Italy: One-Way Ticket to Europe
African migrants search for a better life
BY Ariana Reguzzoni and Diana Ferrero
July 27, 2006
Ariana Reguzzoni (left) graduated from U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and has worked in film and television in the Bay Area and New York City. Reguzzoni currently works at Northern Light Productions, a documentary company in Boston. Diana Ferrero (right) is a native of Rome, Italy. She came to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship in 2003 and graduated from the Berkeley journalism school in 2005. She currently works for Al Jazeera International in Washington, D.C.
On the surface, the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa, perched off the coast of North Africa, is like any other Mediterranean tourist spot, dotted with colorful fishing villages and glorious stretches of white sand. But as this FRONTLINE/World Fellows report reveals, while the tourists relax, Lampedusa's coast guard is busy patrolling the waters around the island, where hundreds of men, women and children arrive almost daily, crammed inside barely seaworthy boats. Arriving exhausted and dehydrated after several days on open seas, these migrants hope they will find a better life on European soil.
In a scene that unfolds most nights during the summer and fall at Lampedusa's pier, teams from Doctors Without Borders treat the most needy coming ashore and the human cargo is then ushered to a holding center, where a controversial asylum process begins.
Almost all of those who reach the island start their journey somewhere in Africa. Escaping either conflict or poverty, those who can afford it pay a local trafficker, then often spend months traveling by foot across the Sahara Desert to reach the Libyan coast, from where they make the final passage to Lampedusa.
With increasing numbers of undocumented migrants finding their way to Europe this way, illegal immigration has moved up on the European Union's agenda. This July, ministers from 58 African and European nations met in Morocco to discuss how to tackle the problem. Among the measures floated were pumping more aid into Africa's poorest countries, conducting educational campaigns to warn migrants of the perils of such a journey and cracking down on the organized crime behind the trafficking trade, much of which is centered in Libya. Experts predict that this growing exodus from Africa is ready to explode into a new global Diaspora. But African nations have little incentive to stop the flow, with an estimated $8 billion having already made its way back into their ailing economies from Africans working abroad.
Leaving aside the statistics and the politics of illegal immigration, reporters Ariana Reguzzoni and Italy native Diana Ferrero give us an unsettling glimpse into life for many new immigrants -- lives that are lived mostly in the shadows of their adopted country. For many they speak to, there's a palpable sadness -- even regret -- over the decision to come to Europe. The reality rarely lives up to the dream, and the sacrifices they made are rarely offset by their new life.
Hermon, a soft-spoken 19-year-old from Eritrea, who works as a maid, describes how even her mother didn't know she planned to leave. "She wouldn't have let me go," she says. "She would have said, 'You will die in the sea.'"
She tells Ferrero that to stay in Eritrea would almost certainly mean being recruited into Eritrea's army to fight a protracted border war with Ethiopia. To avoid conscription, girls have three choices, she says. They can get married very young, commit suicide or flee the country. Hermon chose to flee.
Many scenes in the story expose just how divided and complex the issue of illegal immigration has become, from distressing images at sea, where the coast guard does its best to rescue overcrowded vessels and save lives, to the E.U. politicians who arrive to inspect the island's holding facility. Depending on a delegate's political leanings, the facility is either a place of dignity or a place of national shame.
One of the most revealing moments is meeting Asmerom, another shy young Eritrean. He has been on the island for a year. Leaning in the doorway of the hotel restaurant where he works, he listens quietly as the Italian family who hired him talk about his presence in their lives. "I personally have nothing against them," says the son. "He thinks of his family, he cries. Anyway, he works and tries to move forward. He is well treated; sometimes he even eats with us. He can tell you the same. He is like a brother for us."
It's an affectionate but awkward moment, laced with a discomfort that much of Europe feels as it continues to struggle with how best to deal with the immigrants arriving on its shores.
Senior Interactive Producer
About FRONTLINE/World Fellows
"Italy: One-Way Ticket to Europe" by Ariana Reguzzoni and Diana Ferrero is the latest multimedia production of the FRONTLINE/World Fellows program, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It is part of our ongoing effort to identify and mentor the next generation of video, print and online journalists.
Our immigration story from Italy is the latest in our current round of Fellows reports, which began in December 2005 with "Brazil: Cutting the Wire" and continued in January 2006 with "Colombia: The Coca-Cola Controversy," and in April with "Japan and China: The Unforgotten War." Two other Fellows projects on Uganda and Pakistan will appear in coming months. Our Fellows program started in 2003 and so far has produced 18 multimedia stories by talented young journalists, who have traveled to Guatemala, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Haiti, Venezuela, Peru, Mexico, Egypt, Israel, Rwanda and Sicily, and journeyed across Europe by train from Istanbul to Paris. You can see them all here.
Earlier this year, we solicited proposals for a new round of Fellows through our parthership with the U.C. Berkeley, Columbia and Northwestern Graduate Schools of Journalism. We are pleased to announce that the next season of Fellows projects have been selected and the recipients will be reporting stories from Liberia, China, Russia and France, among other countries.
Since I came to Europe I have never heard or read about the good news of my country. It's always about war, famine and poverty. They collect money from their citizens to help countries like Ethiopia, but when luckily we come here to save our lives from many dangerous activities, they refuse to give us protections from our famous dictator leaders (democratic dictators)...We are suffering too much psychologicaly, physically and more. Do you think that there is justice in the world? NO! If there is justice, the Ethiopians would not suffer in their homeland and abroad. I hope god will be with ethiopia, at least.
Many Eritreans fled from Eritrea because of many problems. Eritreans went to Sudan by foot. After that the UNHCR [UN refugee agency] in Sudan was not working well. Refugees die simply because there is not enough food, shelter or clinics for the refugees. It's too hard to live in Sudan. Because of that, refugees fled to Libya across the Sahara desert. There were many problems and some of them died in the desert. From Libya, they go again to Italy by fishing boats -- small boats floating over the Mediterranean Sea. Some of them die in the sea . There is a big meeting in Morrocco for solving the problems of the refugees. That is good but the situation for refugees in Sudan is not good. The UNHCR is a symbol only. I live for 6 years in Sudan. I came because of the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia . There is no work for refugees. I hope that UNHCR will solve the problems of Eritrean refugees first in Sudan, not in Libya or in Malta or Italy. Please if it is possible, I hope that someone from the UN committe in Geneva will visit the Eritrean refugees in Sudan and help us solve our problems.
I don't know how to explain but why is this all happening to the Eritrean refugees? In Libya they have been deported by force to their home country. In Sudan, the same thing is happening, including to my younger brother. From the time he was sent back to Eritrea, he is living in Military detention. And these very days Egypt is deporting our people back to Eritrea. They face the same fate as others who have been forced to go back. Now the reason people flee from our country is not only politics but also it is because of our beliefs and religion. We rely on good luck to survive every where we are living. Please, Please Help Us Just to live a little longer.
Really all the refugees are suffering because of the bad administration of the UNHCR and the government of Sudan. So the world and all agenicies who care for refugees should pay attention and do something.
What is needed is to solve the Eritrea problem. But as someone mentioned, it is truly that the first thought should be to focus on Sudan. The UNHCR in Sudan is like a symbol of the UN's lack of responsibility. So the UN headquarters should control the money and invest it to help the refugees in Sudan from Eritrea.
I have been to the city of Asmara, Eritrea. I notice many Eritreans from outside coming to visit their country -- they are flashy and are treated like kings. I don't blame someone risking their life to get what we are all enjoying here in the West. The good life in the western countries is too good to keep people from not migrating by all means.
Fili Chicago - Milano, Italy
What I want to say is, the problem of Eritreans in Italy is not the EU. The problem is the Italian government who is retrieving the money of Eritrean refugees. Thank you.
M. Amell - Irving, TX
Why isn't it made clear the main reason Africa is in the sad shape it is in now is because of blatant racism. Politicians won't admit to it, but between racism and the worse possible corruption, I see very little, if any, hope at all for the African peoples other than to leave. Who would want to stay where you might be killed in a war at any moment, starve or have your wife and daughters raped by anyone who happens to have a gun? I certainly would not stay under those conditions and can't say I blame anyone for wanting to risk anything, even death, for leaving for a shred of a promise of a better life elsewhere.
I feel so bad thinking only that what I saw in this edition not only happens between Cuba and USA, but also in many countries from the far east and north Africa, especially Morocco and Egypt.
I want work in Italy.
Harry Lee - Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
I live in one of the- states making up the South East Asian country of Malaysia. Our state is on the Island of Borneo, which is approximately 6 hours speedboat-ride from the southern Philippines, where almost 500,000 refugees, resulting from former dictator Marcos's war against an Islamic insurgency, were granted refugee status in our state. After 10 years, the refugee community is literally the majority of the population and they refuse to return to their now peaceful, but still poverty-stricken, country of origin. They make up two-thirds of the prison population due to their involvement in crime, threaten the local natives and defy the local governments. From a major tourist destination, rich in culture and natural resources, our state now has the highest murder, poverty, violent crime and drug addiction rates in the country. All of these afflictions are direct results of our generosity and good global citizenship. I am currently applying to migrate to the U.K. with my family. Applying only a sense of compassion without a sense of realism/pragmatism in solving immigration issues is a sure recipe for a disaster.
It's not easy to stay in Africa when the government cannot provide for its citizens.We are dying of hunger and stavation. Even to get work you can't. The rich are oppressing the poor everyday and corruption is the main theme of the day in Africa.
Conflicts and wars are the reasons of the influx of refugees from Africa. The flow of refugees from Eritrea and Ethiopia is a result of the border war between the two countries. There was no Eritrean taking this route to Europe before the border war between the two countries broke out. The UN and European Union have to apply pressure on the minority Ethiopian regime in order to accept the final and binding ruling of the international court. The West has to look in to the root causes of the problems not the effects. Ethiopia's minority regime is the problem in the region and is forcing Eritreans, Ethiopians, and the Somalis to flee their respective homelands.
UN do your share.
Pat - Freeport, NY
I agree with Steven from Wisconsin about the huge sums of money spent on war, destruction and killing. There's always money able to be spent on that. Politicians have their own agendas. We are all sharing the same world; we are all brothers and sisters of the same human race. Please continue to speak out and make public what is happening. I believe many people care but do not know how to make a difference. We need more awareness and someone to tell us how as individuals we can help.
It is bad to hear what is happening in Eritrea after 30 years of fighting for freedom. This is the result of warmonger leaders in that part of the world. The people have to revolt against the dictators and put peace, democracy in their respective countries. The western nations should help the democratic movement to solve the problem, the root of the problem, once and for all. The demarcation of border in Eritrea is only a small piece of the puzzle. It is a whole lot more than that. Youth are enslaved in never ending national service with no future hope. Abusing national service themes in Eritrea is one of the basic reasons to this episode.
The source of Eritrean migration is the government [of Eritrea]. Eritrea has a home grown tyranny. The dictatorial regime has made life at home very miserable. There is no hope in Eritrea and the people are risking their lives to be in any place where there is hope. Simply they are avoiding Eritrea to be alive like a normal human being. At present, Eritreans are among the most miserable people on the planet. Desperate people try desperate things. The solution is simple: get rid of the dictatorial regime and the misery of Eritreans will stop.
lolita rema - sudan, khartoum
Eritrean refugees need food, shelter and safety... I hope the officials meeting in Morocco can solve the problems of immigrant refugees who die in the Mediterranean Sea. Thank you for giving me a chance. I am from the Eriteran refugees at risk in Sudan. Please, please solve the problem of Eritrean refugees.
Ertrawy Ertrawy - Detroit, MI
It is my strong conviction that Eritrea is the way she is because of the West. For example, if the United States of America had done its job as one of the guarantors of the Border resolution [decided by] The Hague Court [in settlement of the Ethiopian-Eritrean war], I am certain that these migrants fleeing from Eritrea would have been at home busy living their lives. Unfortunately, led by the U.S., all the guarantors (witnesses) of the Final and Binding peace protocol signed on December 12, 2000 have refused to carry out their mandates. This is the genesis of these Eritrean migrants taking risks in crossing to Europe. You heard it from Asmerom, 'he likes his people, he likes his country.' He discovered first hand that Europe is not like what he had been told. These kids need to stay home and help with the reconstruction of their shattered lives and country... Let's stop other kids who receive wrong information about Europe and take risks to come to Italy and be a burden to the kind Italian people who have harboured enough misinformed migrants... We must realize that these young people have educational backgrounds that are invaluable to their country, let's not waste such nurtured talent by forcing them to work as laborers elsewhere instead of using their knowledge and contribute to the country that has given them the opportunity to have marketable skill and employable education.
Steven Peckham - Madison, Wisconsin
It is truely a shame, how disengaged the world is from Africa. We have too much money available for war to kill people, but hardly anything for people to live.
Selam Kidane - London, UK
As an Eritrean I am saddened to see the plight of fellow Eritreans. Being forced to chose a fate that is only slightly better than death itself is what has become part of the narrative of many, many Eritreans. The 19 year old Hermon was a four year old pre-schooler when Eritrea was "liberated." So much for liberation. Now she is "tolerated" by her host country to live her life as a maid, and she is considered one of the very few lucky ones. Some of her playmates during independence will no doubt have succumbed to the other choices that she rejected.
All I can say is this organisation is doing good, and the issue of illegal immigration is hard to take in for Westerners but these are human beings who have a problem relating war, poverty, slavery and hunger. So let's please try to understand why the world come to be the way it is now!