Saturday 20 January 2018

"Bizarrely he is wearing a T-shirt bearing a cartoon image of Irish comedian Brendan O'Carroll" - lives in limbo for refugees who've risked everything

Goalstime who is a migrant at the red cross centre in Alcam, Sicily
Goalstime who is a migrant at the red cross centre in Alcam, Sicily
Migrant boats in Pozzallo harbour, Sicily
Omar from Senegal who is a migrant at the red cross centre in Alcam, Sicily
Alieu Badjie from Senegal at the red cross migrant centre in Alcam, Sicily. Photo: Mark Condren
Red cross staff member Annamaria Ginestra gets a kiss from a migrant at the red cross centre in Alcam, Sicily. Photo: Mark Condren
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

He’s dressed in a Mrs Brown t-shirt with no knowledge of who Brendan O’Carroll is – the only thing on this refugee’s mind is day to day survival. Read the powerful stories of the African men caught in limbo and cramped conditions in Sicily.

Reporter Cormac McQuinn travelled to Northern Sicily to witness the desperation, tension and dwindling hope experienced by the refugees who have survived the treacherous crossing.

They risked their lives attempting the dangerous sea crossing from north Africa in barely sea-worthy boats, were rescued, and now live in an Italian Red Cross refugee centre.

It's just one small corner of Italy's refugee reception system and the Herald visited this week to ask about their desperate bid to get to Europe in a migration that has seen at least 1,800 die trying this year alone.

They fled war, violence and poverty in countries like Eritrea, Nigeria and Mali and have now found themselves in the Italian asylum system, waiting for a decision on their cases.

It can get tense in the small centre.


Omar, (25), from Senegal - who speaks several languages - acts as a mediator at the centre.

His own journey to Europe began when he fled a conflict-hit region of his native country. He journeyed through three other African countries over several months before he reached Libya.

Read More: LÉ Eithne crew to get counselling for horrors of mission

After some time working there, the authorities caught up with him and he was imprisoned in a centre for immigrants for the last three months of his time in the chaotic north African county.

"Prison, it was so hard, so hard. They beat you without doing anything," he says. "I was hit with a gun and stuff like that. It was on my eye. Thank God I was not badly hurt."

"Some have been killed for wasting time or talking against them (the guards)," he added.

Omar and other prisoners began to plot an escape and dug a hole in the sand under the fence - returning every day to continue the job until they broke out at night.

Read More: Mediterranean crisis: 'I came to Europe in a packed, leaky boat ... I wish I could go home'

Three days later he was getting the boat to make the dangerous journey to Europe along with more than 100 others.

He was three days on the precarious craft, with the occupants scooping water out with their hands.

Omar said that he feared the boat would soon sink, when a commercial ship spotted them and they were hauled to safety in August 2013. Now he lives in the centre in Alcamo.

Some of the issues that the refugees complained about at Alcamo are similar to the criticisms of Direct Provision in Ireland.

Alagie (33) from Gambia is angry about being caught in the asylum system.

"I never get happy in this camp," he said.

Among the issues he complained about was the money that the Italians pay migrants: €1.50 a day. That's less than the €19 a week in Ireland. In some camps the migrants get up to €3 a day, under certain government schemes but that is not available to those in Alcamo.

Read More: Doctor shocked at sheer number of migrants to save

"I'm here almost four months without work. When are they going to let me work? Or increase the money they give me?" he said.

"The money (given to refugees at the centre) is up to the government," a Red Cross spokeswoman said.

Others complained about the food provided.

"What can be done to make it improve is for them to make a list to buy things we need and we can cook by ourselves. That's all," said Alexander (29), from Nigeria.

The centre's management says that there's nothing wrong with the quality of the food, it's just different tastes for different cultures.


For all the complaints there are many positive things going on at the camp.

A young man from Senegal, who calls himself Goalstime, is the centre's resident artist.

Bizarrely he is wearing a T-shirt bearing a cartoon image of Irish comedian Brendan O'Carroll and with a Mrs Brown Rides Again slogan.

He says has never heard of the TV programme as he proudly shows the Herald his artwork.

Such is the scale of the migrant crisis, with tens of thousands of migrants arriving at its shores, that the Italian state enlists the help of agencies like the Red Cross to run migrant centres.

It is run by a mixture of volunteers - including local Red Cross president Davide Bambina who is a lawyer and Ezia Maria Mistrita. All of them are dedicated to the work.

Mr Bambina speaks with pride of the initiatives set up for the migrants, including second level education in local schools as well as the football coaching that takes place on the grounds.

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