Ashley Gilbertson writes: Last year, the news media focused intensely on the European refugee crisis. Some 800,000 people crossed the Mediterranean to Greece, many fleeing wars we had a hand in creating, in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Each segment of their journey was carefully documented by thousands of reporters and photographers.
But there is another humanitarian crisis in Europe we have heard much less about: the roughly 200,000 migrants and refugees who left Africa for Italy since last year. This year alone, some 2,000 have died while making the voyage.
No one gets excited by an epidemic of despair. Some African refugees — largely from Nigeria, Gambia, Somalia, Ivory Coast and Guinea — are escaping wars, but others are fleeing despots, corruption and poverty, a tapestry of problems that have plagued the Continent for generations. When they arrive here in Sicily, they face an overloaded system that is unable to meet their needs.
In May, I spent a week in Sicily with a team from Unicef taking photographs and interviewing those who have made the journey. In the island’s capital, Palermo, I met Peace, a 17-year-old Nigerian living in a shelter for girls. She fled home after being told she would have to marry a 40-year-old man. “This man took me to his house and made me his house girl,” Peace said. “I said to my aunt, ‘He’s older than my dad,’ but she said, ‘If you don’t marry this man, I will poison you.’ ”
Peace traveled to Agadez, Niger, a waypoint where smugglers load migrants into crowded trucks to cross into Libya. “So many people died in the desert. We saw dead bodies, skeletons,” she said. Upon arriving in Libya, she was locked in a windowless room for six weeks. “There was no water, no changes of clothes, not enough food. There was fighting outside, I could hear shooting.”
Libya is particularly brutal on migrants. Boys are set to work by local residents at backbreaking jobs in construction and in the fields for less than $5 a day until they earn enough to afford the $1,500 passage. Girls are often forced into sex work. “They used to rape us and beat us,” said Tsenga, an Eritrean woman who today lives at a sprawling refugee camp in Sicily. “The girls cried, they cried bitterly. They cried because they are just children.” [Continue reading…]