The G7 summit in Sicily discussed aid and investment in Africa to stem the flow of refugees heading across the Mediterranean, but also brought tighter Italian maritime borders now threatening the lives of thousands. By Matthew Clayfield.

Sicily’s tide of misery

Asylum seeker Ebenezer with his prison release papers, in Catania, Sicily.
Asylum seeker Ebenezer with his prison release papers, in Catania, Sicily.

It’s early evening in Catania, Sicily, and the central station is once again thronged with African asylum seekers. Every night they come here – their meagre possessions in tow, seagulls wheeling madly overhead – to catch buses and trains to other parts of Italy, where they are to be resettled.

Some have come from the CARA Mineo asylum-seeker reception centre to the south – a former United States military base currently housing nearly 3500 people, almost twice its official capacity, making it the largest and most controversial camp in Italy – while others have made their way here from other parts of the island. Some have been waiting for weeks, others for months. But not everyone will be leaving this evening.

Kevin, 33, from Sokoto in north-western Nigeria, was released from an Italian prison four days ago after being held for 14 months on charges of people-smuggling. His cellmate Ebenezer, 35, from Lagos, was released at the same time. Ebenezer shows off his release papers proudly, but with a touch of sadness he finds hard to shake. Both men live on the streets of Catania and will be required to stay here, checking in with the police every day, for at least the next 18 months.

They fled Nigeria two years ago. A member of Nigeria’s People’s Democratic Party, Ebenezer was attacked by members of the parliamentary opposition, the All Progressives Congress, and decided that was it. He left his wife and children behind. His attackers’ machetes have left scars all over his arms and legs, grisly promissory notes to be honoured upon his return. But it’s the wound in his chest, slightly below his left shoulder where they shot him at point-blank range, that still keeps him awake at night. Kevin used to talk him through the fear in prison.

Kevin also used to work as a contractor for the US military in Nigeria, intercepting and translating messages, which was probably his first mistake. He was kidnapped, kept in the trunk of a car for more than a day, and then given an ultimatum to leave the country. He describes his ordeal in lurid detail, but laughs about it as he does so. “It is actually a very funny story,” he says, with grim humour. He withdrew his savings and crossed the border to Birni-N’Konni, Niger, where he planned to spend two years before returning to Nigeria’s south. But he fell in with a group making its way to Europe, whose members told him he’d be mad not to come with them, at which point he made the fateful decision to tag along.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” he says today. “When we got to Agadez [in central Niger], there were more than 200 trucks waiting for us. This was not a small operation.”

The trucks were to take the migrants to Libya, where rickety boats and blow-up dinghies would be on hand to take them the rest of the way. More than 61,500 migrants arrived in Italy in the first five months of 2017, an increase of about a third compared with the same period last year. To put Australia’s supposed crisis in perspective, about 30,500 asylum seekers sought to travel by boat to Australia in the nearly 18 months between mid-August 2012 and January 2014.

The Libyan boats are intercepted in the Mediterranean almost every day and their passengers are duly deposited in Sicily and elsewhere. According to United Nations figures, nearly 2000 have died or gone missing while attempting the crossing this year. These numbers will almost certainly have risen by the time you read this.

The decision to host last month’s Group of Seven meeting in Taormina, an hour up the coast from Catania, was highly symbolic for this reason. During the summit, Italy’s prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, called on G7 nations to forge a new partnership with Africa, arguing that increased aid and investment might help turn back the tide. He had hoped to persuade his G7 counterparts to open legal channels for migration in an attempt to curb the people-smuggling trade. But those proposals were rejected by the US and Britain before the talks even began. President Donald Trump later made headlines after it emerged he hadn’t bothered to wear the headphones to listen to the translation of Gentiloni’s comments.

For all the talk about helping migrants, however, it was the tightening of Italy’s maritime borders during the summit that really spoke volumes. In the week leading up to the event, all arrivals on the island were halted. Rescue boats were forced to land in Calabria and other parts of the Italian mainland, in some cases lengthening their trip by 24 hours and resulting in fewer rescue boats on the water. Commercial vessels were asked to lend a hand. At least 54 people died at sea that week.

Lucia Borghi, of the migrant rights group Borderline Sicilia, said the ramping up of the border regime for the summit now has the potential to become a more permanent arrangement. “Since 2015, Italy’s approach to the crisis has become worse and worse. The G7 arrangements may not continue in quite the same way, but the government can certainly maintain this new level of militarisation and pressure, this number of turnbacks and forced deportations, once it has introduced them.”

Borghi spoke to me in Palermo, the Sicilian capital, where she was attending the release of a report on the crimininalisation of migrants and those who attempt to provide aid. Produced by Borderline Sicilia and Borderline Europe, in co-operation with aid organisations in Austria and Greece, the report said that people such as Kevin and Ebenezer are being punished when what they really need is legal assistance. It claimed a “fierce media and political campaign” is under way to equate aid organisations with the people-smugglers the organisations deplore and highlighted the militarisation of Italy’s maritime borders as an important, disturbing and ongoing concern. “What we need to do is implement a way of properly identifying and helping genuine refugees,” Borghi said.

Médecins Sans Frontières’ Michele Telaro also attended the report’s release. He said the common perception of Africans as economic migrants rather than “real” asylum seekers is a deeply mistaken one. By the time the Africans board the boats in war-torn Libya, he said, all have essentially become the latter.

“These people are exposed to a huge level of violence. Some are beaten. Some are tortured. There’s sexual violence. It’s a nightmare,” Telaro said. “Once these people arrive from their country of origin, they’re stuck in Libya and can’t go back. There isn’t any organisation in place to get them back to their countries. Why they left no longer matters – they cannot stay in Libya.”

It took Kevin four days and $US300 to get to Sabha in Libya’s south-west and another $US300 to get from there to Tripoli. It was in a halfway house there that his comedy of errors quickly became bloody.

“In the middle of the night, Libyan soldiers burst in,” he says. “They didn’t start arresting people – they started shooting people. People were lying down dead, wounded. They took anyone who survived to the barracks and took everything from us. All our money, all our clothes. I wasn’t even wearing pants. We were broken.”

Eventually, after about three months, Kevin secured passage. He did so by making what he now realises was a devil’s bargain: he promised to take command of the vessel’s GPS in order to cover his fare. For his part, Ebenezer was forced to pilot his own blow-up deathtrap at gunpoint. Kevin’s Libyan people-smuggler vessel did not make it more than a few hundred metres offshore. It wasn’t even really a boat – just an overcrowded dinghy.

“It was a ridiculous thing,” Kevin says. “This is not a river we are talking about – this is the Mediterranean. And they put 133 people on board. I laughed and laughed.” They were picked up by a German vessel before the Libyan coastline was even out of sight. A woman had already died on board. Kevin was clapped in handcuffs as soon as they made landfall. “It wasn’t an arrest. An arrest should at least involve a phone call. This was about putting people in jail without anybody noticing,” he says.

At restaurant and co-working space Moltivolti in Palermo’s Ballarò district – the name translates as “Many Faces” – founder and social project manager Claudio Arestivo told me Sicily’s long history as a cultural melting pot means there is a receptivity to foreigners here that sets it apart from other parts of Italy and Europe.

“Sicily is an island in the middle of the Mediterranean that has been occupied by everyone for centuries,” he said. “When you see a woman walk out to meet a thousand migrants who have arrived by boat and she’s taking them pasta – and she’s probably not from a
very rich family – that’s what our culture is about.”

Ballarò has made headlines over the past year as a place where the Sicilian Mafia and Nigerian gangsters have found it profitable to work together, or at least to avoid stepping on one another’s toes. But at Moltivolti, which employs 14 people from eight different countries, and other venues in the region, it’s also where the island’s multiculturalism is most vibrantly on display.

“The idea for Moltivolti was to build a place that provides an example to other parts of Italy,” Arestivo said. “We want people to come here and look at our model of inclusion and acceptance and say: ‘That’s what I want to see in Florence’ or ‘That’s what I want to see in Milan.’ ”

For his part, Kevin has been feeling very welcome since getting out of prison four days ago. His goal is to keep going, and to perhaps one day make it to America, though for the moment he’s content to enjoy his freedom. Of course, after Libya, he was content with his incarceration, too.

“To go to prison in Europe?” he says. “It was very nice. I liked it very much. It was very much to my satisfaction.”

He has spent his last euro on a loaf of bread. When I leave him, he’s sharing it with the pigeons.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 24, 2017 as "Tide of misery".

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Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent.

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