Helping Migrants, Or Rethinking our World

Interview with Luciano Scalettari

Mimmo Paladino, "The door of the Mediterranean"

Mimmo Paladino, "The door of the Mediterranean"

«The Lampedusa shipwreck of 3 October 2013 was a catastrophe that occurred a few metres away from the shore. In it, 366 migrants died. There need be such tragedies to make people aware of this phenomenon». These are the words of Luciano Scalettari, correspondent of Famiglia Cristiana who has covered the news about Africa for long, with whom we talked about the thousands people who risk their lives every year to reach our shores, and those who put their lives at risk in order to help the migrants.

Where are the migrants from, and from what are they running away?

They come from countries under dictatorship like Eritrea, from where a huge number of people leave due to a situation going on since the war with Ethiopia, that is to say for nearly 15 years. With a steady flow of more or less 400 runaways a day, the phenomenon has become very cumbersome for the African country, which has only a few million inhabitants. Eritreans run away because the country, that has never recovered from the war, is starved, and it has since then been held by a regime which has become more and more authoritarian, I would say police-like. Besides starvation and the need to seek a way out from such a heavy situation, the key reason behind these runaways by so many people is the military service, which is compulsory for everybody, men and women, and acts de facto like a continuous stimulus to leave. Until little time ago, it started at the high school, just before university; now it was even anticipated by one year to try and stop this flow out of the country. For women this not seldom entails heavy sexual intimidation and abuse, but also for men future is mortgaged, and they do not know if and when it will ever be over. This is why so many leave. Many others escape from Somalia, a stateless country, without administrative nor judicial bodies, ravaged by a war which has torn the country for over 20 years. For those who run away from countries of Africa's Horn like these ones, the route is very difficult and dangerous. They almost always run away heading for Sudan, then somehow and in a very long time they cross the desert and come to that that hell's circle that is Lybia, where they are often jailed for they are considered clandestine, or they fall into the clutches of human traffickers. Sometimes they spend months in the waiting camps – sort of refugee camps for runaways – before finding access to one of those ships on which they try to cross the Mediterranean Sea at a very high risk. In the case of these two countries there is a steady and huge flow of people who try to reach Italy or the rest of Europe.
Other flows are linked to temporary situations or topical conflicts. It is the case of Irak, Afghanistan, Syria, or Gaza, countries of origin of many people in the recent migration wave. Then, there are escapes that are related to poverty or human rights violations. I think of Nigeria, an oil-rich countries which has lots of problems linked to bribery and overpopulation – there are slightly more than 160 million people in a countries which is not much larger than Italy. And then Senegal, Ghana. The African migrants are already urbanized people, who do not leave rural villages but the capitals or biggest towns, who are often able to organize for the trip and sometimes have already some contacts with someone in the West who can give them information about the route and the destination. So they take their chances, and try to reach our country.

The breadth of this phenomenon are alarming. What are the causes behind this situation and what should be done to fix the inadequacies of the control and and treatment of the migrants?

The problem giving rise to this phenomenon – still unheard with this size and features – is essentially the growing gap between wealth and poverty. Today, thanks to the new communication technologies, in every lost village of Africa, the Middle East or other poor areas of the world there are upcoming news and information, and people know about the living standards of the so called developed countries. Modernization has led to a relative ease of transportations, giving migrants an opportunity to take a trip that until a little time ago would have been a jump into the darkness. There are well-known cases of people who until few years ago left with a little sheet of paper in their pocket, with the writing: “Anelli streeet, Padua”. That was the address of a migrant reception facility, that has become well-known as the “casbah” of Padua, and now does not exist anymore. Today people are very likely to leave with the name of somebody to whom to turn, or perhaps a reception entity in the destination country. The growing gap between rich and poor countries, an economic heritage of colonialism that is linked also to conflicts and other well-known factors, is a huge problem. To try and solve it we should put into discussion, even in the long run, a political-economic system that is well-rooted all over our planet. As to the present emergency, the major problem of these recent years is that Europe has shifted the weight of managing migration to its Southern member states – Italy, Spain and Greece. This is partly due to the fact that the countries that are now dumping the load to others are the same that welcomed a lot of migrants in the past (above all, Germany and France, which count for many more migrants on their soil); on the other hand we did not have the strength to get Northern European countries to share this issue. Italy now is vocal at demanding more solidarity in tackling the situation. Soon we will see the start of operation Triton, which should be the continuation of Mare Nostrum and that is already the object of sone arguments. Anyway this operation should provide a more European and less Italian response to the problem at hand.

If not within the EU member states, solidarity unleashes within the so-called civil society. How does the world of humanitarian associations and migrant rescue networks work?

There are several levels of humanitarian intervention. Many of these entities until a few years ago were not there in Italy because they operated in the poorer countries. This is the case of Doctors without Borders,, Save the children, Emergency, Terre des Hommes, CESVI from Bergamo, the very UN High Commission for Refugees. Many have recently started operating in Italy, in the places where ships arrive, to try and compensate for the lack of state governance of the situation. These are organized entities, above all the international NGOs are true “multinationals of humanitarian aid”, with very rugged shoulders. From here we can get down to parish volunteering and all entities that act at the local level in emergency situations. In Milan, where I live, I see thousands people arrive. And in the recent period, after the Lampedusa massacre, the Italian authorities de facto gave up applying the European law that provides to take the digital fingerprints of migrants as soon as they arrive and block them where they are – of course they are not regular migrants, they have no permit of stay. The widest majority of these people do not want to stop here, but rather to go to other European countries, therefore in the recent year our authorities generally avoided the so-called identification. This was told in a slightly peculiar way by Gabriele Del Grande who, with other authors and filmmakers, in the movie Io sto con la sposa (I stand with the bride) documented the trip of two migrants, a boy and a girl, who pretending they are novel bride and groom succeeded in turning around controls and get to Sweden. In Milan there are many Syrians and Eritreans hosted in entities that are often about collapsing - like Casa della Carità of Father Virginio Colmegna that managed to welcome hundreds people who did not know where they would stay for the night. I have seen single juvenile groups of the parishes help people in the street by bringing them some of their provisions, or sheets, or making room inside the parish to make them rest. The network of humanitarian rescue, hence, gors from the more structured organization working on a given support project down to the tinier forms of volunteering that are carried out when emergency becomes daily.

Who are these rescuers, which stories do they have behind them?

Part of these rescuers, NGO workers and coworkers of the better structured associations have a certain history and a long experience on the field. This is the case of the mobile teams of Doctors without borders or Emergency which operate in Summer to check the exploitation conditions of irregular people in Southern Italy. Then there is the “half-structured” volunteering that under the lead of a parish or an association that responds to a local crisis. The most moving and touching thing about these entities is that, in front of emergency, also people who are not part of groups of associations take action. In Lampedusa we have seen the volunteer of Civil Protection step in with his structure – which has a well-defined organization in our country – and go much beyond what would have been his role. We have seen the human chains with tourists who left their sun umbrellas to go to the rescue of exhausted migrants. In front of these situations, when faced with an exhausted person who does not manage to swim a few meters more to get to the shore, people feel the heart beat and go to the rescue...
There are also particular figures, to whom also the aforementioned Del Grande belongs, who put a specific professionalism in the service of a cause that cries for revenge. It is apparent that those who undertake these trips of hope are abused in all possible ways. Going to thr rescue becomes a deed of great moral significane, that refuses denial of human rights. I think of Arnoldo Mosca Mondadori who came to deal with Lampedusa starting from cooperation with a NGO, Amani, which is committed to rehabilitating the boys who live in Kenya's slums. In front of what happened in Lampedusa, he started doing everything possible to organize a series of initiatives to make people aware of what is happening on this island.

What do you think of the idea of honoring these rescuers as Righteous in the Garden of Monte Stella Hill in Milan? Do you think it can be a way to create a kind of a “solidarity contagion”?

I think there are some gestures that bear a very strong symbolic value, including that of dedicating a tree and a memorial stone of the Garden of Milan to these people, whom we can call as Righteous. This idea provides an added value in the cultural accomplishments that were reached on the subject of the Righteous – originally the non-Jews who rescued the Jews during the Holocaust. Such a pathway led to broaden the figure of the Righteous to encompass the moral resistants to other genocide cases, and by recognizing the people who rescued the migrants as Righteous we would add another tile to the puzzle, introducing events of the utmost topicality nowadays. The symbolic value would be very high. Even more so if we think that a few days ago a group of people belonging to a certain political party went around the station of Milan with a plasterboard reading out: “Ebola. No thanks”. I think that fact bears an extremely negative symbolic value, for different reasons. Above all because it reveals a closure that is very mean and sad. A worldwide phenomenon that concerns the lives of millions people is read by some people – fortunately very little representative – like something to get shielded from. Then, in this specific case, the seriousness of this behaviour is made worse by a gross ignorance. Ebola is not reaching Europe through these poor destitutes - clandestinoes as they are called by those groups – but rather through the doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, well-off people, to sum up, who travel quickly and by plane. To counter the negative strength of such images we must create other images and give a name to positive symbolic facts. I find it emotionally strong to recognize as Righteous people who do not only perform deeds of the highest moral significance to defend human rights, but are also teaching us a new way to think our planet.

Don’t miss the story of the Righteous and the memory of Good

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