“You have Landed in Sicily”

© Francesco Malavolta/IOM 2015

By Flavio Di Giacomo

"You have landed in Sicily. Do you know where that is?" Abduraman is staring into space, listening to the voice of the cultural mediator. She's showing a map of Europe to a group of unaccompanied children – gathered in a tent shelter protecting them from Palermo’s blistering summer sun.

For Abduraman, a 15-year-old Somali, the journey was too hard for him to now rejoice. He left Somalia with a group of friends several months ago. He has survived the hazards of passing through Libya, where, like many transiting migrants, he was beaten and abused. His back still bears the bruises.

Abduraman is one of 717 migrants who arrived to the port of Palermo on June 11. The migrants were rescued after two days on the high seas and brought ashore by the Italian Coast Guard vessel "Dattilo." Rescued in several operations, they were accompanied by 12 corpses.

Their eyes are still full of fear and it is difficult to catch even a glimmer of a smile. Only the small children seem untouched by the experience and still want to play in the arms of their exhausted mothers.

Ahmed, one of the few Moroccans of the group, which comprised mainly Gambians, Nigerians, Somalis (among whom there were also some women), Eritreans, and Bengalis, described his experience.

"We left Zwara in Libya at 7.00 am. After just six hours, the rubber dinghy in which we were travelling began to deflate because of the heat, and the bow started to take on water. Panic broke out and everyone – there were over 100 people on board – rushed to the stern. Many people fell into the water. Some drowned immediately. I was able to stay afloat because I had bought a lifejacket in Zwara. I didn't die because I was able to spend EUR 30 on a lifejacket," he says.

Other survivors tell of four women among the 12 migrants who perished. Two of them were pregnant. They didn't drown; they were crushed by the crowd on board. One of them was travelling with her husband and two-year-old daughter from Nigeria.

Another Nigerian, John, says: "I hung on to the dinghy for over an hour. Thank God rescuers arrived, I don't think I could have lasted any longer." His gaunt face reflects his exhaustion and the hardships he and the other migrants have endured.

IOM staff working on the pier provide legal counselling and help the Italian authorities in identifying vulnerable groups: unaccompanied minors, potential victims of trafficking, and cases that need special attention and care.

Many migrants explain that they were forced to flee from Libya because of the violence in the country. Jeremy, also from Nigeria, says that he used to work as a mechanic, but couldn't live in the country any longer: the colour of the skin was cause enough to put his life into jeopardy. Mohamed, from Morocco, lived in Tripoli for many years in Tripoli, but the increasing violence and the difficulty of getting paid for his work convinced him to attempt the crossing.

Some 75,000 people have arrived to Italy by sea since the beginning of the year; over 1,840 have perished during the crossing. This is more than double the approximately 700 who died crossing in 2014.

Thanks to the expansion of the European Union’s Triton operation in international waters close to Libya's coastline, the number of deaths has decreased in the last two months. But crossing the Gulf of Sicily in unseaworthy boats remains lethal.

The means of transport used by the migrants has also changed in recent months. The wooden boats that could transport up to 700-800 people are no longer being used. Most of the migrants now set sail in rubber dinghies, which can transport approximately 100-120 people.

This may be why, despite an increase of 7,000 in the total number of arrivals from 2014, June saw the same number of incoming migrants as May, despite forecasts of a peak summer season.

Nationalities are also changing: Italy is now receiving mainly sub-Saharan Africans and people from Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Some are fleeing war and persecution, others desperate economic situations.

The number of women victims of trafficking is also on the rise. These girls, mainly from Nigeria, are often psychologically abused by criminal organizations and brought to Europe for sexual exploitation.

The number of Syrians arriving in Italy, on the other hand, is now decreasing. Some 4,000 Syrians arrived in the first half of 2015, compared to 12,000 in the first half of 2014. Their preferred route is now via Greece, although there are still some who choose the longer and more dangerous route via Libya.

When the migrants are all ashore, the coffins of the victims on the deck of the Dattilo are hammered shut. The people on the pier fall silent and the milling crew and reception workers stop what they are doing, rooted to the spot. Time stands still. Meanwhile, Abduraman finally grasps where Sicily is. He points to map, and smiles. "I am finally safe", he says in a whisper. "I have really arrived in Europe."


Flavio Di Giacomo, IOM Rome