“I see boys and girls suffering, people are thrown into jail; the pool of agony and discomfort is not worth it. The trouble and suffering that I have experienced on my way to Europe was not worth it.” 

The refugee crisis in Europe has been subject of great discussion. However, the influx of refugees is not a new phenomenon. Adequate representation and incorporation of refugee rights in the European Union (EU) has been a persistent issue for decades. However, what remains largely neglected by the media are the conditions of African asylum seekers, who find themselves in the same critical conditions as people from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

To find out more about migrants coming into Europe from Italy, the IPF interviewed Living At The Border, a web-based project documenting the everyday struggles of African refugees in Italy.

From having to wait in queues at soup kitchens, to being forced to sleep behind the Termini train station, those arriving from the African subcontinent quickly realise that Europe isn’t what they dreamed it would be.

Here, we speak to Roda Siad, researcher for “Living At The Border”, about how she documented the experiences of African refugees and migrants in Italy through film and photography.

Lack of media coverage

Roda expressed her concern with international media, noting their considerable emphasis on refugees from the Middle East.

“The conditions and needs of African refugees and migrants were never represented adequately in international media. News organisations never really examined the gaps within asylum policies or the implications these policies had on the lives of migrants and refugees.

“The shift in focus on the conditions in the Middle East could make the general public believe the number of migrants and refugees coming from Africa has decreased.

“However, it does not affect the representation of African refugees and migrants in the media,” Roda said.

As a result, the EU not only struggles to meet refugee needs, but it lacks long-term integration strategies.

Integration into society

Roda explained: “The conversations were around responding to the ‘emergency’, despite the fact that migrants, refugees and asylum seekers have been coming by boat since 2002.”

“In fact, many traditionally homogenous European countries such as Italy are still having debates about whether to grant citizenship to second-generation immigrants.”

Therefore, the challenges of immigration need to be viewed within the broader framework of European exclusionary policies. This includes the “integration test”, which targets migrants of a certain nationalities while exempting those from other western countries.

Social integration is inherently rooted in tolerance, which comes with the familiarity of experiencing cultures different to one’s own. The constant separation between “us” and “them” only serves to heighten Europe’s refugee and migrant crisis.

Changing conceptions of Europe

Living At The Border features many Africans migrating to southern Europe, a long and risky journey often undertaken in circumstances of economic deprivation and other forms of coercion.

For many African asylum seekers, the tumultuous journey through the Mediterranean Sea is made in the hope of making it to the promised land. However, reality fails aspirations. As Deeqa, a 23-year-old Somali refugee says:

“I see boys and girls suffering here, people are thrown into jail, the pool of agony and discomfort is not worth it. The trouble and suffering that I have experienced on my way to get to Europe was not worth it.”

Roda emphasised the daily realities of African migrants. The harassment by police officers and the constant requirement to carry ID indicates practices of immigration, or what some believe is “criminalising migrants purely on the basis of their identity and background”.

Forming makeshift communities amid exclusion

Struggling to integrate within society, African refugees build makeshift communities in Italy. As Roda explained:

Makeshift communities, such as the Salaam Palace, are created by African refugees as means to demarcate a safe space within an overall environment that poses danger. Created out of basic necessity, such developments reflect the needs of acceptance, belonging and community – all of which exist beyond material provisions.

Salaam Palace is a makeshift community that houses approximately 800 residents. It has its own café, market and mosque. Roda said that such spaces reinstate a sense of community and empowerment following discrimination and deprivation.

She told the IPF that she hoped Living At The Border would succeed in educating the general public about integration struggles experienced by migrants and refugees, as well as contribute to the discussion around asylum policies. She said:

“Action can only come once we are aware of the problem.”