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Italy Becomes A Leading Destination For Migrants, Matching Greece

A family disembarks from the Topaz Responder, a rescue ship, Oct. 27 at Brindisi in southern Italy. The ship arrived with 347 migrants and refugees from Central Africa and Syria following a rescue operation off the Libyan coast.
Andreas Solaro
AFP/Getty Images
A family disembarks from the Topaz Responder, a rescue ship, Oct. 27 at Brindisi in southern Italy. The ship arrived with 347 migrants and refugees from Central Africa and Syria following a rescue operation off the Libyan coast.

Rome's Via Ramazzini is a residential street with a sprawling park that belongs to the Italian Red Cross. That's where newly arrived migrants are being sheltered in a tent camp.

Outside on the sidewalk, three young African men say they're from Eritrea, here for the past two weeks after making a dangerous sea crossing.

Yarid Hailah, 25, says his boat, with 190 people aboard, was filling up with water. Ten hours after they left Libya, they were rescued. "Nobody died," he says.

With close to 160,000 arrivals this year, Italy could surpass Greece as Europe's major migrant and refugee point of entry. The country has been on the migrant crisis frontline for more than a decade and it's now taking the lead in combating smuggling and trying to identify the growing number of people who die in the Mediterranean crossing.

On the street, there's a poster proclaiming in Italian, "Homeland and freedom, we are for sovereignty and identity, we are for a blockade against immigration and repatriation of illegal immigrants."

But at the nearby newspaper kiosk, owner Benedetto Capaldo says other than an assault and robbery at a nearby shop in September, the migrants don't create major problems.

"Sure, there's been an increase in panhandling," he says, "but they don't really bother anyone, it's quite calm here."

Inside the Red Cross compound, reporters are not authorized to talk to migrants nor visit the tent camp where some 400 are currently living. Rome Red Cross president Debora Diodati says this is a transit site — migrants are supposed to stay only five to six days and then transfer to better equipped facilities. But the massive number of arrivals has caused a logjam.

The shelter system, she says, is about to explode.

"The influx of migrants started a decade ago," she says. "Tent camps are not a solution. We need more humane shelters, as well as procedures to integrate migrants into our society. And this is not solely an Italian problem."

Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has repeatedly accused the European Union of not helping Italy with the growing number of both migrant arrivals — and victims. He says Europe cannot afford 3,000 dead every year — four times, Renzi claims, the number killed by the Islamic State.

At a press conference this week, the Italian commander of the EU's Mediterranean mission, Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino, said most migrant victims die in Libyan waters, where the EU cannot intervene. But he says, the mission's anti-human smuggling operations have had a strong deterrent effect on the crime gangs.

"Since traffickers and smugglers cannot leave the territorial waters of Libya, before we were there, they were using big fishing vessels which they cannot use today," Credendino says. "I think we have done a lot of damage to their business model."

With their big vessels destroyed, smugglers now use less sturdy rubber dinghies that are prone to capsizing — and the death toll rises.

The Italian parliament this week hosted a panel on the migrant crisis. One of the speakers was Eritrean Tadese Fisaha, 31, a survivor of an Oct. 2013 shipwreck off the island of Lampedusa that claimed 369 lives. Many of his friends and two family members with their children drowned.

Fisaha is grateful to the fishermen who saved him and his brother.

"They helped me, many people, they saved many lives, many lives, the people of Lampedusa, like my family," he said.

Another panel speaker was Cristina Cattaneo, chosen by the government to head an ambitious program to create a DNA database of the thousands of deceased migrants. Many migrants, she says, carry documents sewn in their clothes.

"What they have sometimes is very moving," she says, "because they will have personal documentation that they may think is important for their future. In the last mission in Sicily, we found the report card of a 15-year-old with his marks in physics and chemistry."

After autopsies are carried out, the biggest challenge is the creation of a Europe-wide network that collects and pools all the information on the dead and relatives of seeking news of the missing.

But, says Cattaneo, "Europe is not responding. Obviously there is a huge issue with migration, the living migrants are a huge problem, but Europe has to face that fact and take on its responsibilities."

Identifying the dead, says Cattaneo, is necessary to help families grieve, to provide documents for orphans — and not least, to ensure the civil rights of the deceased.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.
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