Destination Sicily: Life on the migrants' island of hope

A mastiff guards boats in Catania port, Sicily - April 2015

As the Sicilian skies turn a menacing slate-grey, a bulky mastiff guarding the neatly-piled nets and ropes in Catania port wakes up to bark at the approaching storm.

Small wooden fishing boats remain docked; their weathered crews know the perils of the waters that illegal migrants risk their lives to cross from North Africa every day.

"If the international community doesn't stop them leaving, a lot more will die," warns Giovanni.

"The straits here are dangerous. They're not deep, so the waves get big quickly."

He believes there are many deaths that never make the news as callous smugglers put their human cargo to sea in overcrowded, rickety vessels.

"It's really bad to die that way," another fisherman, Mario, tells us.

"Put 200 people on a boat like ours, and of course it goes straight down."

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Nearby, we watch from a distance as several dozen young, African men are brought to shore on an Italian Coastguard ship.

They were rescued from a sinking dinghy in Libyan waters and huddle together looking cold and wretched.

There is now a well-practised routine for dealing with such arrivals.

They are photographed with numbers as they descend the gangplank and the same digits are written on the backs of their hands. The men line up at a Red Cross tent for medical checks.

Aid workers give socks and trainers to those who arrive bare-footed.

As they wait at a registration tent, there are handouts of water and this group is given slices of Italian cake, which are hastily gobbled down.

An overwhelming number of migrants - some 16,000 - made it to Italy in April. It is the number one destination for illegal immigration into Europe.

Although there are daily instances of charity and compassion, there is also frustration and hostility in Sicily.

'Going down the tubes'

Image caption Salvatore, an 87-year-old fishmonger: "We're being ruined by these people."

At the Catania fishmarket, the local passion for seafood is on display. Squid wriggle in inky black water, and there are buckets of live eels and cartons of molluscs oozing briny juices.

"Sicily was a beautiful gem, now it's going down the tubes," says Salvatore, who, at 87, still wields a large chopping knife to cut chunky, swordfish steaks.

"We're being ruined by these people. They want to be maintained, they want a free life, and we can't afford it.

"The United Nations and the European Union have to intervene. They can put up barriers to stop their departure."

While some point out the negative impact on tourism, one vendor has more macabre complaints.

"It's a disaster for us to have people dying out there," says Pietro.

"Customers believe the fish eat the cadavers and they don't want to eat the fish any more. These fish mainly eat worms in the mud - but the rumours spread.

"Sometimes the fishermen find a body in their nets," he says. "They just throw it back to sea because they have to report it to the police if they bring it into port."

Mediterranean migrants: in numbers

In 2014:

  • 219,000 people arrived in Europe
  • 3,500 deaths/missing

In 2015 (1 Jan- 27 April):

  • 46,000 arrivals in Europe
  • More than 1,750 deaths/missing

source: UNHCR

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'No water, food or fuel'

A short walk along from Catania's impressive, Baroque-style cathedral, there is a centre run by the Community of Sant'Egidio.

Waka, who is 21 and from the Gambia, is staying here on a break from the Mineo migrant camp.

He recounts a terrifying odyssey: leaving home in search for work, he headed to Senegal to join a cousin before moving on to Libya, where he was put in prison and hired out as a labourer.

But he managed to escape. One year ago, Waka was saved from a flimsy craft after two days at sea.

"There was no water, food or fuel," he says. "We used our hands to direct the boat.

"When the navy rescued us we were very happy. We nearly lost our lives."

Image caption A group of African migrants outside the Teatro Massimo Bellini in Catania - 26,000 migrants have arrived in Italy this year

Some migrants describe tensions between the 30 or so nationalities housed at Mineo - a former United States military base - but Waka feels a sense of belonging.

"We have this community. They became like my sisters and brothers," he says.

"We're Christian and Muslim but we all pray to one God. In the Gambia, I didn't have this kind of love. I want to stay in Italy. I see a brighter future here."

But even refugees who are granted permission to remain can find themselves facing unexpected difficulties in austere times. Italy's unemployment rate is 12% and among young people, it is 40%.

'No opportunities'

At a new mosque in Catania, Mahmoud Abdullah is now confronting this harsh reality. He is from Homs in Syria and recently escaped the bloody civil war to make it to Europe. He hoped to earn enough money to bring his wife and four children across the Mediterranean.

"God willing things will get better," he says. "It cost a lot to come here from Libya via Turkey. Italy is good.

"The people are kind but there are no opportunities. There's no work and I have no money. I would like to see how things are in Malta or Sweden."

As we talk, the sun breaks through the clouds. Experience shows that the warming weather will lead to more migrant boats setting sail.

Last week, the European Union agreed new measures to deal with this influx of people, including trebling the funding for its naval search mission and a clampdown on human trafficking.

However, the underlying problem seems impossible to solve: as long as vicious conflicts and crushing poverty continue in the Middle East and Africa, their victims will be drawn to the relative peace and prosperity of Europe.

Additional reporting by Andrea Vogt

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