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Italy’s migrant purgatory

In a car park in Ravenna, you can find the young men we have encouraged to flee to Europe for a better life

20 August 2016

9:00 AM

20 August 2016

9:00 AM

 Ravenna

At a car park a short walk from Dante’s tomb, one of the gang of illegal immigrants who tell motorists where to park and hound them for cash agreed to talk to me for €20.

His name was Billy, he said, and he was 22. He was from Senegal and a Muslim. He had come to Italy by fishing boat 14 months ago from Libya, where he had arrived via Mali and Algeria. He paid €200 for the trip (the going rate is said to be at least €1,000) and his boat landed at Lampedusa, 160 nautical miles from Tripoli. ‘Why did you come?’ I asked. ‘In Senegal, no jobs,’ he replied. No war either, I pointed out: ‘You’re not refugees.’ ‘Yes, we are,’ Billy insisted. ‘Tribes are fighting in Senegal.’

Last week, this car park near Dante’s tomb became a national story when a woman police officer vented her frustration on Facebook. She had told one of the migrants to leave drivers alone, but he had refused. ‘There’s nothing you can do to stop me,’ he crowed. Her Facebook diatribe was undoubtedly racist. She now faces the sack. Billy had had nothing to do with it, he said, but he knew who had. ‘It was a Nigerian and we shouted him never come car park again. Senegalese not like Nigerians. Senegalese good people.’

I had never met a Muslim called ‘Billy’ before, so I asked him to write down his name. He couldn’t write. He spoke poor Italian, no English and — oddly for a Senegalese — no French. He makes seven or eight euros a day at the car park, he said. The police had fined him — it was unclear for what, exactly — a couple of times. Once, the fine was €400, which he had not paid. ‘No jobs, no money,’ he explained. He now lives in a rented flat with two Senegalese illegal migrant friends who, like him, work in the car park.


Most migrants, lured across the Mediterranean by the fool’s promise of a better life, aim to leave Italy as soon as possible. They want to reach a country which has better job prospects and a decent welfare system. Already this year the number of illegal migrant arrivals in Italy by sea, nearly all from Libya, has exceeded 100,000, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Most were ferried to shore by Italian and other EU naval vessels after being intercepted in rubber dinghies and fishing boats. With the high season for boat people still to come in September and October, Italy could well beat its 2014 record of 170,000 — there were 160,000 last year — especially now that the route into the EU from Turkey has become far more difficult.

During the referendum campaign in Britain, the Remain side warned that the infamous ‘Jungle’ at Calais would move across the English Channel to Dover if Britain left the European Union. But if anything, the ‘Jungle’ is moving south to Italy. In the past, migrants could move on out of Italy pretty easily because there were no border controls. But now the Schengen Agreement on free movement across EU borders has collapsed: France, Austria and Switzerland (a non-EU member) have brought back border controls at their frontiers with Italy. So now thousands of migrants are massing at Italy’s land frontiers, unable to cross them.

In Ventimiglia, migrants are camped out on the rocks next to the sea alongside the road and railway line, trying to get to France. In Como, not far from the £7.5 million palazzo belonging to George Clooney, the Holly-wood refugee champion, they sleep on the floor at the station or in parks hoping to get to Switzerland. They are trapped in Italy — God help them. The situation in Milan — gateway to the north — is so bad that a decommissioned army barracks is to become a huge migrant camp.

Over the past three years, half a million boat people have arrived in Italy, of whom only a minority can honestly be called refugees. They are mostly single men from sub-Saharan Africa and, like the car park valets from Senegal near Dante’s tomb, economic migrants. No one disputes that genuine refugees should be given sanctuary. The big question is: where? According to the Geneva Convention, a potential refugee must apply for asylum in ‘the first safe country’ reached, which in this case would mean somewhere in Africa. This never happens. No one seems to question why. The provisions of the Dublin Regulation also state that, once in the EU, a potential refugee must claim asylum in the first country reached.

But for those in search of better prospects, rather than sanctuary, Italy — where the economy is suffering and unemployment benefits are nonexistent — is a very bad bet. To get out of Italy, however, migrants must avoid claiming asylum there. Otherwise, as a result of the Dublin Regulation, they cannot subsequently claim it elsewhere.

Many of them, therefore, conceal their true identities from the Italian authorities and refuse to have their photos or fingerprints taken. Many disappear. Of the 160,000 migrants who arrived by sea last year, only half claimed asylum in Italy (mostly Nigerians, Pakistanis, Gambians and Senegalese and a few hundred Syrians). In the same year, the Italian courts issued 30,000 migrant expulsion orders, but only half that number were enforced. The whereabouts of the 80,000 boat people from 2015 who did not apply for asylum is anyone’s guess.

In the case of Billy and his friends, all three had, in fact, applied for asylum. A few months ago their applications were turned down and they were served with expulsion orders. Yet they are still in Italy, with no money, no proper job and no prospects. I had a suggestion: ‘Go to England. The government gives everyone money there.’ ‘Oh yes?’ Billy replied. ‘We’ll go now!’

Britain — unlike the EU and Germany — is right to use aid to keep refugees as near as possible to their country of origin. It costs just £2,500 to house, feed, clothe and educate one Syrian refugee for one year in Jordan, compared with more than £25,000 in an EU country. The same is surely at least as true for economic migrants who remain in their country of origin. To encourage people like ‘Billy’ to cross the Mediterranean by dinghy or fishing boat from Africa to Italy is to condemn them to purgatory.

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