The refugee crisis: Sicily on the frontline

13 Mins read

The number of refugees arriving and living in Sicily is increasing rapidly – it’s a real emergency, and this became clear when I returned to my hometown, Messina, at the start of the summer.

Sicily is a coin with two faces: Italians are running away from their own disastrous economic situation while there are currently 78,000 migrants in the whole of Italy, 39,000 of them in temporary centres in Sicily.

Until a few months ago, the main destination ports were Lampedusa, now famous worldwide and its name linked with the image of the 366 dead bodies floating off its coast in 2013, and the second largest city on the island, Catania, where this year a boat rescued off Libya’s northern coast by a Swedish vessel was found to contain the bodies of 46 people asphyxiated in the cargo hold.

Since then, several other cities have become involved, Messina being one of them. It’s the meeting point between Sicily and the rest of the country, separated by a narrow strip of sea, right there where Odysseus almost gave up to the Sirens’ mellow voices.

[pullquote align=”right”]“I don’t hate migrants, but the Government should help us first” Messina resident[/pullquote]Since the beginning of 2015, 8,625 migrants have landed in my hometown. The Coast Guard Captain, Massimiliano Gatti, gives us a different figure when we paid him a visit, but so far the number has nearly doubled.

It is a demonstration of how history repeats itself in an endless cycle.

Sicily has been dominated since ancient times: first Greece, then the Ottoman Empire and the Bourbon Dynasty. All of them wanted a piece of the island, attracted by its strategic position in the Mediterranean.

Modern Sicilians are the descendants of different cultures and it’s ironic to think that some fear the idea of integration so much.

Immigration opens old wounds of a history they would rather put in the drawer of memory; we’ve been migrants so many times, but we pretend we don’t know what it feels like.

Gatti explained to us how the rescue process works: Most of the boats come from Libya, where smugglers have created an empire of human trafficking. The number of migrants they can fit into one boat usually ranges between 200 and 800.

There are also many unaccompanied children. Gatti points to the data, which shows that out of all the minors that arrived in Sicily since January, one third of them was travelling alone.


A group of unaccompanied minors from Egypt wait for identification after the disembarkment.

The boats usually call for help when they are still within Libyan waters; the request goes to Italy’s National Coast Guard in Rome, who locates them and chooses the most suitable port for the disembarkment.

Nationalities are various. Most of them come from Nigeria, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. But there are also Egyptians, Moroccans, Syrians and Palestinians.

I ask Gatti what happens to them once they arrive here, but he won’t give me an answer. He tells us to go to the Military Police Department, not before taking our numbers and giving us his, promising he will let us know when the next disembarkment will be.

We go to “Questura”, the Italian Central Police Department – they send us to the Prefecture but the offices are closed and they can’t give us any further help.

My friend Tania, who runs external activities for migrants, tells me that whoever wants to volunteer inside the temporary centres needs to submit an application form, which takes ages to even be considered and is often rejected.

She thinks there is a reason behind it: social workers who are called to work with migrants all come from specific organisations and their compensation is high. It’s like a closed business, hence their reluctance to let other people get involved, although the need for additional help is high and urgent.

[pullquote align=”right”]“The Government doesn’t really want to take the responsibility for all of them.”[/pullquote]I leave the bureaucracy behind me for the moment, and decide to visit a reception centre. There is one located only a ten-minute walk from my house. We go there in the evening.

Despite it only being a stone’s throw away from the urban area, the place is known for being one of the poorest.

I know that most of the citizens aren’t too happy about this arrangement: they are not against migrants, they tell me, but against the Mayor’s decision to open up the centre right here. “It’s like he wants to hide them from the rich,” one man tells me. “I don’t hate migrants, but the Government should help us first”.

“Don’t forget we’ve been migrants too,” an old man jumps in. He’s sitting right in front of his shop. “We went to New York and they used to hold us in detention like caged animals for months.”

“We went there to work though” the guy replies. “We worked hard. Look at us there now”.  That’s definitely a common argument, the whole idea that we’ve been migrants too, but better.


At the centre we have a conversation with Andrea, one of the social workers, who debunks other people’s idea that migrants are living off our money.

He says that they receive a minimum amount of money, just €2.50, out of the funds allocated by the EU for the centres. The rest goes to local cooperatives and other private companies. It’s a big investment on the territory.

Last year a recorded phone call between Salvatore Buzzi, who runs a cooperative called “29 Giugno” and one of his co-workers made the news. “Do you have any idea how much money migrants can make us?” he can be heard saying. “It’s better than drug trafficking”.

“There are so many volunteers coming here and wanting to help,” a language mediator, Aziz, says. “Those people would do that for free, but they are not allowed to because it’s not worth it.”

He also thinks that it’s all business. For instance, a local brand of bottled water supplies water for every single centre existing on the island. Same goes for food, which is provided by certain well-known restaurants and definitely not for free, and clothes.


We ask him what happens to migrants once they arrive in Italy and he explains that, contrary to popular belief, nobody forces them to live at the centre or have their fingerprints taken.

If they do give their fingerprints, they are not allowed to leave the country. If they don’t, they are free to go wherever they wish. And for most of them, Italy is not a definitive choice.

“The Government doesn’t really want to take the responsibility for all of them” he adds. “That’s why they don’t insist”.

Some of the migrants have been living in the centre for days, despite the fact that the structure should be an emergency option for no more than three nights after their arrival.

There’s too many of them, and not enough facilities.

We’re taken to the dining hall. It’s dinner time, and a group of people introduce themselves and invite us to sit at their table. I meet Uyi, from Nigeria, who is curious and asks me why we are here.

When I tell him that I study journalism in London his eyes shine. He tells me he graduated in mass communication studies in Benin City, and that he used to work at a news agency.

He also tells me about the corruption of the local press, and how the issues his country is facing are never covered in the news: between the economic crisis, Boko Haram’s attacks and a Government too weak to react, life has become dangerous.

The migrants are not really keen on the food provided: a stereotypical pasta dish and bread.

“This one is always complaining,” Andrea jokes in broken English. “Always saying I don’t like this, I don’t like that,” but it’s just good banter and the man takes it.

He doesn’t want to tell me his name, but he says they all know him as Lucky.


Nigerian refugees at the reception centre have fun taking pictures of each other.

We leave the dining hall to have a cigarette, and end up all together in the courtyard. The social workers stare at us but don’t say anything. Everyone asks us for a smoke and my pack finishes quite soon.

The presence of the camera excites them, and we end up taking pictures for the next two hours.

At some point, a Syrian family approaches us: a boy introduces himself as Baraa, and tells me he wants a group picture with me and his three siblings.

He speaks neither English nor Italian, and we have to resort to Google translate.

I learn that Baraa is 21 and his father had died five days ago at a local hospital after arriving here in extreme conditions and falling in the water during the navigation.

The rest of the family is here at the centre: his mother, his older brother with his wife and their three children. He asks me to add him on Facebook and we decide to meet again the day after.

© Sara Furlanetto I have the permission to use this image

Baraa, from Syria

Baraa is really shy. We have some breakfast in the morning and I make him try typical Sicilian pastries. He tells us that he never goes out in the city because he’s scared of getting lost and nobody has ever shown him around before.

Migrants are left to themselves. They have nowhere to go, nothing to do. I draw him a rough map of the city, so he can at least find a park not too far from the centre. In exchange, he tells me his story.

He was a law student in Damascus, but the war led him and his family to flee to Tripoli, where he was working as a waiter. After Gaddafi’s fall, Libya imploded into chaos, and the civil war forced them to cross the sea to Europe.

He has three other sisters in Syria who are married and didn’t want to leave the country. He fears for their safety.

He tells me he used to play football in the Syrian second division, and I realise he must a really good player then. Football, like everything else, has been totally destroyed by war.

While we go back to the centre, I think that this is what I find most difficult in doing journalism: there’s a line between objectivity and feelings, and it’s hard to balance them both. I feel sympathetic to the point I forget to take notes sometimes.

At the centre we meet again with Aziz. He doesn’t let us inside this time, but he seems even more curious than the day before about our intentions. I tell him I just want to collect stories, and he says we should definitely meet “the artist”.

“His name is Oseme and he’s a cartoonist,” he tells me. “A really good one. He drew everything he saw throughout his journey.”

Oseme lives in another camp, on the opposite side of the city, so Aziz and I plan to meet the next day. He also mentions a new disembarkment in a couple of hours.

We call the Coast Guard Captain and he assures us he will keep the promise and let us inside. Usually disembarkments are not open to the general public, and there are policemen at every entrance.

When we arrive at the port, I get the feeling that everyone here is used to seeing these scenes: so many people outside pass by but don’t stop and there’s no trace of local press beside a photographer and a cameraman.

There are different organisations around: The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Emergency and Save the Children, other than local health facilities and the PS (State Police).

© Sara Furlanetto I have the permission to use this image

The rescue vessel arrives, while tourists on the cruise ship stare at the scene.

The rescue vessel is coming and there are 387 people expected to be on board: 258 men, 75 women and 54 children.

The police are there to find any traffickers. I try to approach them but they just shake their heads: they can’t talk to me.

Instead, I end up talking with Giovanni, a young social worker. I find him inside a green stand with other colleagues, and he tells me they are part of an organisation called “Ahmed” which takes care of minors with no family. Giovanni explains that traffickers don’t want to take the risk anymore.

“They used to pretend they were migrants too and managed get away with it, but the police is [sic] more prepared now,” he says.

He lowers his voice. “The last four, five disembarks, none of the boats were commanded. Traffickers know they will get arrested. They just board the migrants and leave them with no directions.”

He tells me that sometimes the wrong people get arrested. “It happened before that people were held in custody and it turned out they were just refugees,” Giovanni says.

I remember a volunteer telling us that many migrants have reported cases of Italian officers talking with Libyans during the rescue operations, and that the possibility of them trying to find an agreement is not to be excluded.

“It’s probably just speculation,” Giovanni comments and then excuses himself from the conversation as a huge cruise ship arrives just a few hundreds meters away from us. The rescue vessel approaching seems tiny in comparison.


Somali women after the disembarkment are advised to stay in a group so they do not lose each other

Once they get their feet on the ground, the migrants are provided with a small bag with a sandwich, water and a box of juice. They’re all given an identification number. Some of them lay on the ground, dehydrated and in need of medical assistance.

We sit down with a group of Somali women. There are six of them, aged between 21 and 29; they are all friends and came here alone, except for one, Sameera, who brought her 15-year-old cousin with her.

Amran, 28, is the only one who speaks English. She tells me they got lost as soon as they left Libya. They’ve been travelling for a week before arriving, with little food and water.

There is a number of unaccompanied minors, 15 in all, put together in a group, and each is given a form to fill in. Unlike others, they will have to give their fingerprints.

As a language mediator explains to me, the system will take care of them until they are adults, unless they are reunited with a relative who can provide for them.

What happens after that is the synthesis of an unmanageable situation where they are all left on their own. The relations between local mafia and migrants is not really a mystery to anyone, and the chances of them running away and being sold to local crime organisations is high.

There’s a man seated on the floor who looks visibly drained of energy, with empty eyes. He senses that we’re just witnesses and asks us for a cigarette.

He introduces himself as Amir from Egypt; he’s only 19, but has been living in Libya for four years, working as a carpenter under extreme conditions. He hasn’t heard of his parents since he left home. Someone notices him and prompts him to stand up and follow the others, but he’s weak and he collapses.


Due to the long journey in the sea, migrants arrive exhausted and dehydrated.

At this point a police officer questions our presence, and makes us leave. From outside, I can still see the migrants waiting to get on the bus that will take them to the centres. It goes on for hours.

The following day, we meet “the artist”, Oseme. He’s 33, from Nigeria, and he was studying Art and Design in Benin City before deciding to leave. He tells us he didn’t feel safe in his country any more, and that some of his attempts at satire have caused him problems.

© Sara Furlanetto I have the permission to use this image

Oseme, the artist from Nigeria

He talks slowly and weighs his words carefully, struggling to find the right ones. He admits he had no idea there were so many people trying to reach Europe.

“Some of my friends left too,” he says, “but I didn’t know there were so many of us, from all around Africa. When I arrived here I realised to what extent Nigeria and other African states are cut off from the rest of the world”.

Then, he asks for a piece of paper and a pen. He says he would like to tell us his story, but he feels more confident in writing. He stops after two pages and tells us he will get it done later, so we can have it the next day.

There is no next day though, because other migrants are coming soon and the ones already at the centre are being moved to make new space.

Oseme calls us from a public phone later in the evening to let us know, and we go to the camp to meet him.

He comes out with his drawings under his arm, and his eyes shine and he lowers his voice when he talks about them, explaining how he felt the need to illustrate everything that happened to him during his journey.

There is one that shows a Nigerian woman being raped in the desert; another one testifies how they were tortured by traffickers and held in tiny rooms for days while waiting for the next boat available.

He is sharing something very personal with us and it’s hard to find the right words to say. It’s the last time we see him.


Oseme’s drawings.

A couple of days later Baraa, the Syrian boy, texts me to let me know that his father’s funeral will be held the next day. He timidly asks me to come, and gives me the number of a member of the local mosque who can explain to me where it is exactly located.

The mosque is a big old building in the suburbs, one of the few living traces of Islamic architecture in the city. We remain in a room with the women while the function is held; his mother prays for a long time.

© Sara Furlanetto I have the permission to use this image

Baraa’s mother, sister-in-law and niece watch the casket being taken away.

They share their food with us after, while Baraa’s brother is at the station accompanied with other members of the mosque to book the train tickets to Munich.

It hits me how quickly their life is going by: there’s no time to process the grief. I see a woman who’s leaving behind her dead husband’s casket in an unknown land they probably will never come back to. Her pain is unbelievable.

As winter approaches, the attempts by migrants to reach our coasts will be less frequent and the media coverage will eventually reduce to occasional updates. This island is left with the scars of another tragic summer where too many people have died in its waters.

Sicily is not the anarchic Calais: It’s a place that has the potential to make things work, but its attempts clash with the internal issues of the territory, a corrupted bureaucracy and the maladministration of public money. Migrants end up in a bizarre world that it’s difficult to escape.

Baraa and his family, despite the tragedy, are among the lucky ones. He gives me one of his bracelets before they leave. I hope they will find their way, wherever they are headed.


Images by Sara Furlanetto

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