I met 18-year-old D. at an informal refugee settlement site outside Rome’s Tiburtina train station supported by the Italian “Baobab Experience” volunteer group. The evening food distribution felt more like a community barbecue than an act of charity, thanks to the unfailing warmth and humanity of its volunteers and its coordinator, Andrea Costa.
D. was playful and cheeky, drifting nonchalantly between his fellow migrants from Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt, and Mali, on a skateboard that he offered to let me try — his way of making an introduction. D. left his home in Guinea-Conakry at the age of 16, and is now living in Rome in a shelter for young adults as he awaits processing of his asylum claim.
On his WhatsApp profile there’s a photo of him posing in front of the Coliseum. He looks like a teenager from Paris or my native Los Angeles on a family vacation. His chosen name on the messaging app is “I miss Mama Africa,” in French, like an exchange student experiencing the occasional pang of homesickness during an otherwise exciting opportunity abroad.
D. didn’t want to say too much about his journey, jokingly shaking my shoulders when I asked him about it, “Madame! You ask too many questions!” But when he showed me a poem he wrote, it filled in the scattered details he had given about leaving home at 16, making his way to Italy by working construction in Algeria and Morocco before getting on an overcrowded dinghy in Libya, bound for the Sicilian coast. His words paint a sobering picture of what many African migrants experience trying to reach Europe, facing death and unimaginable hardship at every step of their journey.
I have seen so many brothers who have lost their lives
Brothers who we will see again in paradise
On my journey we crossed rebels
We risked our lives to walk through the desert
We were held in the prisons in Libya
Arrivals to Italy peaked at 181,436 last year, with 4,581 deaths at sea and countless others along the route. As of April 21, 36,703 have arrived this year. In the Villa Sikania reception center in Agrigento, Sicily, one migrant said, ominously, “For every 1,000 of us here [in Italy], 5,000 died along the way.” Humanitarian organizations and volunteers are gearing up for another busy summer, when the warmer weather makes the Mediterranean seem less treacherous for crossing.
In Lampedusa, Sicily, Rome, and the Italian border town Ventimiglia, I spoke with dozens of migrants, from Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Eritrea, Sudan, Guinea Conakry, Gambia, and more, who had survived the journey from their home countries, hoping for better life for themselves in Italy or elsewhere in Europe. All of them were held in captivity in Libya under brutal treatment and dire conditions, most tortured in some form and held for ransom, some sexually assaulted by their captors.
Read Lost in Translation: The Misinformed Journey of Migrants Across Italy. The new report, from Internews, provides perspectives and recommendations centered on the information void at the heart of the refugee crisis.
One of the defining themes of their testimony was the extent to which information is at the crux of this crisis, in both overt and insidious ways. From the formation of their decisions to leave, to the lack of information at critical junctures along the route, and the distortion or distrust of information when it is available, both during the journey and in Italy.
At the onset, deceptive images shared on social media hid the true nature of what many migrants endure along the way, making the prospect of putting one’s life in the hands of a smuggler seem more benign or adventurous, rather than nightmarish, and potentially deadly. Selfies shared in front of cars or recognizable monuments on social media — all the migrants I spoke to have Facebook profiles — often hide the shame they feel for having been duped into enduring such trauma. A migrant from Cote d’Ivoire will not know about the slave markets in Libya when he decides to leave his home. A Malian woman will not know that she may be brutally raped by her smugglers when she sets off for the long road to a better life in Europe. Such stories are not shared by local media; instead the recycled anecdotes of friends-of-friends “making it” loom large.
The journey itself is an unending game of Russian roulette, led almost completely by human traffickers. Depending on nationality and access to informal networks already living in Europe, some migrants don’t have a plan or destination in mind; they merely hope to flee. They are picked up by well-organized networks of smugglers, who coerce them into the trafficking route, often with false promises or threats. Once they arrive in Libya, migrants are often “sold” to other networks, forced to work until their debt is paid, or tortured and held for ransom, until a friend or family member can float enough money for their release. Migrants will spend months and sometimes years in such ordeals. All of the migrants I spoke to had their phones taken from them in Libya — of no coincidence, as it leaves them especially vulnerable. Access to information has great potential to empower them.
One migrant from northern Nigeria, K., recounted his voyage at the Italian reception center, Cara Mineo, once a sprawling compound for American naval officers and their families. Without an explicit plan or destination in mind, K. and his sister left home and were intercepted by smugglers at a border crossing. The smugglers took them through the deserts of Niger, before handing the pair off to armed men in Libya, who locked them in a windowless room for months. Over time, his sister was taken out of the room by their captors and repeatedly raped. She was grateful only to be returned alive. Once they were finally released, they were taken to a boat bound for Italy. K said his sister ultimately suffocated to death in the boat’s underbelly while at sea, which was packed with dozens of other migrants.
K. watches television at the reception center, hungry for any connection to the world outside Mineo’s maze of pastel-colored mini-homes, where thousands of people await decisions about if and when they can start a new life in Europe. The Mineo facility mostly houses nationalities eligible for relocation to other EU countries (among them, Eritreans, Syrians, Yemenis), with fewer cases like K.’s, who is applying for asylum in Italy. He remains anxious about his asylum case, especially as updates about its progress are few and far between. This lack of transparency is a source of significant distress for most asylum-seekers, whose fates are in the hands are faceless bureaucrats and an untraceable process.
If they survive the perilous route to Europe, migrants face a new host of hardships in Italy. Once again, information is at the heart of many compounding factors. Immediately after disembarking from rescue vessels, migrants are thrust into the chaotic ordeal of mass registration and identification as part of the “Hotspot” approach to irregular migration in countries like Italy and Greece. They are not permitted to be briefed by UNHCR or other humanitarian actors before one of the most critical junctures in their reception process, where they declare the reason they are in Italy. This declaration can be a deciding factor in a later asylum claim. Instead they are only allowed to be handed a pamphlet in densely-worded legalese, often in languages they cannot adequately understand.
Their information needs become more complex while in Europe. Legal rights, available services, integration prospects, and their own mental health — like whether they can make contact with loved ones abroad — depend on information. Receiving effective information hinges on the capacity for translation and multi-language-speaking aid providers, as well as trust in the institutions and authorities involved in the migration phenomenon. All of this is compounded by a backdrop of immense trauma, given what they have endured along the way.
If they have the means to do so, a phone will be one of the first purchases migrants will make.
Information and connectivity are not only forms of basic humanitarian aid; they are also lifelines for those trying to rebuild lives fractured by conflict, trauma, and loss.
Many will abandon the Italian process, determined to cross borders to seek asylum in what they perceive to be more “favorable” European countries. Once they leave formal reception centers, they are completely outside the system and rely predominately on informal networks that they connect with via social media (primarily Facebook), or messaging apps like WhatsApp or Viber. If they manage to cross over to France, once they arrive, many operate blind, and are unaware of how to access services or seek help if they are in need. Some humanitarian actors are reluctant to make such information publicly available, as they feel that doing so would be to encourage “onward movement.”
But rather than limit information, intentional and strategic provision of information along the various migration routes in Africa, and in Italy and its borders is vital to mitigate the trauma and failures of migration.
In the perilous migration route, lives are lost because of uninformed choices, and given the current climate, the stakes are higher than ever.
Read Lost in Translation, Internews’ report on the role of information and misinformation in migration through Italy.
Rose Foran is Humanitarian Communication Advisor with Internews.
(Banner image: A group of migrants seeking to reach northern Europe stuck in Como, Italy after Switzerland closed its borders. Credit: Marco Aprile / Shutterstock.com)