Trapped in Apulia Europe's Deepening Refugee Crisis
A young Liberian refugee arrives in Italy, where he is left to fend for himself and winds up homeless in a filthy slum. When he flees to Germany, the government there invokes EU asylum law and sends him back. It is a cycle of degradation faced by thousands of African refugees living in Europe today.
The first time around, he ended up on the street in Hamburg, and the second time he was sent to prison. Now Sekou Kone lives in a hut made of trash and is trying to figure out how to make it to Germany a third time.
Flies circle around the bowl of rice in his hand. The stench of urine and rotten fish drifts in through the doorway. Empty cans, tires and debris litter the ground outside, where children walk along trails in the muck. The inhabitants of this settlement in the fields of Apulia, a four-hour drive southeast of Rome, call it "The Ghetto." They also call it "New Mogadishu," after the lawless capital of Somalia, where life is worth about as much as a bullet. "The Ghetto," says Kone, a refugee from Liberia, "is worse than any slum in Africa." But where else can he go? His parents are dead, he says. He was a child when he left Liberia in 1991.
Kone, now 30, is wearing sandals and a dirty shirt, and he has a short haircut. His eyes are dry and empty. On most days, he leaves the settlement early in the morning and walks the 15 kilometers (9 miles) to Foggia, the nearest city, where he waits for work at an intersection with dozens of other day laborers from Eastern Europe and Africa. Farmers from the region hire them to work in the fields -- but, in the economic crisis, even these jobs are now hard to come by. Kone says that he hasn't been offered work in three weeks. On days like this, he has no choice but to return to the camp and wait for the next morning.
Hundreds of refugees live in New Mogadishu. The slum in the fields developed around a few ruins that the Italians abandoned long ago. The refugees have built huts out of corrugated metal, plywood and plastic tarps. They sleep on worn mattresses or pieces of cardboard. There is no electricity, no gas, no running water. The slum residents go the nearest pond to bathe. Rats scurry through the garbage. The sick lean against the walls of their huts. Some are so sick that they hallucinate.
The United Nations estimates that 56,000 people fled by boat from African countries to Italy in 2011. The number declined significantly in 2012, but there were still thousands of refugees. More than one in three refugees is given a residence permit in Italy. Few other European Union countries are as generous with their residence permits, but in Italy the refugees are left to fend for themselves. Few manage to find work and a place to stay. They vegetate in parks or in slums like the Ghetto in Apulia, where they have no medical care. The refugees have become the targets of attacks by right-wing radicals. The men work for low wages in the fields or in construction. The women prostitute themselves.
Uniform Asylum for the EU
Last week, after a 14-year dispute, the EU countries agreed on a uniform asylum system. The law promises similar standards for refugees in all 27 EU countries, where the rules and duration of asylum proceedings have now been harmonized. But the most important part of the law, the controversial Dublin II regulation of 2003, remains largely untouched.
Under Dublin II, every refugee who reaches Europe can only apply for asylum in the country he or she enters first. Refugees who receive a residence permit are generally permitted to travel in the Schengen zone for up to three months. However, they are barred from working or living in countries other than the one that granted them residence.
The rule benefits Germany, which is surrounded by EU countries. The German government invokes the Dublin II regulation when it sends refugees back to other EU countries. Italy, like many countries on the EU's external border, is unable to cope with the asylum seekers. But by treating the new arrivals so poorly, the government in Rome also creates incentives for them to leave the country.
Since May, several hundred Libyan refugees in Hamburg have been protesting against their deportation to Italy. The authorities there released them from emergency shelters in the winter, offering them temporary residence permits and 500 ($660) -- but no real prospects. Their fate has revived the debate over whether the Dublin II regulation makes sense.
Most of the people living in New Mogadishu are recognized refugees. They were granted protection on humanitarian or other grounds, which applies when, for example, there is a war in a refugee's native country. In Germany, those who have been granted this status are entitled to social services, accommodation and integration courses. But Italy provides none of these things to refugees. SPRAR, Italy's state-run protection program, has only 3,000 slots -- for 75,000 people in need, as the Italian refugee council estimated in 2012. As a result, many refugees become homeless as soon as they leave the camps.
A Life of War and Flight
That was also the case with Sekou Kone. His voice breaks when he talks about his life, and he spends a long time searching for the right words. The basic information about his case is detailed in an identification card he received from the UN Refugee Agency. Kone was born in Liberia in 1983, the youngest of three siblings. When he was six, civil war erupted in his country, claiming 250,000 lives.
Kone's father was a soldier, and both he and Kone's mother were murdered by supporters of warlord Charles Taylor. He speaks haltingly as he tells his story. As a boy, he found shelter in a refugee camp in Guinea, where he went to school. But Guinea is poor and, according to Transparency International, one of the most corrupt countries in Africa. When he was older, he went to Libya to work as a laborer, slaving away on construction sites for three years. Then the unrest in the Arab world engulfed the country. With the help of NATO, the Libyans overthrew dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Some of the Libyan rebels suspected black immigrants of supporting Gadhafi. For the third time, Kone found himself fleeing a country.
In the early summer of 2011, he took a boat to Lampedusa, an Italian island in the Mediterranean. From there he was transferred to Sicily. A few months earlier, the uprising in Tunisia had prompted the Italian government to declare a "North African Emergency," and it created housing with EU support. But according to reports by refugee organizations, the African refugees hardly benefited from the policy. Hotel owners and businesspeople lined their pockets instead.
Kone was housed in a hotel. He remembers that the refugees lived on the upper floors, while tourists stayed on the lower floors. He was given something to eat once a day but, as he says, the food was often spoiled. He was forced to leave the hotel after a year. He was given a document, a residence permit for "humanitarian" reasons, but Kone had no idea where to go. He slept in parks and under bridges in Palermo, until other refugees told him about the Ghetto in Apulia.
Kone shuffles through the labyrinth of huts. The stench of burning garbage hangs in the air. Young people are playing checkers on homemade boards, and a man is working on a scooter. Some of the refugees, who worked as mechanics and engineers in their native countries, occasionally repair cars that Italians bring to them.
Politicians in Foggia are familiar with conditions in the Ghetto. The authorities installed toilets for a time, but residents say that they removed them a few weeks ago. Now urine trickles along the paths again. Kone says that people in Africa used to say that Europe was a paradise -- and yet, for him, Italy is a hell on earth. Last fall, he tried to get away for the first time.
- Part 1: Europe's Deepening Refugee Crisis
- Part 2: To Germany and Back