In Limbo

The New Refugee Ghettoes of Rome

Tens of thousands of refugees and migrants are stranded in Italy as Europe dithers and the crisis grows worse by the day.

ROME — Not since World War II have so many men, women and children been cordoned off in various corners of the Italian capital. Today, those huddled together in makeshift camps are migrants and refugees fleeing horrors in Africa and the Middle East who are hoping to make it deeper into Europe to build a better future, and any analogy with the Jews rounded up to be sent to concentration camps more than 70 years ago might seem strained. But Holocaust survivor and Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller told Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper that there are similarities, and she doesn’t like them. “When I see those poor exhausted people, I think of me when I was young, persecuted because I was Jewish,” she said. “Democracies there [in Europe] denied asylum; my father died at Auschwitz also because democratic countries closed their eyes.”

In a vacant lot outside Rome’s Tiburtina train station, the migrants are staying in what they call “the forest,” a canopy of trees under which most sleep on flattened cardboard boxes when it is too hot to sleep inside the scarce Red Cross tents pitched in a nearby parking lot. Bright-blue portable toilets are lined up along the curb under the increasingly ferocious Roman sun. Clothing hangs on makeshift clotheslines strung between dumpsters.

None of the refugees wants to be here any more than the Romans want a refugee camp in their backyard. Still, they are co-existing. “These kids need play therapy,” one father named Giovanni Letta tells The Daily Beast as his boy plays soccer with some of the migrant boys. “If my son can help in that small way, it might change that kid’s hopes for the future. Maybe he can forget for a moment what he’s been through.”

Nothing exposes the untenable nature of Europe’s unspoken and even secretive migration policy better than this chaotic scene. It is no question that for years Italy has borne the brunt of the influx of irregular migrants and refugees landing on Europe’s shores. But because Italy is not a final destination, they have tended to spend a few days in a reception center somewhere in the country, and then either settle in with established migrant communities or move on. In cities like Calais on the French side of the Channel, some live in what are called “jungles” waiting to smuggle themselves across to Britain. But here in Italy it has been rare to see so many thousands of people in limbo.

The last such episode was in 2011, when an influx of mostly Tunisian refugees got stuck on the border between France and Italy when the French police started turning undocumented migrants back—often with billy clubs. Many were repatriated back to Tunisia, but the vast majority got through anyway using land smugglers who are now once again operating in the area.

This month, French police again started turning back migrants without proper documents as they tried to leave Italy. Even though French authorities maintain that the borders remain open, they say that they have the right to refuse any non-European citizen entry into their country. “There is no closing of the borders,” French President François Hollande told reporters as he toured the Milan Expo grounds with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Monday. “We are just checking documents as set forth by the Dublin agreement.”

For whatever reason, the migrants are not getting through and, as a result, tens of thousands of refugees hoping to join families elsewhere in Europe are now stuck in Italy even as more arrive on a daily basis. They are sleeping on the rocky shores of Ventimiglia on the Italian border with France, and they have set up makeshift camps in the central train stations in Rome and Milan, where many try almost daily to get on to a train north. Tent camps around Rome have popped up in public parks and migrants are seeking shelter in shelters run by Catholic charities and in churches. In Milan, a Plexiglas kiosk in the city’s train station meant to house fancy boutiques has been converted into sleeping quarters for those stuck there, effectively putting the migrants on display—and keeping them away from travelers in the station.

The clampdown on the Italian borders also has created a franchise for people smugglers who never miss an opportunity to cash in on despair and who have been quick to set up shop to move people north, offering such options as hiding them in long-haul transport vehicles and the trunks of cars.

“We were offered a ride in a refrigerated truck carrying frozen food all the way to Germany for around €250 apiece,” a Sudanese refugee who didn’t want to be named told The Daily Beast outside Rome’s Tiburtina train station. “We decided to wait for a better offer because we didn’t want to be that cold for so long.” She says she and her family originally bought tickets to travel to Germany, but they sold them because they were too afraid they might be stopped and made to apply for asylum in Italy. She said she and her family don’t intend to apply for asylum until they reach family in Germany.

While Europe plays tug of war at the borders, the lives of migrants and refugees seem to be ever less valued. On Tuesday, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) accused Europe of “orchestrating” a humanitarian disaster by tightening border controls. “A crisis of human suffering is being created at Europe’s borders, with thousands of people risking life and limb to reach safety in Europe left with little or no assistance,” MSF said in a statement. “The deteriorating situation is not due to unmanageable numbers of migrants and refugees. It is a direct result of chronic shortcomings in the European Union’s policies in handling the new arrivals. Member states spend their time talking about closing borders, building fences, and issuing threatening ultimatums to each other. That will not stop people coming, and will just undermine any collaborative efforts to assist people in need.”

The European Council will hold crucial talks on June 25 and 26 in Brussels to once again address the burgeoning problem. At the top of the agenda are quotas, which the European Commission hopes to introduce to resettle more than 40,000 migrants from Italy and Greece, although almost no member states except Italy and Greece agree with the plan.

On Monday, the European Union also launched a joint naval operation in the Mediterranean to provide surveillance of the trafficking rings that run between Libya and Europe. According to the Associated Press, five Italian-led naval units, two submarines, three maritime surveillance planes, two drones, and two helicopters will take part in the operation that is not intended to target the smugglers ships, but to collect information intended to stop them. Italy’s Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti welcomed the EU operation. “Until today what we were doing it alone,” she said.

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Refugee agencies estimate that more than 100,000 people have made it to Europe through various routes so far this year. More than 2,000 are thought to have died. And still, despite the long and dangerous road ahead, the boats with their human cargo keep coming.