As Italy braces for record migrant arrivals, it appeals for Europe-wide help

With boatpeople numbers set to reach 100,000 this year, Sicilian towns seek help from Rome, and EU, to provide reception 'worthy of its name'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 June, 2014, 9:23pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 July, 2014, 4:04am


With a bandana on her head and a three-month-old baby at her feet, Azeb Brahana stands in the gardens of Catania's train station in Sicily and looks a little lost as she tries to work out how to get to Rome.

The 25-year-old Eritrean and her son are among the 60,000 unofficial migrants who have arrived on Italian shores this year, an influx that looks set to break the annual record for arrivals.

More than 1,600 migrants were rescued by the Italian navy and coastguard this weekend alone, authorities said on Sunday. Underscoring the perilous nature of the journey across the Mediterranean was the discovery of about 30 bodies on a migrant boat which was stopped between Sicily and the North African coast, Italian news agencies reported yesterday, citing the navy and coastguard.

The rescuers made the gruesome discovery when they boarded a fishing boat carrying around 590 refugees and migrants to evacuate those in most distress, including two pregnant women. The immigrants apparently died of asphyxiation, the news agencies said

The number of migrant arrivals is expected to soar past the record 63,000 set in 2011 during the Arab spring uprisings.

Some experts even believe the number could reach 100,000, with warm weather encouraging migrants from north Africa, and particularly from Libya, to make the crossing.

Brahana left her country in 2012, aware, she says, that the life she wanted was not possible in a country with mandatory national service.

To get to Italy, she says, she worked for a year in Sudan and endured months in a Libyan jail, where the UN estimates thousands of refugees and migrants are being held in deplorable conditions. It was in prison that Brahana gave birth to her son, and it is because of him that she is determined to make it, finally, to a place of safety and stability. "Somewhere I can live with my baby, happy," she says. Somehow, though, despite all that she has been through, that still feels like a very distant dream.

Like the 60,000 others this year, Brahana decided to brave the Mediterranean in order to reach Italy, and therefore Europe. She paid people-smugglers US$1,600, she says, to board a boat packed with more than 300 people. "It's really hard with a small baby," she says stoically of a journey that has proved deadly for thousands over the past 20 years.

After two boating tragedies last year killed more than 400 people, Rome launched a special operation, Mare Nostrum, in which its navy sweeps the seas for people in trouble.

But Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano has called for the operation to become a European initiative amid reports that there were thousands of migrants in Libya waiting to make the trip in the next few weeks.

All along the Sicilian coastline, in port towns better known for their beaches than for refugee crises, local authorities are begging for help - from Rome, certainly, but also from Brussels. What they need, says Lillo Firetto, mayor of Porto Empedocle, is a "supranational approach" to be taken along with the UN and the EU.

Firetto, whose town has seen more than 8,000 arrivals this year, says the local council wants to provide a reception "worthy of its name" - but that is hard to do. "When, in the course of two days, 2,000 people arrive, and you're forced to send them to sports halls or other makeshift structures, it's obvious that this is not the kind of reception required," he says.

Sicilian towns from Catania on the eastern coast to Palermo in the north have been transforming sports halls, churches and other buildings into ad-hoc facilities. NGOs say the system, though well-meaning, has often proved chaotic.

Brahana's boat was intercepted by an Italian navy ship last month and all its passengers taken to safety. The question for them now is what comes next. Brahana, like many of the refugees and migrants, has not yet requested asylum and is not in the care of an official structure.

So she waits for the bus to Rome, where her aunt lives. And then?

"I don't know," she admits. "I want to work. I can't live in my country because of the government. We need help but we don't know where from."

Agence France-Presse, The Guardian