'Italy is Not The End for us. We Want to Go North'

Migrants sleeping rough in Milan are not just a problem for their hosts but for all of Europe, reports Colin Freeman from Milan.

Published: 14th June 2015 08:22 AM  |   Last Updated: 14th June 2015 08:22 AM   |  A+A-

Opened in 1921 as a symbol of the power of Mussolini's Fascist regime, Milan Central Station represents everything that is elegant about northern Italy.

Some 300,000 people pass through its cathedral-sized lobby every day, from awestruck backpackers through to commuters so stylish they could be stars in next weekend's Milan Fashion Show.

In recent weeks, however, the station's mezzanines have been home to hundreds of new arrivals who haven't had a change of clothes in days, or indeed a wash.

They were among the 50,000 refugees who have poured into Italy this year on people-smuggling boats and, with Milan's emergency refuges now full, they had nowhere else to sleep.

That too, is how it will stay, according to Robert Maroni, the president of the wealthy Lombardy region. After some 5,000 new boat people pitched up in Italy last weekend - including 1,400 picked up by the Royal Navy - he told mayors in his fiefdom, including Milan, to refuse to take any more.

"I'm not for immigrants," declared Mr Maroni, a member of the Right-wing Northern League. "We already have too many, therefore we are not able to receive more."

Yet no matter what Mr Maroni says, the flow of migrants to his elegant city seems unlikely to stop anytime soon. Because for anyone seeking to head to northern Europe - where job prospects are much better than in Italy - Milan station is the launch pad. The departure boards advertise trains to Paris, Munich and Vienna, although most would settle for a ticket to pretty much anywhere - including Britain.

What is more, there are sympathetic people here who will help them on their way. Dishing out food, drinks and advice to the migrants each day is Susy Iovenio, 49, the founder of Milan-based SOS Emergency Refugees.

She set the group up after dropping her mother off at the station one day last year, when she was shocked to see entire migrant families living rough.

"I bought them some food and then asked for other people to help on Facebook," she told The Sunday Telegraph, as fellow volunteers handed out sandwiches and drinks. "Now we feed them whenever we can, and we help buy them things like phone cards and train tickets."

Indeed, these days there is a charitable helping hand for the migrants at nearly every stage of their journey into Europe. Out in the Mediterranean, Medecins Sans Frontieres operates its own private search-and-rescue boat, which it launched last month as the EU dithered whether to expand its own sea missions.

At Italian ports, meanwhile, other non-governmental organisations assist the migrants upon arrival. And round the corner from Milan Central, Britain's Save the Children runs a migrant youth welfare centre, where under-18s get lessons in Italian and advice on their rights to education, housing and benefits.

Thousands of teenagers now make the journey alone, and for all the peril it involves, they see themselves as just as privileged as the gap-year backpackers traipsing through Milan Central.

"Their families believe they are sending them to a better life," said Francesco Purpura, who works at the welfare centre. "It is a gamble - maybe you succeed or maybe you don't."

Yet while few would question their good intentions, the NGO presence at Milan Central shows the divide in Europe over how to respond to the crisis.

Pushing in one direction are elected politicians like Mr Maroni, who are aware of growing unease among the electorate at such uncontrolled migration, and who want to signal that Europe neither wants nor can afford more arrivals. Pushing in the other are organisations such as Save the Children and Ms Iovenio's group, whose generosity arguably does much to give the migrants the opposite impression.

Similarly mixed messages, meanwhile, are emanating from Europe's corridors of power. At a meeting of European leaders to discuss the problem tomorrow, Rome is expected to renew calls for a "quota system" that would distribute some 24,000 refugees currently in Italy. But David Cameron and the leaders of Holland, France and the Baltic states are likely to resist, fearing it will simply encourage more migrants to come.

Certainly, listening to the migrants' stories at Milan Central, it is easy to see why many see Mr Maroni's comments as hard-hearted. Abdul al-Abdul, 30, arrived last week with his wife Sham, 27, and son Zain, 4, having fled from Syria's Latakia province, a pro-Assad stronghold that Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant extremists have vowed to destroy. They took a packed fishing boat across the Mediterranean via Egypt, telling their son they were "off to play in the sea", arriving in Italy eight seasickness-filled days later.

"There is no point in going to other Middle East countries," said Mr Abdul, as his son played with an action figure. "In Jordan they don't want us, and in Lebanon and Turkey there is no work."

Similar comments were voiced by Jalal al-Mula, 41, an Iraqi from Baghdad, for whom the past year of Isil terror has proved the final straw. "For year after year, we believed things were going to get better, but it just got worse." said Mr Mula, who wants to join other family members in Finland.

Ms Iovenio has heard similar stories, and follows how they end by staying in touch with refugees by Facebook. One she says, is now at Sangatte in France, where an estimated 350 migrants are believed to be smuggling themselves into Britain each week.

Ms Iovenio admits that passers-by at the station sometimes criticise her for feeding refugees ahead of destitute Italians, but accuses both Mr Maroni and Mr Cameron of failing to show more compassion.

Yesterday city officials ordered the migrants out of their informal gathering area at the station amid increasing health and sanitation concerns. But about 150 migrants continued to sleep outside the station, according to local charities.

Surveys show that one third of Italians believe that migrant boats should simply be abandoned at sea, and last November, Pope Francis himself warned of a "social emergency" after anti-migrant protests in Rome, where they were blamed for a crime wave.

"The Italian government has responsibility for this disaster," Matteo Salvini, the Northern League leader, told The Sunday Telegraph: "They don't distinguish illegal immigrants from refugees and they allow this terrible invasion."

Despite the League's picture of a Lombardy at "breaking point", the region has only taken 67 migrants per 100,000 population, according to official statistics. Neighbourhoods like Corvetto, where many migrants end up in council housing, are also a far cry from the Parisian-style ghettoes that the League fears. When The Sunday Telegraph visited Corvetto last week, the only complaint among Italian locals was that the government was not doing enough to provide for them.

"You sometimes see them sleeping and doing the toilet in the park," said Giuseppe, 67, sitting with a group of other pensioners opposite an Arab clothes store.

"That is not dignity - give them a roof over their heads."

The debate in Italy, though, obscures the fact that only one in five migrants actually want to stay there.

Under the EU's Dublin Convention, all asylum seekers must make their claims in whichever nation they first arrive in, a policy that is supposed to be enforced by local police taking their fingerprints.

However, Mr Mula said that at the holding centre in Sicily where he was taken with hundreds of others, they simply refused to have their prints taken. "We told them 'no' as it would mean we would have to stay in Italy," he said. "The police tried to force us to do it, but eventually they just gave up and released us."

As a Schengen country, Italy also has open borders, so all migrants at Milan Central have to do to head north is buy a rail ticket and hope not to meet a French or Austrian customs guard on the train. Even if they do, there is nothing to stop them trying again - or alternatively pay smugglers to take them by car.

Mr Mula has already tried that once, only to be ripped off when the driver he paid euros 400 (pounds 290) broke down outside Milan. He insists, however, that it will not stop him trying again: "I just need to find someone I can trust," he says.

Europe's leaders, meanwhile, need to start finding a route out of the crisis. Judging by the situation at Milan Central, that may prove harder than it will be for Mr Mula to reach Finland.

India Matters


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