Last year, the news media focused intensely on the European refugee crisis. Some 800,000 people crossed the Mediterranean to Greece, many fleeing wars we had a hand in creating, in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Each segment of their journey was carefully documented by thousands of reporters and photographers.
But there is another humanitarian crisis in Europe we have heard much less about: the roughly 200,000 migrants and refugees who left Africa for Italy since last year. This year alone, some 2,000 have died while making the voyage.
No one gets excited by an epidemic of despair. Some African refugees — largely from Nigeria, Gambia, Somalia, Ivory Coast and Guinea — are escaping wars, but others are fleeing despots, corruption and poverty, a tapestry of problems that have plagued the Continent for generations. When they arrive here in Sicily, they face an overloaded system that is unable to meet their needs.
In May, I spent a week in Sicily with a team from Unicef taking photographs and interviewing those who have made the journey. In the island’s capital, Palermo, I met Peace, a 17-year-old Nigerian living in a shelter for girls. She fled home after being told she would have to marry a 40-year-old man. “This man took me to his house and made me his house girl,” Peace said. “I said to my aunt, ‘He’s older than my dad,’ but she said, ‘If you don’t marry this man, I will poison you.’ ”
Peace traveled to Agadez, Niger, a waypoint where smugglers load migrants into crowded trucks to cross into Libya. “So many people died in the desert. We saw dead bodies, skeletons,” she said. Upon arriving in Libya, she was locked in a windowless room for six weeks. “There was no water, no changes of clothes, not enough food. There was fighting outside, I could hear shooting.”
Libya is particularly brutal on migrants. Boys are set to work by local residents at backbreaking jobs in construction and in the fields for less than $5 a day until they earn enough to afford the $1,500 passage. Girls are often forced into sex work. “They used to rape us and beat us,” said Tsenga, an Eritrean woman who today lives at a sprawling refugee camp in Sicily. “The girls cried, they cried bitterly. They cried because they are just children.”
For the last stage of their journey, migrants board crowded boats. Men are usually crammed into the hold, where they sometimes suffocate, dozens at a time. Women and children are given spots on deck. Captains almost always abandon their ships in international waters, leaving the migrants with a satellite phone and the number for the Italian Coast Guard.
Peace was one of an increasing number of unaccompanied minors making this voyage. In 2015, from January to May, some 3,000 children made the passage alone. In the same period this year, according to the International Organization for Migration, there have been 7,009 such children, an increase of 129 percent. Of the 7,567 minors who have arrived in Italy so far this year, a staggering 93 percent of them traveled alone. (Among migrants from the Middle East, the trend is roughly reversed: Over the past year, around 10 percent of children arriving by sea to Greece were unaccompanied or separated.)
What are the lives of African migrants like once they reach Italy? We don’t really know. Colleagues who have requested access to refugee camps are rarely explicitly refused — instead their requests go unanswered by local governments. They settle for filming, but are not permitted to talk to, forlorn-looking people disembarking at ports around the island. We see the desperate refugees grateful to reach Europe’s shores, but we don’t see what happens to them on dry land, once they are warehoused in camps.
Unicef was granted access to two of these refugee shelters. One was on a former American military base just outside of Mineo, in Sicily’s hinterlands. Flanked by wheat fields and orange groves, and patrolled by armed guards, the Mineo camp holds more than 3,000 asylum seekers, and many residents have lived there for longer than a year. Built to emulate an American suburb, neat grids of streets are lined with identical houses, once occupied by servicemen and their families. Now there’s a Senegalese street where used clothes are sold. The Eritreans live by the barbed wire fence with a view of the mountains. The Nigerians, maybe by sheer power of numbers, took the main street. Kids play with broken vacuum cleaners and discarded suitcases while teenagers listen to music in driveways.
We were accompanied by an employee of the camp’s management company, and our movements were surveyed — supposedly for the protection of the people living there. We were instructed not to photograph faces, structures or interiors. At times, we were prevented from talking to refugees unless a minder was present. And yet many of these refugees are adults, who ought to have the right to tell their stories.
The state is having an especially hard time taking care of all of the kids traveling alone. Many do not go to school or have much of anything to do as they wait for a decision on their asylum status.
In the southern town of Pozzallo, a registration center for newly arrived migrants and refugees is designed to house people for a maximum of three days. When I visited, many had been there for six weeks. There were about 110 boys there, each wearing an ID bracelet with a letter and three numbers. Apparently, their names are not important. The boys get three meals a day, and a three-minute phone call with their families each week.
“This place is very difficult,” said Sanna, a 17-year-old who’s part of a group of boys from Gambia who have nicknamed themselves the Do It or Die Crew. “We are not at school — if we were, we could say we have a normal life. But we are here, and all we do is eat and sit. They had a football before, but the ball is flat now.”
This summer, as the Mediterranean waters calm, African migrants and refugees are expected to set sail in record numbers. According to a recent joint Interpol-Europol report, an estimated 800,000 or more will attempt to reach Europe from Libya. Italy will need support from other countries in the West to expand its camps, provide adequate services and speed up the asylum process. But we cannot respond to this crisis until we know its scale. And this is why the Italian government must open the camps and shelters to the news media.
In Palermo, Peace has already waited three months for her asylum case to be heard. She’s rarely allowed out of the shelter, for fear traffickers will find her and put her to work as a prostitute. Peace said she wished she’d known how difficult the trip would be. “I would have continued suffering in Nigeria.”
Ashley Gilbertson is an Australian photographer with the VII Photo Agency living in New York City. His most recent book is Bedrooms of the Fallen. Photographs: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo for Unicef