Italy tells refugees: Don’t risk the journey

Deutsche Welle
8 Min Read

A new campaign launched by the Italian interior ministry and the International Organization for Migration aims to discourage migrants from making the risky journey to Europe. Megan Williams reports from Rome.
It’s noon on a blistering summer day in a narrow lane near Rome’s Tiburtina train station.

Crowded along one shaded wall, dozens of people squat on cardboard or perch on plastic chairs, eating pasta or fruit salad from paper plates. Nearby, under a small open tent, volunteers dish out the food that’s been donated by households in the neighborhood.

Most of the people camped out here have risked violence, sexual assault, slave labor, and indeed, their lives, to escape extreme poverty or political oppression back home.

They’ve paid smugglers in Libya, after treacherous deserts crossings, and been rescued south of Italy from flimsy rubber boats.

They come from West Africa, Iraq, Ethiopia or Sudan.

“It’s very dangerous for women,” says one 19-year-old woman who was rescued in July south of Italy and hopes to join her husband in Zurich and “get education.”

As she finishes a plate of pasta, she explains she spent one month in a trafficker’s compound in Libya waiting for a boat. “There’s no food or water. There are people who rob you and men who sexually attack you.”

Her boat trip, which lasted five days, she says, was just as horrendous.

“They put 125 of us into a very small boat. Five of the passengers died [from exhaustion and thirst] and they just threw their bodies overboard,” she told DW.

Abioa from Ethiopia who sits beside and translates for her, says he, too, survived an anguishing ordeal.

“They beat you from morning to evening, give you food only once a day. I saw many friends die, 15, 20. Many beaten by Arabs, or when they go to sickness, there is no food,” he says. Since arriving in Italy in early June, he’s tried six times to cross the border at Switzerland, turned back every time.

“If I’d known, I would not have come,” he says.

You’re not welcome

These are the kind of people that a hard-hitting new communication campaign recently launched by the Italian Interior Ministry and the International Organization for Migration is starting to target.

Called Aware Migrant, the campaign is geared at mainly young men and women who have left their homes due to extreme poverty and who likely will not qualify for refugee status in Europe.

The message of the campaign? Don’t risk the journey here.

Through radio and TV ads aired in 15 African countries, Facebook and other social media, migrants who have made it here to Italy share their horror stories in French, English and Arabic. They gaze into the camera with startling candour, one man recounting not being able to stop crying after traffickers forced him to separate from his infant before boarding a boat in Libya. A young woman describes the agonizing thirst she suffered at the hands of smugglers in the desert. Another yet of being detained for months only to have to flee for her life after barely escaping anal rape.

Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, who helped launched the 1.5 million-euro campaign with the slogan “Be Aware, Sister!”! or “Be Aware, Brother!” likened it to “throwing a message in a bottle” to would-be migrants.

He says violence suffered in Libya has risen sharply. So, too, have deaths at sea, with this year more than 3,000 people dying during the passage from Libya to Italy – a 25-percent increase compared to the same period last year.

Wrong priorities

But the campaign has not been received without some reservations by those who work with migrants.

“I think it’s essential that information about all the terrible things that happen to people be properly communicated,” says Andrea Costa, who works as a volunteer coordinator at the Baobab refugee center. However, he questions not only how effective the campaign will be, but also Italy’s priorities.

“Along with this message, Europe should also be doing everything it can to make eliminate those terrible risks, to create a safe, humanitarian corridor for the people escaping dictatorships or hunger,” he told DW.

Others on twitter have been harsher in their assessment of the campaign, denouncing it with #shameonEu. Europe does “not care if u are a woman or a child or if you are escaping from war,” wrote one Italian woman.

Getting the message across

The campaign, however, does make it clear it is addressing economic migrants who will likely be sent back to their country of origin, what it called “irregular” migrants – not those escaping conflict, who qualify as refugees.

Since the start of 2014, more than 400,000 boat migrants have arrived in Italy. Since January 2016, Italy has taken in about 90,000 people. Most come from Africa, and most – 60 percent last year – do not qualify for refugee status.

Federico Soda who heads the Rome office of the International Organization for Migration says migrants do pass on information to one another. However, he points out that word does not always reach back home about the kind of danger and violence along the migratory route, often because those who have survived feel deep shame that is not easy to share.

“There’s great social pressure for their migration project to be a success, especially when families have made huge economic sacrifices to send someone,” Soda told DW. “Obviously if you’ve been abused, beaten, raped, that is a terrible failure. Also, some of these experiences, or even witnessing these experiences, are so traumatic, that really they just want to block them out,” he adds.

Tina Ammendola, a spokesperson with Italy’s Interior Ministry’s Department of Civil Liberties and Immigration, says the campaign isn’t just geared to fill in the silence of what happens to people, but also the false narratives peddled by people smugglers.

“Much of the information comes from the traffickers themselves and is incorrect,” Ammendola says. “It’s a way for traffickers to convince people so they can earn money off migrants, to abuse them and become richer and richer. We know most of them have made fortunes on people trying to find a better life in the end.”

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