Clinging to life on Italy's margins

Surviving the treacherous Mediterranean crossing is only the beginning. Life inside Italy's refugee centres

Fabrizio Villa/Polaris

Fabrizio Villa/Polaris

Clement Konyeme is sitting in a refugee centre in Rome, talking with two other Nigerians and a Sicilian, Bartalo Spataro, who works in the centre. Unlike the others, Konyeme refuses to speak Italian. “I’m angry,” he says, and he looks it.

Konyeme walks with a limp because his right thigh bone was crushed. He says this happened when he was in prison in Nigeria for political activism. At his first asylum hearing after arriving in Italy, his interviewers suspected him of coming to Europe for free medical treatment. “We have hospitals in Africa,” he says. “I owned a good business in construction. I left my wife who was expecting a baby. I had a good life there. They [the government] were going to kill me.”

Konyeme just had another hearing where he wasn’t rejected, but the decision has been delayed. “I am a prisoner here. I have no freedom.”

Like so many of the men in this centre, he arrived in Italy on an illegal ship that crossed the Mediterranean from Libya. He made the journey from Nigeria to Libya toward the end of 2013, he says, where he paid a smuggler to bring him to Europe. And while he’s not behind bars and can wander Rome at will, he is stuck. If his claims can’t be deemed either credible or somehow verifiable by a refugee commission, which has a representative from the municipality, one from the province and one from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, he will be sent back to Nigeria. In the meantime, not having asylum status means he lives in Italy without a residency or a work permit. The Italian government provides food and shelter plus an allowance of 45 euros a month ($63), but until this is resolved he can’t take a job even if he could find one, and he can’t leave the country.

The men are just finishing lunch—a beef patty with a side of rice, peas and carrots and bread rolls called rosette because of the way they puff up like a flower. The air is scented with citrus from the oranges they are eating for dessert. Emanuel Ihene explains that they are just passing the time. He wants to practise his Italian, but Konyeme insists on English.

Ihene arrived in Sicily on a smuggler’s ship about a year ago after a journey through Chad, Niger and Libya. “It’s crowded [on the ship] and you don’t know if it will make it,” he explains. “You can’t stay in Libya—it’s too dangerous. And you can’t go back.” He says his life was in danger in Nigeria, but that Libya was far worse. When he arrived in Italy, he was almost deported immediately, but a lawyer working for free helped him present a case for asylum. Italy granted some form of protection status to 60 per cent of the migrants who asked for it in 2014. Ihene is waiting to hear what will happen, and is studying Italian to help him eventually find work. “I have experience as a mechanic,” he says.

Konyeme, meanwhile, wants to start a business, and to bring his family to Europe. Even though Spataro and Ihene argue that he’s going to need Italian, he refuses to listen. It sounds like an argument they’ve been having for some time and Spataro tries to keep Ihene from being drawn into despair.

This building, which is known as a SPRAR reception centre (an Italian acronym for “system for protection for asylum seekers and refugees”) houses 100. The capacity of all SPRAR centres in Italy was increased in 2014 to accommodate 20,000 people. But by early May this year, 34,570 migrants had arrived in Italy, most of them coming across the Mediterranean from Africa. So far, 1,840 have died at sea compared to 425 during the same period last year.

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post/Getty Images

There are different migrant centres for youth, for families and for unaccompanied children. In this particular building, men in their 20s and 30s—most of them African, though there are a few Syrians, at least one Pakistani and a Tibetan—are either waiting to be given asylum, or they’re trying to find work so they can move out. Without much structure to their days, they drift in and out. A young man from Mali says in Italian that he’s going to Termini, Rome’s main train station in a multi-ethnic neighbourhood, to hang around. “Not too much hanging around,” teases Giulia Consolini, one of the coordinators. He promises to stay out of trouble.

The windows of the dining room look onto a courtyard filled with drying laundry. A resident from the Ivory Coast comes outside to take his clothes down. He’s recently been granted asylum and he found a job at a McDonald’s. But he’s having trouble getting enough hours to be able to move out.

“They’re only supposed to stay for six months, there are more people coming all the time and we need the space. But you can’t throw them out. We have to help them get a start,” says Consolini.

Another resident who has a job and is preparing to move out is a refugee from Chad. Jules (Maclean’s has agreed not to publish his real name to ensure his safety) grew up in a comfortable family, but his father displeased the government. His parents fled the country. Jules had just started university and decided to stay. He thought it was safe since the dispute was with his father, not him. But two years later he was arrested along with his cousin. They were tortured and starved, he says. After almost a year, the cousin died in their cell and the jailers left the body with Jules for a week. “In one year and three months I saw the sun only twice, when they had to clean the cell,” he explains.

He finally escaped because of a prison riot. By then he couldn’t walk. Seven fellow prisoners carried him for two months, moving only at night toward Niger, where they went straight to a hospital. After a month, he went to Libya and from there his parents paid for a place on an illegal boat to Italy. Unlike Konyeme, Jules’s story was possible to verify. He was given a permit and put to work in Sicily as a translator because he speaks French, Arabic and several African languages. He quickly learned Italian and came to Rome where he hopes to finish his studies. He works in another refugee centre for young people.

“He’s an inspiration for them. He’s a refugee too, but he’s moving forward,” says Fulvia Vannoli, the centre supervisor. “Every week some leave and more come,” she explains. She opens doors to show the crowded rooms, some with seven or eight beds. “Look at how clean they are,” she says, proudly pointing out that the beds are made, personal items tucked neatly under mattresses. The men wash the floors, clean the rest of the building and they launder their own linens.

She keeps opening doors looking for the man from Tibet. There are people lying in bed in the afternoon. “Some are really depressed,” says Consolini. Vannoli finds one of the Tibetan’s roommates who says he’s away on a movie set. Morgan Freeman is starring in a remake of Ben Hur in Rome, and this particular Tibetan refugee is playing a Mongolian. This doesn’t surprise Vannoli. “It’s never what you expect here,” she says.

Consolini says she loves coming to work because of the positive atmosphere. There is a definite sense of boredom among the men, but also a sense of relief. “They’ve been through so much by the time they get here, and now they’re just ready to move on.”

The challenge is to keep them busy. Consolini helps with resumés and coaches them on how to behave in a job interview. “You can’t act like a poor African or Syrian. You can’t say, ‘Oh, I’m so poor, you have to hire me,’ because people want the best person for the job. You have to be that person. Talk about your skills and what you can bring.” She just helped a refugee from Afghanistan get a job at the Vatican, where they were very pleased to have him because of his languages.

But unemployment is high in Italy, at around 13 per cent. While the images of people being rescued at sea on their way to Europe has aroused sympathy, they have also aroused fears. Last November, neighbours gathered outside a refugee centre in Rome’s Tor Sapienza area shouting abuse and throwing rocks. In March, the same centre was set on fire. There have been anti-immigrant rallies, but also counter-demonstrations to show support. There are freshly spray-painted swastikas on walls around the city, but also the phrase “League-ists and racists not wanted here”—a reference to the anti-immigration Northern League party. In recent regional elections, the Northern League saw its share of the vote grow in traditionally left-leaning areas. Matteo Salvini, the party’s youthful leader, has suggested the answer to the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean is to leave the migrants on the boats. He said they should be rescued if necessary but not allowed to disembark in Italy.

Consolini encourages the men to sign up for courses, to be prepared and open to anything. There is a lot of waiting, but she encourages them to use the time to put them in a better position when they eventually get a work permit. She points outside to a courtyard where three men, two from Mali and one from Senegal who took an agricultural course, are planting lettuce seeds, parsley and tomatoes.

They stand back to look at their hard work and joke about how it still looks like dirt. “Now what?” Consolini asks one in Italian. “And now, we wait,” he answers.