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Italy has received 500,000 migrants and refugees from North Africa who have fled war, extreme poverty and oppression during the last three years. But the country, which had a reputation of welcoming migrants, has received backlash for it and is starting to discourage the migrant flow. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Nadja Drost reports.
When migrants and refugees traveling from Northern Africa to Southern Italy make it to Rome, they have few places to stay. Some end up in this parking lot by an abandoned bus depot.
We have the Eritreans' part, we have the Somalian, we have the Sudani part.
For the past two years, Andrea Costa has led an association of volunteers called Baobab Experience, who've helped 70-thousand migrants who've stopped here, giving them free meals and legal advice on filing asylum claims.
It started because in Roma, the authorities didn't organize anything for the migrants in transit in this city. There was not a first reception hub for migrants of any kind.
Rome, like most of Italy, has gotten by without a proper reception system for migrants, because most pass through quickly, on their way to wealthier, northern European countries, where they see better opportunities at integration or reuniting with relatives. Five hundred miles north of Rome, the picturesque Italian hillside town Ventimiglia has become a launching pad for migrants who make it to Italy…and head North, trying to cross into France, just six miles away. But many migrants are stuck at the border…in nomadic limbo.
Under this bridge by the river, there's a few hundred migrants camped out, some for days, others for months, or even a year, as they attempt to cross the border into France. For many, it's a repeat visit here, having made it into France, only to be caught by police and sent back to Italy. Now, with an increased presence of border patrol on the trains and in the mountains, many are worried here about how and if they will ever make it across.
Ali is from Sudan. Three years ago, he fled by foot and by bus to Libya. Though it has a UN-recognized government, since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has become a failed state divided by rival militias. Like many other migrants, Ali was arrested and detained for seven months by a militia that demanded money for his release.
If you pay, they will release you, if you don't, they will start beating you. They give you electric shocks. There is no food, no water, even if you ask for water, they will kick you. I was beaten every day. NADJA DROST: Ali eventually collected enough money for his release, worked as a driver, and saved 15-hundred dollars to pay smugglers for a spot on an overloaded rubber raft bound for Italy. After six days at sea, with 150 passengers aboard, the raft started to sink. A German ship came to their rescue and brought the survivors to Italy in July. Seeing no support or opportunities for refugees like him in Italy, within a month, he made his way to the northern border of Italy and set his sights on France or Germany.
I will try until I succeed, because I have no other choice. There's no organization to help you to get into France. There is no way; my only way is my feet.
Ali has crossed into France six times on foot, but each time French police caught him and sent him back to Italy. That's because of the Dublin Regulation – a 2003 agreement among the 28 nations of the European Union that requires asylum seekers to apply in the first country they arrived in. So migrants who land in Italy and transit to northern Europe are always at risk of being sent back. The policy has created a bottleneck in Ventimiglia. The only shelter for stranded migrants is a Red Cross camp, where men, women and children from countries like Afghanistan, Somalia, and Ethiopia stay, as they decide whether to attempt a border crossing or seek asylum in Italy. Every day, migrants board trains in Ventimiglia bound for France – a mere 10 minute ride. But French police wait on the other side in the town of Menton. They board trains, remove migrants without proper papers, and send them back – by bus or the next train bound for Ventimiglia. Others are sent walking back. Europe's open borders are shutting their gates to migrants and refugees. On his latest attempt to cross into France, Ali, the Sudanese migrant, set out with a few friends on a road leading out of Ventimiglia.
We are trying to enter France anyway because Italy has made us tired. The suffering is a lot, not little. Here in Italy, we miss a lot of things, education, health, and psychological comfort.
They decided to sleep a few hours on a stone landing above a railroad track and take their chances walking down the railway during the next shift change of French border guards.
It's very dangerous on the railway, because if a train comes, you will get an electric shock, and it will kill you. But I will take the risk, We came to Europe to study, for our future, we didn't come to escape a quick death for a slow death.
The tantalizing lights of the French Riviera beckon in the distance, but Ali won't get there. We later learn, once again, French police caught him and sent him back to Italy. Some migrants who do make it to France end up outside the town of Breil-sur-Roya, where farmer Cedric Herrou, defies the authorities by hosting a migrant camp among his olive groves. He's part of a network along with Andrea Costa, from Rome, helping migrants move through Europe. Herrou says he's temporarily sheltered more than two hundred on his farm. He shows me where Italy lies, just beyond the mountain.
And down there, look, there's a policeman watching me.
I asked Herrou why police are here?
To prevent people from arriving here, to prevent them from accessing their rights.
Herrou helps migrants file asylum requests, and even though French law lets citizens aid migrants on humanitarian grounds, police have repeatedly arrested him for helping them cross the border and stay in France. He blames racism for Europe's crackdown on the migrant flow.
I've been taken into police custody eight times. Why? Because I've had people in my car who are Black, who are minors who are waiting for the state to take care of them or to make an asylum claim. This is a reality that exists in France.
Back in Rome, the results of the stepped up E.U. enforcement of the Dublin Regulation are visible.
If in 2015 and the beginning of 2016 migrants in transit would've stayed here maybe for three or four days before continuing on their journey, now they can stay weeks, they can stay months or maybe after three, four, five times of trying to cross the border and they are forced to come back here, they say, "Ok, I'll seek asylum here.'"
Last year, Italy received 123-thousand asylum applications, up 48 percent from 2015 and second most in Europe after Germany. By November this year, Italy received another 116-thousand applications. Italy grants asylum in around 40 percent of its cases which lets migrants stay legally for up to five years before renewing their resident permit. Hamda Ahmed, from Somalia, has been waiting on her asylum claim for six months. She's living with her husband and two children in a Red Cross camp in Rome where they receive meals, clothing and shelter. In 2015, they fled to Libya, took a boat across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy, and later reached Germany.
We were there for two years, and my son was born there. The life was good and comfortable. There was school, everything you need.
But Germany never granted the family refugee status, and in accordance with the Dublin Regulation, sent them back to Italy, because that's where they had first arrived.
It was really difficult, because I wanted to stay there.
Not everyone wants asylum-seekers like Ahmed to stay in Italy. Far-right groups are seizing public concern over the large numbers of migrants and refugees to bolster their anti-immigration platform. The European Union and the Italian government have committed at least 528 million dollars to stem the flow of people from Northern Africa with 161 million dollars directed specifically at Libya. That includes millions to training and supplying Libya's Coast Guard to intercept migrant boats and turn them back. As a result, thousands of migrants are being detained in Libya in camps where the U.N. has documented inhumane conditions, forced labor, torture, and rape. The crackdown has resulted in fewer migrants arriving in Italy. By end of November, 117,000 migrants and refugees had landed in Italy this year, but that's a 32 percent decline from last year, according to Italy's Interior Ministry. Refugee Hamda Ahmed, after being sent back to Italy is determined to learn Italian and make a life here. But she's lowered her expectations.
I just loved the idea of Europe. I thought all the people had money, a car, good houses, a really good life. It's not how I imagined it.
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