Blind Eye

Italy’s Latest Export Is Refugees, and the Rest of Europe Is Not Happy

Head north, young migrant! That seems to be Italy’s policy, at least, according to German and other northern European leaders, who are furious at Rome’s handling of the refugee crisis.


Italy is being applauded by humanitarian groups for saving more than 113,000 refugees and migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea so far this year. But it is increasingly condemned by northern European countries for turning a blind eye as the refugees it saves then scamper off to Europe.

The old trains that run from Sicily to Rome cross the narrow straits of Messina to the mainland on a special ferry with tracks laid deep in the ship’s belly. The sea passage takes about half an hour of an 11-hour journey, and the passengers never have to disembark. The trip is long and dusty, often in non-air conditioned carriages with few amenities, but it is still the preferred mode of transportation off the island for the thousands of migrants and refugees who are brought to Sicily after being rescued at sea. It’s cheap, it’s convenient, and it’s the safest way to travel from Sicily into Europe without being caught. Not that anyone is looking.

Italy may be on the front lines of the refugee crisis, footing the $11.9 million-a-month bill for an expensive sea rescue mission called Mare Nostrum, which has saved more than 113,000 migrants and refugees traveling from the North African shores to Italy in 2014 so far, including 3,500 people last weekend alone. But because almost none of the migrants the Italians save stay in the country, Italy is increasingly at odds with its European partners, especially when Italian leaders ask for help paying for the expensive Mare Nostrum rescue program. On Monday, Sandro Gozi, Italy’s European Union affairs undersecretary, asked Europe for help once again. “Italy is asking for consistency from the EU,” he said. “The Mediterranean is a common border. Joint action is needed starting from an increase in the funds and operational capacities of Frontex, which must replace Mare Nostrum.”

But the constant cry for help has angered German politicians especially, as the bulk of the refugees are heading there. Last week, Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann scoffed at Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano’s earlier request for assistance to fund the Mare Nostrum project. “It is rather barefaced that Interior Minister Angelino Alfano should on the one hand complain about the heavy burden deriving from the arrival of refugees across the Mediterranean while on the other he is not concerned with respecting European regulations on asylum matters,” Hermann said on Friday. “Italy in many cases intentionally does not take personal data and fingerprints from refugees to enable them to seek asylum in another country.”

Because Hermann is a “regional minister,” not a representative of the national government, Italy’s Interior Ministry refused to comment on the harsh criticism, but statistics tend to back up his accusations. According to Eurostat, more than 116,000 migrants and refugees have arrived in Italy since January 2014, yet only about 25,000 have applied for asylum in Italy, according to estimates by groups like UNHCR, Save the Children, and Amnesty International. According to the only official records for 2014 published so far published by Eurostat, more than 77,000 asylum requests were processed in Germany (PDF) during the first quarter of 2014 compared with Italy’s 17,000 for the same time period, though more than 80 percent of those seeking asylum arrived through Italy.

“Maya,” who says she didn’t have to give her name to the Italian authorities so she certainly doesn’t want to give it to a journalist, sits on the floor in Rome’s busy Termini train station as the sun sets on a late August evening after making the train journey from Sicily with her two young children. She is from Syria, where she worked as a teacher, and she speaks patchy English and no Italian, which is fine with her since she has no intention of staying in Italy. She is waiting for the next train from Sicily to arrive, sometime around midnight, which will bring the rest of her family, including her husband, son, and several young cousins they have brought through Egypt and finally to Italy. Germany, she says, is their final destination.

Like many refugees, Maya has not yet applied for political asylum because the Italian authorities told her that since so many people are arriving at the same time, it could take weeks, if not months, to process all the paperwork necessary for the asylum request. They gave her the forms instead, which she carries with her incomplete. She and her family also have the documents to request a temporary travel document, which comes with identity cards that essentially allow them to travel within Europe’s open-border Schengen countries but stops short of granting full asylum benefits from Italy, though it does tie them to the country, meaning they could be deported back to Italy at any time, had they made the request. By signing up, they also would receive vouchers for food and some cash, along with a place to stay while they wait. Because Maya and her family had their own money, she says they stayed in an old villa outside Catania with others who weren’t ready to request asylum. Once a day, she says, a shuttle bus took them into town, dropping them not so subtly near the train station.

Maya says she hopes she can wait until she gets to Germany to make the formal asylum application, which is almost automatically guaranteed for Syrians fleeing their war-torn country. Italy’s Interior Ministry is unapologetic about what it calls a case overload processing applications, instead blaming Europe for not helping with the crisis. But for refugees like Maya and the thousands more who are just glad to be safely out of their war-torn countries, political squabbling means little. “We made it this far,” she says. “We’ll keep going.”