November 9, 2009

Follow up commentary to Blogs #1 and #2--African Immigrants and Refugees in Europe

This is the third of three blogs filed by Nunu Kidane, Director of Priority Africa Network and Gerald Lenoir, Director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. They spent two weeks in Italy and Greece to learn more about the plight of African refugees as they make their way to Europe to find work to support themselves and their families back home.

There have been tremendous positive responses on the investigative findings and reporting of PAN and BAJI from the end of October to the beginning of November 2009.

Some of the comments were words of encouragement and some suggestions on expanding on our investigation. Our goal was not to do exhaustive writings about the history of Eritrean migrants and the long period of the diaspora from pre-independence to the current situation. It was to capture a snapshot of images and stories about the lives of the young people we met on our brief journey. We believe we have done that well, given the limitations of time and resources.
Over the past few years, the last five or six in particular, there have been increased reporting of refugees dying in the Sahara desert, the Mediterranean Sea and across many spans of land and sea attempting to reach European borders. Very little of the news coverage gives faces and stories to the individuals who have undertaken the journey, or died in the process, or came to the “promised land” only to find the promises negated and who have become deeply disillusioned. The first goal of the blogs was to make up for this gap with stories of the young people we sat and spoke with, in different circumstances and geographic locations.

The second goal was to highlight the issue of migration, especially for Africans and others in the Global South and to bring this conversation particularly to those in the U.S. who view the issues of immigration with the limited lens of U.S. border with Mexico. Migration is a global phenomenon that is increasingly driven by push factors. Thousands of people in Africa leave home because of economic hardship or political repression and, in many cases, for both reasons. Many people in the U.S. see migration only within the U.S. nation and not within a global framework.

The third goal is to bring focus to the fact that a key factor in why people are leaving their homes, usually in desperation to save their lives and those of their families and people in their communities, has to do with the neo-liberal economic agenda that is pushed by countries in the Global North—the United States and Western European nations—and the institutions that they control. There is a direct and undeniable relation between the harsh economic policies that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have imposed on many nations in Sub Saharan Africa and disastrous outcomes and eventual crises these nations face. Many developing countries are caught up in the debt system that continues to bleed them dry. They are paying more and more to international financial institutions or to lending institutions in Europe and the U.S., forcing them to severely cut their expenditures in key sectors, like education and health.

One thing all the people we spoke with had in common is that they wanted their stories told to the world. They were cautious at times about us using their names and even more apprehensive about being photographed. But they urged us to tell others what we saw and heard. This is not uncommon in populations impacted by natural or human-made disasters. They want the world to know, even when there is no help forthcoming. Letting others know about their plight prevents them from falling into despair and the awareness that the world mourns their suffering is important to them. That is what we promised to do and what we attempted to do in these blogs—to tell the simple but profound stories of migration from the perspective of how they are experienced individually and collectively.

For Eritreans, it is especially painful period in history. The promises of civil and political liberties of post-independence have turned into a nightmare of repression, imprisonment, persecution and forced conscription. Eritrea is a country that has one of the highest numbers of refugees and displaced persons in the world in proportion to its population (4.5 million). Thousands of young people, both men and women (and increasingly young children) are leaving the country, walking across the border, initially to the Shemelba Refugee Camp in Northern Ethiopia run by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.

What is driving people out is directly related to a government that has been compared to a closed state of the likes of North Korea and Burma. There is no election of any kind; one man (and his cronies) rules the land. There is no independent media and the police force’s recruitment of spies among family members and friends makes Orwell’s 1984 look mild. It is a state where people live in fear and anxiety. Anyone who is able to walk out does. Those that are left behind are basing their hopes of change on families and friends who are living outside the country.

In the U.S., readers may be less aware of an important international convention that is critical to the protection of refugees – the 1951 United Nations Convention of Refugee Rights. This document sets the standards in defining who is considered a refugee and what the responsibilities of receiving nation states are in dealing with refugees. Despite being amended several times over the years, the key definition of a refugee is “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

Without a doubt, many of the Eritreans and indeed, peoples from many other Sub Saharan African countries fit within this definition. They are escaping persecution, which can be easily proven given the political circumstances in their home countries.

What is less understood and becomes difficult to include under this definition are the “economic refugees” who are leaving their homes because they are no longer able to (or allowed to) earn enough living for themselves and their families. The two are, in many instances, linked, in that political repression usually inhibits free flow, exercise and exchange in commerce and hence economic decline follows in due course. However, under the above definition, fleeing because one is hungry or wants better opportunities for self and family sets a person up for rejection under the protocols for obtaining refugee status.

While we focused on the plight of Eritrean refugees in Italy, we broadened our investigation in Greece. In the coming week, we will edit and upload an interview with Moawia Ahmed of the Hellenic Sudanese Friendship League and the Greek Forum of Migrants. He is himself a Sudanese immigrant living in Athens who is very actively speaking out for the rights of immigrants and refugees in Greece. He gave us some significant insights into the issues faced by immigrants from the Sudan, Eritrea, Nigeria and other countries.

We hope our regular but brief blogs have given some insight to conditions of Africans living in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. We also hope that the stories we have shared stay with you next time you hear a report of a boat sinking in of the Mediterranean Sea or migrants held indefinitely in detention centers in the border countries.

To join our work in making visible stories of African immigrants and to be active advocating for change and influencing policy please, visit us at or

November 3, 2009

Blog #2: African Immigrants and Refugees in Europe: A PAN and BAJI Investigation

This is the second of a series of reports from Nunu Kidane, Director of Priority Africa Network ( and Gerald Lenoir, Director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration ( They are spending two weeks in Italy and Greece to learn more about the plight of African refugees as they make their way to Europe to find work to support themselves and their families back home. They are also attending the Global Forum on Migration and Development and the People’s Global Action on Migration, Development and Human Rights, both in Athens. These reports will chronicle their impressions, conversations with migrants, and what they are learning.

Rome, October 29 – 31, 2009

The historic city of Rome is known for breathtaking sights from the Vatican to the Coliseum and beyond. However, there are little known areas not far from the historic routes frequented by tourists, areas where large numbers of refugees from a number of countries reside in poverty but with dignity.

We spent a day visiting with activists and refugees who live in these areas. The most well known are Ponte Mamolo, Ana Nina and Colitana where refugee squatters desperate for shelter inhabit substandard housing.

As our hosts informed us, the Italian government does not take responsibility for providing permanent housing for refugees. After their initial processing, refugees are provided with documents and a place to sleep in camps for a period of six months to a year. They are then released into the public to find housing on their own. One activist told us that there are over 30,000 refugees in Rome but only 3,000 have housing.

Unemployed and with few resources, many people sleep on the streets with nothing but cardboard walls to fight the bitter winter cold that sweeps in for the better part of the year. The majority of them frequent the area around the Statione Termini (the central terminal for trains and buses). But police discourage them by making their rounds regularly and forcing them to move.

With few options for housing, a group of Eritreans we met recently took over an office building in Colitana. After the completion of the building, engineers found that the water below the foundation made it unsafe for occupancy and the owners abandoned it. A group of Italian activists known as “Movement Action” who are fighting for the rights of the homeless to have shelter informed the refugees of its availability.

It is one of the most coveted living spaces because it has solid walls, access to water and even heating. About 200 individuals live there. Of these, we were told that less than ten percent are women and there are no children. There is no security in these quarters because police can move the refugees out at any time. There is also the constant fear of having their space invaded by gangs and outsiders, which makes the women in particular highly vulnerable.

The site we visited is in Ponte Malomo located near the center of the city of Rome. The space, originally an open ‘garden’ area with one little shed, was discovered by chance and inhabited by an Eritrean individual. Soon others came seeking shelter from the cold. As the community grew, they started constructing structures with cinder blocks and sheetrock, using tin roofs to keep out the rain. Shabby to look at and structurally unsound, the makeshift housing is a welcomed haven from the open streets. (See the video tour at

It was difficult for us to believe that such a place exists so close to the cities most beautiful tourist attractions. We had spent a couple of days walking the streets with packed with hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, bars and well dressed people from all parts of the world. There were no indicators that so close to us were people living in a shantytown.

There is an undeniable resemblance to the shantytown areas of Soweto that housed hundreds of thousands of families during the days of apartheid and that is still home to so many outside Johannesburg, South Africa. The mark of apartheid in the city of Rome is there in full view and yet virtually invisible to most Italians.

The residents are mostly young men; of the 70 or so people who live there, only about four are women. They were grateful that their neighbors do not give them a hard time and the police hardly come to harass them.

About four years ago, a fire broke out in the housing units. Luckily, no one was killed but some people were seriously injured. The residents called the fire department, which responded to the fire three hours later. By then, the fire had died down, having done extensive damage. Many were again left homeless.

It took a lot to put the community back together again. They received donations from churches and generous individuals to help them rebuild. They used their hands and their skills to construct new homes that resembled the small multi-family row housing units in the city of Asmara, Eritrea. They showed great ingenuity by building five breakers that connect to a nearby streetlight to provide lighting to the houses. Unfortunately, the power is weak and cannot generate enough energy for cooking and refrigeration, so they use gasoline-powered hot plates to cook. Water is available from only one source and each housing unit uses buckets to carry the water home for washing their cloths, cleaning dishes and bathing.

Anyone viewing the video clippings will be appalled to see such a standard of living in a European city and a country that is supposedly a “first world” economic and military superpower and a member of the G9 that supposedly donates millions to eradicate poverty in the “Third World.”

For food, those who have intermittent incomes from day labor work purchase food and cook in their units. Others go to the homeless shelter run by Caritas, a Catholic charitable organization, where they can get one meal per day. One of the young Eritrean men told us how ashamed he is to go there for a meal and does it only as a desperate measure. The soup kitchen, he says, is full of people who are old, handicapped and unable to take care of themselves. He said he is young, able and willing to work and wants to maintain his dignity and earn his keep. But Italy does not have jobs, not even for many of its own citizens. The economic conditions do not seem to be improving and the future looks bleak for the refugees of Rome.

One of the refugees we met talked about the Dublin Regulation, one of the least known of the European Union’s immigration policies that went into effect in 2003. The regulation essentially follows the Geneva Convention in stating that the first country an asylum seeker lands in is the country that will process his/her application and where the refugee must remain.

This has meant that the border states that are closest to the Mediterranean—Italy, Spain, the Island of Malta and Greece—have been the recipients of disproportionate number of refugees. If a refugee lands in any one of these countries, their application is processed there and they are expected to remain in the country. Given the lack of adequate housing and opportunities in these countries, refugees are constantly moving further north.

Although the Regulation went into effect nearly six years ago, it has only been since 2008 that the fingerprinting system and exchange throughout the European Union countries became operational (EURODAC-European Union automated fingerprint identification). Should a person leave the country of their first arrival and attempt to unite with their families or even exercise their free choice of movement to change to another country, their fingerprints are traced and they are returned to the country where they first arrived.

This regulation has brought countless hardship to the refugees we spoke to. Unable to work and make a living, with no access to shelter or food or any of the basic necessities, and in many instances, with the desire to unite with their families, refugees attempt to leave repeatedly. Knowing full well that their fingerprints will identify them, they attempt to destroy any trace of fingerprints using means that cause of unspeakable pain.

These are three ways commonly used to remove fingerprints. A refugee will burn his/her own fingerprints and palm prints with a lit cigarette. This painstaking and slow process can take several hours. It leaves a person with their fingers and hands in constant pain and unable to use their hands. Soon blisters appear and infection can spread.

Another method used by many refugees is to place their hands directly over a gas, charcoal or electric stove or immerse them in scalding water to remove their fingerprints and palm prints. This is no less painful than using a lit cigarette.

The third process requires a person to rub sandpaper against his/her skin. It may seem comparatively the less painful, but not so. It takes two or three days of rubbing fingers and palms with sand paper to entirely remove the top skin, leaving raw, blood exposed skin.

Each individual who showed us their hands felt they were driven to this extreme as a desperate measure to escape what they consider as unlivable circumstances. They said these painful steps are deeply damaging to their physical beings but are “only temporary.” If they succeed in making it outside the countries, they consider it worth the price of such pain.

Unfortunately, the authorities in other countries know of these steps. One of the Eritrean brothers brought out a piece of sandpaper and demonstrated to us how he used it to obliterate his fingerprints. Another young man told us that he was able to destroy his prints and made it to England to find work. But eventually he was arrested and when his hands healed two week later, a fingerprint check gave him away. He was deported back to Italy, back to no home and no work.

This policy that is bringing inhumane pain and suffering to refugees is fully known by all immigration authorities in Europe. There is already a proposed change to the Dublin Regulation that is expected to take place sometime in 2011. The change is not out of consideration of the difficulties refugees are facing but is in response to the outcries and demands of the frontline countries in Europe that are pushing for equitable “burden-sharing” of the number of refugees that are coming across their borders.

The young men we met with seemed in a quandary about how to change their dire circumstances. “Without hope, people will perish,” one young man said, paraphrasing a famous quote, the author of whom none of us could remember. But, as if to buoy his own spirit, he quickly added, “Hope springs eternally.”

November 2, 2009

Blog #1: African Immigrants and Refugees in Europe: A PAN and BAJI Investigation

Agrigento, Sicily, Italy, October 26-28, 2009

Nunu Kidane, Director of Priority Africa Network ( and Gerald Lenoir, Director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration ( are spending two weeks in Italy and Greece to learn more about the plight of African refugees as they make their way to Europe to find work to support themselves and their families back home. They are also attending the Global Forum on Migration and Development and the People’s Global Action on Migration, Development and Human Rights, both in Athens. This is the first of several reports they will be filing about their impressions, conversations with migrants, and what they are learning.

We were fortunate to spend two days in a small coastal town of Agrigento where in the central part of the city stands a Catholic church with the figure of a black priest carved in stone perched high above in the church tower. It is a statue of Saint Calogero, an African priest who came to Sicily around the 14th century and is revered as the town’s patron saint.

But in the 21st century, African refugees who traverse the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean Sea find Calogero’s city, indeed the entire country, unwelcoming, even hostile to them. A well-known Italian Bishop is said to have remarked that if the saint-priest were to arrive in Agrigento today, he would find himself in similar circumstances as the refugees who are detained and disdained.

Agrigento is situated far west in the region of Sicily, an island off of the coast of mainland Italy (see map). We spent the better part of two days in the city at Progetto Tarik, a shelter for male migrants from many countries, including Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, and Sudan—37 men ranging in age from 19 to 37. We ate with them, sipped cappuccinos with them and even attended an Italian language class with them. During the course of our stay, we were fortunate to gain their trust and engage in personal conversations about their migration experiences, their hope and dreams, their frustrations and setbacks. They opened up to us and shared the details of the nightmare that they had experienced.

While we try to capture much of what they told us, it is impossible to convey the full account of the emotional highs and lows we all felt in response to their stories. These young, intelligent, beautiful men had stories that were hard to believe and yet were told calmly and at times, even with humor.

They came from Eritrea to avoid forced conscription into an army that had no time limit; many were forced to act as the personal servants to high-ranking officers. They came from Darfur, Sudan to escape war, from other parts of Sudan fleeing from forced conscription and repression, from Nigeria escaping the conflict in Niger Delta and from Somalia to escape from a so-called failed state and a never-ending war. Whatever the reason for their departure, their asylum cases depended on whether or not they had a good case for substantiating grounds for fear of persecution which is the basis of the U.N. Refugee Convention protection for asylum seekers. Those escaping poverty or looking for better opportunities for themselves and their families would be considered “economic refugees” and subject to automatic rejection.

All of the young men we talked to arrived in Italy aboard crowded boats that set sail from Libya, normally, just a day’s sail across the Mediterranean Sea to Lampedusa, an Italian port further south. One of the Eritrean young men reported that his voyage took five days, the most excruciating experience he had been through in his entire 19 years.

The sea is infested with “big fishes” that circle the small boat at all hours. At night, there is total blinding darkness. During the day, the heat from the sun is relentless with no water to quench their thirst. The salty waters are “like acid” as their skin begins to peel off from the intensity and dehydration. Of the 300 migrants on the boat, there were a few women, one of whom was eight months pregnant. Assuming they would reach their destination in a day, they had no water and no food.

He recounted that the deaths begin to happen the longer they are at sea. But that most die, ironically at the moment of sighting a rescue ship when panic sets in as each individual competes to be first to go up the ladder to safety. It is a fight to death as people get pushed aside, some falling into the sea, others remaining on the boat when the rescue ship departs having filled its quota. Those who have not been picked up know this is their last chance. With no food or water, it is a matter of hours before they would die in the sea.

Before embarking on their voyage across the Mediterranean, almost all of the young Eritrean men left their country by making their way to neighboring Sudan. From there, they embarked on the perilous journey across the Sahara Desert. Another 20-year-old Eritrean man recalled memories of sand as far as he could see, of thirst beyond belief, of the daily fear and uncertainty about living another day, of the people who died along the way and were buried in the sand, nothing to mark their graves, just a mound of sand. Each mound in the otherwise flat desert was an indicator of someone who did not make it. He wondered if that would be his fate.

The migrants are loaded on trucks packed as tight they can fit. A young Eritrean teen recounted a story of a Somali boy who had been seated very close to him for the better part of the journey. When the truck stopped and it was time to stretch their legs, he stood up to find the body next to him slumped and fell. He suddenly realized he had been sitting next to a corpse for the past few hours. His expression was somber when he remembered the moment.

“I had never seen a dead body before, his eyes remained open as if he could see… I didn’t know what to do,” he told us. Like others before him, they buried him, but not deep in the sand. No one had the energy left for a proper burial.

We asked about their families, those they left behind, evidently a difficult and emotional topic for the young men who have not seen their loved ones in a long time. The Eritreans know that many of their families have been imprisoned or subjected to huge fines by the government because of their departure.

Each trip across a border is undertaken with the full realization they may not survive. This is especially true when leaving Tripoli (Libya) where the Mediterranean Sea leaves no trace of a body. Each young man told us that they leave word behind with trusted friends at different point in their journey in case they do not make it to their destination. They said leaving word behind gives them comfort knowing that should they not make it, their families will at least know of their demise.

Many felt dejected after reaching Europe and not finding the promised land of their dreams. They expressed frustration with the endless bureaucratic entanglements that kept them in camps, detention centers and with little hope of education, employment or supporting the families they had left behind.

All of the young men we talked to said they left home largely to find ways to improve conditions for their families back home by sending money back. But Italy does not offer them employment or cash assistance, education is limited to language classes, and they have no means to improve their lives. Once in a while, an individual is able to work as a day laborer and earn a small amount. But a good portion of those earnings are spent on phone calls and Internet access in order to stay in touch with their loved ones at home and in other countries.

Despite these horrors, the young men were not depressed and in a state of remorse over their journeys. They shared their stories openly and with a sense of hope (and trust) that we would convey their messages broadly. They expressed no regrets of what happened in the past but were pessimistic about what the future holds. They have been in Italy anywhere from four months to three years. Although grateful for their lives, they foresee no change in their circumstances.

They have the temporary permits to remain in Italy and can travel to other parts of Europe. But they are not allowed to remain in any other country, only the first point of landing. One young man told us that he managed to get to Switzerland, where refugees receive much more government support. So desperate was he to get out of Italy, he used a lit cigarette to burn the fingerprints off of his ten fingers. He was caught and detained until his fingers were completely healed. Because of the fingerprinting system that is shared with border control agencies throughout the European Union, he was immediately deported back to Italy.

Despite all they had been through, these young men are realistic, reflective of where they are and what the future looks like, and most of all, able to laugh at the insanity of it all.

On the last day of our visit, there was news of the arrival in the port of Lampedusa of a large contingent of refugees, mostly Eritreans, Ethiopians, Somali and Sudanese. This was indeed surprising news as the recent agreement between Libya and Italy had almost ceased the boat arrivals. Libya received several billion Euros in exchange for detaining and preventing refugees from making the journey across the Mediterranean Sea. The bilateral agreement was celebrated in Italy as a major victory for the right wing government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. According to Berlusconi, the pact would put an end to the refugee problem. For migrants now trying to get to Europe, the cost of the journey across the sea alone has gone up from $1,200 before the Libyan blockade to $2,800.

The facts of the boat’s arrival as we learned later in the day were that it contained 298 refugees who had been rescued at sea in bad condition. About 15 were women and 9 children. One young Somali man was dead for reasons that could not be determined. Fearing the breakout of illness because of this, the entire group was quarantined and prevented from meeting any outsiders, including members of the media.

As the stories unfold in the course of our visit, we will continue to share with you the details of our findings.

(Pictured on the right, Italian human rights activist Manfred Bergmann with Nunu Kidane and Gerald Lenoir)


•By request of many of the young men that spoke with us, we are unable to share the names or photos; they fear reprisals against them or members of their families back home.

•This investigative mission was supported by a grant from USA For Africa and the facilitation and logistical assistance of Manfred Bergmann from CADI (Comitato Antirazzista Durban Italia). Many thanks also to the Director of Progetto Tarik, Gianluca Avanzato.