Nowhere to go: Stuck in a migrant center in Italy
MINEO, Sicily — Silla Zelia, a 23-year-old from Ivory Coast, is stuck in Italy's largest migrant center with nowhere to go. She has been there since 2013, when she crossed the Mediterranean Sea on a boat packed with migrants seeking new lives in Europe.
Zelia has asked Italy to grant her asylum, which would protect her from being sent back home or arrested, but her application has been rejected twice. She has also lost contact with her family back home.
"One can get stuck here for two years, three years," she said from the migrant center in Mineo, which now houses about 3,200 migrants from 30 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.
For Zelia, going home isn't an option, either.
"Where I come from, life is not easy, my neighborhood has big problems, my house is all in a shambles, all in a shambles," she said.
After making the treacherous crossing to Italy, would-be refugees like Zelia face another grueling test trying to convince European countries that they deserve asylum. The refugee label is normally reserved for those fleeing war and persecution in their home countries. Many of the migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are simply running away from poverty.
Those rejected often remain in Italy as "irregulars," living on the fringes of society, said Flavio Di Giacomo of the International Organization for Migration.
They will end up working in the fields, picking up tomatoes and oranges, he said.
Many migrants still awaiting decisions in Mineo also work at nearby farms to make time go by quicker. Collins, a 28-year-old Nigerian who gave only his first name, said it helps him stay happy, even though he earns only 10 euros ($11) for a hard day's work.
"Being in one place, not to do anything, you understand, is stressful," he said. "You think, think, think."
Nothing To Do
The Mineo center, which was originally built to house members of the U.S. Navy and their families, resembles an American suburb with neat lawns and clean streets.
Men are everywhere, riding bicycles and playing soccer on a large dusty field.
The women are harder to find. Zelia said they stay inside, going crazy because there is nothing to do.
"There is no good food to eat," she said. "I have nothing to wear."
Migrants are allowed to leave the compound, but have to be back in two days. Even outside the gates, there's not much she can do without an income. Zelia pointed to her reindeer socks and sandals — a combination she said was all she could afford.
Besides food and housing, migrants get a daily handout of cigarettes or phone card credits, worth 2.50 euros ($2.67). They trade them among each other for cash.
Italy has seen its asylum applications skyrocket in the last year, and even more requests are expected as record numbers of migrants continue coming ashore. Rome's government has been criticized for failing to process and fingerprint them all according to European Union (EU) policy. Now Rome is stepping up its response to make sure migrants don't slip through to northern Europe.
"They Are All At Their Limits"
According to EU records, Italy granted asylum to about 20,000 applicants last year and denied about 15,000. That's a relatively high approval rate considering the EU's 28 member countries rejected about half of the applications they received overall.
But Italy now faces unprecedented levels of asylum-seekers, with nearly 65,000 new applications last year. The only EU countries with higher numbers were Germany and Sweden, already homes to large immigrant communities.
Italy's government said there were 67,000 people in migrant reception centers across Italy as of February, about one-fifth of them in Sicily.
"They are all at their limits, actually they have been stretched way beyond their limits," said Enos Nolli, a volunteer working with migrants.
It's not unusual for asylum-seekers to wait a year for a decision; if they appeal a rejection, the process drags on even longer.
The United Nations says the biggest groups of asylum-seekers in Italy come from Mali, Nigeria and Gambia. Syrians and Eritreans tend not to request asylum in Italy, even though they are supposed to do so in the first EU country they enter.
Thousands Come Every Week
Swedish immigration director Mikael Ribbenvik says many migrants simply refuse to identify themselves to Italian authorities. They continue their journeys so that they can apply for asylum in northern Europe instead, where better paying jobs are available.
Sweden and other EU nations have pressed Italy to fingerprint those coming in, so that there is a record of them having entered Italy.
"If you arrive at an airport and refuse to identify yourself, you won't be allowed in," Ribbenvik said. "The same principle applies on the beaches of Sicily."
Still, he acknowledged that Italy faces a huge challenge with thousands of people arriving on its shores every week.