Monday, February 5, 2018

The Journey Has Just Begun

Migrants during a rescue operation in the Mediterranea Sea Photo: Reuters
A line of African refugees and migrants forms quickly outside Centro Astalli soup kitchen. Photo from 
The Journey Has Just Begun
By: Tamara White, MPA

For many migrants fleeing their country, it is a difficult decision to make with an even more difficult journey. Most of these migrants flee their countries because of conflict, violence, political repression, organized crime and extreme poverty. According to the UNHCR, once a migrant decides to leave their country and embark on a journey to a foreign land, the journey is not only difficult but extremely dangerous and sometimes deadly; with the number of migrant deaths on record reaching an all-time high. This is especially true in Italy, where there has been an increase in migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Nigeria, Eritrea and Libya to name a few. However, the proportion of those refugees and migrants that died while attempting to cross the central Mediterranean in 2016 is one death for every 40 persons crossing. Knowing these risks, it is easy for one to understand the desperation that a migrant goes through in order to flee their country, only to realize that if they are lucky enough to make it to Italy, they are faced with even more difficulties upon arrival. For those individuals, the journey to freedom and becoming a “refugee” has only just begun.

So what is next?

There is no guarantee a migrant will be helped by the government which has left many hopeless and stranded in Italy. Immediately upon arrival, they have to make a decision to apply for asylum in Italy or move on to another country. Although most are hoping to move on to other neighboring countries like Germany, France, Austria or Switzerland, increased restrictions at Italy’s land borders contributed to larger numbers remaining in Italy and seeking asylum there. This is where the journey can become dark, forcing many migrants to figure out their next step. Once they apply for asylum, they have to wait a few months and sometimes up to 2 years to get an approval or denial. In the meantime, migrants have to find shelter, food, clothing, medical care and other basic human needs to continue on. Some wait out the system in refugee camps while others fend for themselves risking homelessness and illegal ways of making a living such as prostitution; all consequences of a broken immigration system. In theory, they are supposed to be in reception centers for 30 days, but for the majority, the process takes a year or a year and a half … so they escape. They leave the camps. The problems lie not only with insufficient capacity within reception centers, but also with gaps in administrative procedures that leave refugees confused and without adequate information. Frustrated by the slow progress, many end up leaving the centers to find work or try to leave the country, but often achieve neither. Although Migrants are allowed to start working two months after they lodge their application for asylum, most of these jobs are scarce and limited. In addition, most face significant barriers such as learning basic Italian skills which is required in order to find work. This becomes the reality for many refugees residing in Italy.

If not the government, then who is there to help?

During the Academic Global Immersion program in Rome, Italy, I was given a once in a lifetime opportunity to get a first-hand look at the refugee crisis in Italy and hear from various organizations - government, non-profit and non-governmental organizations - who are actively handling this crisis and servicing the influx of refugees. One organization that truly stood out as a key player was Centro Astalli, an Italian branch of the Jesuit Refugee Service - JRS. This organization truly exuded a clear passion and drive to help impact the refugee crisis. Centro Astalli is involved in numerous activities and services that serves the objective of accompanying, serving and defending the rights of those arriving in Italy fleeing war and violence, often also from torture. The Center helps to inform the public about who the refugees are, their history and the reasons that brought them to this point. I was lucky enough to hear from the team at JRS and Centro Astalli about the work that they do. One of their goals was to stay as close to the people, have direct contact and to truly understand their stories and needs. I was privileged enough to tour the Centro Astalli location to get a glimpse of the canteen and the migrants who took part in these activities. I was also lucky enough to hear one of the most profound stories from a refugee named Chiara Peri who found hope through this organization. Chiara was a refugee from Cameroon who endured many hardships before arriving to Italy. She had experienced a domestic violence situation and fled to Nigeria and eventually made it to Italy leaving her family behind. Chiara stated that the hardest part about assimilating in Italy was learning the Italian language since she a native English speaker. In addition to that, she found it very difficult to find work beyond “cleaning”. Unfortunately this is typical for most migrants who are trying to start over in a new country. The system makes it difficult for them to assimilate and become self-sufficient. Thankfully to organizations like JRS, Centro Astalli who continue to do phenomenal work by helping migrants get the help, resources and services they need to move forward.