African migrants risk death in the Mediterranean to come to Europe. What keeps them coming?by Ismail Einashe / April 27, 2015 / Leave a comment
Rome’s Termini Station is one of Europe’s busiest railway stations. The modernist edifice bustles with tourists, Roma children selling cigarette lighters, Bangladeshi vendors selling cheap plastic gadgets and Italians going about their daily grind. At the edge of this swirl of activity African men gather in groups or sit alone smoking. Most of them are Eritreans, Somalis or Gambians. It’s easy to ignore them. But spend a little time at Termini, and a hidden parallel world comes into view—full of stories of survival and hope.
Italy is Europe’s migrant bottleneck. The central Mediterranean migration route is deadly: in 2014, 2,447 people died trying to cross it, and so far this year has seen 1,710 deaths. Eighty six per cent of this year’s victims came from sub-Saharan Africa. Italy is barely coping with the crisis engulfing its shores. Last week 800 migrants are feared to have drowned after their boat capsized in Libyan waters, just south of Lampedusa. The International Organisation of Migration believes that if the current rate continues then the number of deaths in the Mediterranean could reach 30,000.
Many of those who make it to Europe end up marooned in places such as the Rome Termini—making endless plans to escape but always getting sent back. I spoke to Ugaas, a 21-year-old from Somalia, who is a former market-stall owner who sold shoes. He earned about $50 a month and appears to have had a decent life, but he told me that he wanted more. When he told his mother of his plans to leave, she begged him not to go. One day, without telling his family, he left with friends for Ethiopia. He tells me that “about 300 people I know have come to Europe” from his city of Hargeisa. He knew little about Europe except that his sister was in Norway. She had arrived there illegally in 2004 but has since managed to secure Norwegian citizenship. On Facebook he trawled groups where young migrants who had made it to Europe shared stories and knowledge. Inspired by them, he embarked on a dangerous journey.
In April 2013, Ugaas travelled from Ethiopia via Sudan to the Libyan border where Libyan people-smugglers lay waiting for him. They drove in a four-wheel car through the Sahara with 26-30 people per car. Ugaas says three people died from hunger or thirst en route, and that their bodies were simply thrown into the desert. At this point the smugglers demanded more money—he had to call his family, who scrambled to raise the cash. As the days passed, the smugglers tied him up and threw rocks at him screaming “where is the money?” Ugaas showed me the scars on his body.
Released by the smugglers, after three months he made it to the Libyan coast in July. He boarded an inflated boat with 75 others and was at sea for three nights. Eventually he was rescued by the Italians and he landed at Syracuse. He was fingerprinted and transferred to Rome.
The entire journey, he says, “cost my family $6,000.” They are now worse off and have had to sell their plot of land. His sister in Norway couldn’t help: she wasn’t working, and was on welfare and found it hard to send money home. But still Ugaas tried to get to Norway. “I forged an Italian passport and flew from Rome to Oslo,” he told me. But when he arrived, “they finger-printed me and found out my true identity, and they called a translator for me. For 24 hours, I slept in the immigration centre.” He was moved into inner-city Oslo housing for asylum seekers as his application was processed. “I could have run away but I felt without a passport what can I do.” After eight months the Norwegians refused his asylum application. He thought about running away, but before he could make plans, the police found him. He was sent back to Rome in May last year. For three days he slept in the airport. He’s now waiting in Rome for his residence permit but Italy gives these out only rarely.
Many of the young migrants I met at Termini Station were trying to escape chaos, violence, poverty and Islamist militants in their native countries. Abdi, a friend of Ugaas, fled the mayhem of Mogadishu and Tareke avoided enforced conscription in Eritrea—one of the harshest regimes in the world. But Ugaas was not a refugee: he came in search of the European dream. He now lives in a block for migrants on the outskirts of Rome. The city houses numerous occupied migrant buildings; some, such as the Salaam Palace, house upwards of 800. He gets food thanks to a church and he spends his days hanging round Termini Station.
His life is in limbo. He has little interest in Italy and still wants to reach Northern Europe. He told me that “those who are born in Italy are fleeing so why would I want to stay,” adding “we all want to head north, I watch TV and I see that London is beautiful, I want to see it.” He said he thinks “life is sweet in the UK…I won’t stay, I’m praying I’ll leave soon.” Still Ugaas does understand that Europe is different from what he thought it was. “I thought I would have an education, a job. I was shocked at how hard life is in Europe.”
He earns money from an informal economy that has sprung up round migrant arrivals at Termini. They operate a system for the migrants who arrive there dazed and confused: they need help with everything from buying food, accommodation and translation (there’s a premium if you speak Arabic and especially English). When migrants arrive they contact their relatives in Europe or back home who wire them money, and Ugaas and his friends benefit from this—they charge 10 or 20 euros. Sometimes they receive calls from those on boats in danger in the Med and then alert the rescuers. Whenever Ugaas gets some extra money he buys caps and sunglasses and takes selfies which he posts on Facebook. His friends back in Somalia comment: “you look beautiful in Europe. I’ll join you soon.”
Photographer: Kate Stanworth, www.katestanworth.com