Migration wave overwhelms Italy

Economic migrants from Africa and the Middle East are entering Europe via Italy in record numbers. The country is forced to rely on private aid initiatives to cope with the huge influx.
Immigrant in Sizilien

Adam dreams of a better future in Europe

Adam is only 18 years old, but incredibly tough - or naive. He sees himself as a refugee, although his home country, Ghana, is one of Africa's safest and most prosperous countries with one of the world's fastest-growing economies. But Adam prefers Lampedusa and an uncertain future far away from home, somewhere in Europe.

To reach Europe, he even risked his life several times. After a rough voyage through the Sahara desert, he had to make it through Libya, a country that, after the end of the Gadhafi regime, never regained political stability. Adam almost drowned during his boat trip through the Mediterranean towards Italy. He only survived because another passenger pulled him out of the water at the last minute.

Immigranten in Sizilien

Nigerian women in the monastery of Santa Rosalia

Now, Adam is the guest of a fisherman's family in Lampedusa, where he is learning Italian and the art of pizza baking while dreaming of a career as a politician.

Many thousands of illegal immigrants like him have arrived in Italy during the last few months. As all the camps are overfilled beyond any limits, the young migrants are being placed with families who have volunteered to take them in until they have reached adulthood.

News | 07.06.2014

This year's migration wave outnumbers even that of the spring of 2011, when 25,000 young Tunisians landed on Italy's shores. The ovens of Lampedusa are glowing day and night to provide the migrants with bread and pizza.

Fisherman Enzo Billeci moved away some of the furniture in his house to make room for mattresses on the floor. Then he went fishing to feed them. "These people are like castaways, we are obliged to take them in. That's nothing special," he said.

Lack of organization and coordination

Immigranten in Sizilien

Italians gave these young migrants from Gambia bikes

"In Italy, we are extremely hospitable," declared Giovanni Gambuzza, the manager of the overfilled Pozzallo refugee camp at the southern tip of Italy. "But our hospitality alone just isn't enough and ultimately, it creates a lot of problems for us."

He is particularly concerned about the fate of the very numerous young immigrants, as Italy's administration is not capable to deal with such an influx. "EU institutions should take care of the refugees right from the start. They are in a better position to deal with them more efficiently," he said.

Until then, various non-governmental organizations and initiatives are trying to fill the gap. The Catholic Church is also helping out by taking in immigrants from Africa and the Middle East in churches and monasteries. The San Carlo church in Palermo has been turned into a refugee camp. Up to a hundred people can sleep there until they move on to friends and relatives in other EU countries. The nearby monastery of Santa Rosalia now houses women from Nigeria.

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Fortress of hope

During the last 15 years, Franciscan monk Biago Conte has turned a former barracks behind the Palermo railway station into southern Italy's biggest camp for migrants. Among the ruins, Conte has created a gigantic canteen feeding up to 1200 people per day. The undertaking is financed through donations from the local population and, in particular, the merchants of the nearby central market.

The former barracks also houses up to 700 people. Most migrants move on after a few days, but some, not knowing where to go, stay there over long stretches of time - or even forever. The location is not ideal, but at least it provides them with food and a bed.

Government-owned camps often suffer from a lack of resources. Applicants for political asylum often need to wait for one or two years until their applications can be considered. The daily food ratio often consists of only one portion of pasta a day, so that many people even get sick. In the camp of Mineo located in the West of the Sicilian city of Catania, farmers from the surrounding region often bring in fruit and vegetables they have not been able to sell.

One of these farmers is Alessandro. He asks for a few symbolic cents for his merchandise. One of his customers is a young Somali woman who gave birth to a child right after her trip across the Mediterranean. The mother is now in dire need of vitamins, he says, before handing over some fresh produce to her.

In Trapani, on the other side of Sicily, three men are standing in front of an overfilled refugee camp that has been their home for one year. Sissao, Abdi and Issa from Gambia, all 20 to 25 years old, say they would have beome desperate already if a friendly Italian neighbor hadn't given them two bikes, enabling them to move around a bit, so that one day, they will be able to lead normal lives once again.