I reached the port around 10:00 on Monday, May 29, there were still around 350 migrants waiting to be brought to an immigration center nearby. They were still at the port because the immigration center, where they would be properly identified and then directed to a reception facility, was at capacity.
The migrants waited around two large tents; some were sitting outside in the sun while others lay down inside on pieces of cardboard. The tents smelled strongly of urine.
All of the migrants I could see were men, most of them in their twenties or thirties and the vast majority seemed to be from sub-Saharan Africans. There was a fair number of what appeared to be Bangladeshis, and a few North African fellows. Most were silent, while a few talked in small groups. They looked exhausted but healthy, thin and muscular and upright. A medical volunteer told me that there had been fewer illnesses than expected.
Watching them were about twenty Italian police officers, a few medical and emergency personnel, and staff from the IOM, Save the Children and the UNHCR. Two buses sat idling in front of the crowd.
When I arrived there was a discussion between the policeman in charge and some of the NGO staff about which migrants were minors. From what I could understand, 62 of the migrants had claimed to be minors but only 49 were actually. Many migrants lie about their age, they said, with minors claiming that they are adults and vice versa.
Nine people were identified as minors, taken out of the crowd and loaded onto a bus, waving to their friends as they left. The discussion between the policeman and the NGO staff continued as they puzzled over 11 minors present on the list but missing among the crowd. I wonder how accurately minors can be identified without proper documents.
By law, minors who reach Italy cannot be deported and immediately become the charge of the municipality in which they arrive.
Around 1,500 migrants also arrived in Naples on the same day as these, Sunday, May 28, aboard the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) ship Vos Prudence, according to the AP.