For a few refugees, safe passage to Europe – POLITICO.eu

ROME — The sun has yet to rise when Ayman, his wife Rawia and his three daughters land at the Fiumicino airport in Rome. Rawia carries her youngest in her arms from the airplane to the terminal. Around them, passengers rush toward the gates.

Their arrival is part of the humanitarian corridors project, an effort by Italy’s Sant’Egidio Catholic Community that has brought some 850 refugees to the country on an officially sanctioned, safe route.

“When we left our home in Syria, everything was destroyed,” says Ayman, 36. “I meant to come here by boat, via Turkey, but I stopped before boarding — I could not leave my family behind,” he says, gazing at Nuor, Nagham and Natali.

They traveled from Homs, he says, a city that has become the stage of merciless fighting between insurgent groups and Syrian government forces since 2011.
“The only effective way to fight against illegal immigration and reckless human trafficking is to build up real alternatives,” says Andrea Riccardi, who founded Sant’Egidio as a secondary student in Rome in the 1960s. Today, the community has more than 50,000 members in 70 countries. Along with the Federation of Evangelical Churches and the Waldensian Table, a Christian movement dating back to the 12th century, Riccardi’s organization launched the humanitarian corridors project in February 2016.

The Italian government gave the three religious groups its official backing in December 2015, signing an agreement that grants up to 1,000 humanitarian permits to refugees over a two-year period.

“When the last refugees resettle safely, we will ponder new initiatives,” says Mario Giro, Italy’s vice minister for foreign affairs and international cooperation, who also belongs to the Sant’Egidio community.

“We wandered from tent to tent, looking for some help, when we finally met somebody from Sant’Egidio” — Samer, Syrian refugee

The corridors are based on EU laws governing the Schengen free-travel zone and visa codes. According to these treaties, EU member countries can admit citizens from non-EU countries by issuing temporary humanitarian visas that are valid only within that country’s own borders. Once the beneficiaries are in Europe, they can apply for full international protection under asylum law.

The program picks its beneficiaries among the most vulnerable: families with newborn or sick children, pregnant and single women, the disabled and elderly. Local humanitarian workers typically establish the first contact with refugees and verify their identity. The Italian embassy then scrutinizes the refugees’ credentials and the Lebanese interior ministry checks their criminal records. If no problems emerge, applicants are granted a humanitarian visa, and the organizations search for hosts.

The process can be lengthy, as the refugees’ documents, especially if they’re fleeing a war-torn country like Syria, can be hard to come by. The last step of the process occurs at the Italian border, where officials cross-check the information with European databases.

Samer, his wife and three children arrive in Rome on the same flight as Ayman. Like 1 million other Syrian refugees, they had been stuck in a refugee camp in Lebanon for four years. “Life in the tents was hard, especially during winter,” he says. “We wandered from tent to tent, looking for some help, when we finally met somebody from Sant’Egidio.”

A safer option

Despite the European Union’s plans to put an end to migrant smuggling by hashing out an agreement with Turkey, the Mediterranean Sea remains the main route for migrants and asylum seekers hoping to come to Europe. It is also the deadliest.

Refguees in the departure hall of the airport in Beirut, left, and the arrivals hall in Rome | Telenews/EPA

Refguees in the departure hall of the airport in Beirut, left, and the arrivals hall in Rome | Telenews/EPA

According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 2,100 people have died or disappeared in the sea this year. Meanwhile, the number of people fleeing Syria and seeking refuge in neighboring countries has topped 5 million. Humanitarian corridors offer another, safer option.

“What I like the snow — I had never seen that before,” says Dani, 28. His tone is upbeat; he is keen to show his control of the Italian language. He arrived in the country almost a year ago and now he lives with his parents in a tiny village near Bologna, where he works as a carpenter.

The program resettles asylum seekers in local communities across 17 Italian regions, where volunteers have agreed to host refugees, chip in to ensure children attend school and help the adults find a job. Dani is among the 50 or so new arrivals who have found employment, although only on a temporary contract.

The Syrian conflict scattered Dani’s family across Europe. Before the Macedonian route was sealed, his older brother Fudic sought refuge in Germany. His sister Dania is still in Lebanon, waiting to be resettled in Canada with the UNHCR program. Ibrahim and Dalia, his parents, were the last ones to leave their hometown of al-Qaryatayn, 60 kilometers southeast of Homs, after four months under ISIS rule.

“They were asked to convert to Islam, otherwise…” Dani trails off, staring into space. It was Father Jacques Murad, the priest who escaped after being kidnapped by ISIS in 2015, who helped them escape through the humanitarian corridors. Nowadays, they struggle with the language but enjoy the freedom to practice their faith.

“At night, after working in the morning and studying in the afternoon, I helped them with Italian,” Dani says. The trio of religious communities behind the scheme cover the costs of travel, living, education and professional training. They allocated €1 million to manage the project. With additional donations from local communities, the program essentially comes at no cost to the Italian government.

  • Syrian refugees living in Turkey wait to register at the Bab al-Salama crossing, near the city of Azaz in northern Syria in June this year

  • Migrants wait to disembark from the Spanish Guardia Civil Rio Segura Patrol Ship with 1,216 migrants onboard including 256 children and 11 pregnant women, who were rescued in the Mediterranean sea on June 29, 2017, in the port of Salerno

So far, these humanitarian corridors have had no direct impact on human trafficking in the sea, as the program’s beneficiaries are Syrians and Iraqis who escaped to Lebanon. The overseas route to Italy is mainly used by migrants from sub-Sahara.

Sant’Egidio and its partners now want to start missions in Morocco and in Ethiopia to expand the program’s reach. “We have now signed a second agreement with the government and the Italian episcopal conference focusing on the Horn of Africa, to bring refugees here from Somalia, Eritrea and other countries,” Riccardi says.

Under this new protocol, the Italian government will grant 500 residency permits, mainly to Eritrean refugees. “Facing the Syrian emergency is not the only aim of this instrument — we hope this will be the beginning of a fair and transparent system,” says Riccardi.

Considering the close to 85,000 arrivals on Italy’s coasts in the first half of 2017 — up 19 percent over the same period last year — the initiative sometimes seems like a drop in the ocean.

Refguees in the departure hall of the airport in Beirut, left, and the arrivals hall in Rome, above | Telenews/EPA

Refguees in the departure hall of the airport in Beirut, left, and the arrivals hall in Rome, above | Telenews/EPA

But the Italian government shares the religious groups’ enthusiasm for the project and considers humanitarian corridors to have been a successful experiment so far. “To enhance the program, you need first to set the whole chain up and make it work,” says Giro, who has high hopes for a future expansion to other countries.

Mirroring the Italian initiative, 500 refugees considered especially vulnerable will be transferred to France over the next 18 months via Sant’Egidio’s French affiliates. But so far no other European country has followed suit.

“You need an organization with strong political leverage on a government to obtain these humanitarian visas,” says Nando Sigona, senior lecturer on migration, refugees and ethnic studies at the University of Birmingham.

Sant’Egidio played an outsized role in 1992 Mozambique peace talks, hosting the negotiations among the Mozambique Liberation Front and the Mozambican National Resistance in its main church in Rome. It also has clout in the Italian parliament, thanks to several MPs who, like Giro, are also part of the community. The influence of a pope who has taken an openly pro-migrant stance has also increased political will to push forward with legal avenues to resettle refugees.

Pull factor

The European Union — despite proposing a permanent framework in July 2015 to increase the commitment of European states — still punches below its weight in resettling refugees, with only slightly more than 16,000 people resettled across 21 countries since 2015. Canada, meanwhile, resettled 46,700 refugees in 2016 alone.

The idea of establishing procedures to determine refugee status abroad, before refugees reach European shores, resurfaces every few years but has gotten nowhere.

The fastest, most feasible option for an asylum seeker in desperate need will remain a dangerous overseas crossing.

“The problem is that the EU strategy is mainly focused on containing the influx of migrants and refugees beyond borders before they can be entitled to the whole set of rights granted by our legislation,” says Mariagiulia Giuffrè, a research fellow at the University of London’s legal faculty.

According to experts, politicians will have to break with this mindset in order to expand humanitarian corridors like the one being run by Sant’Egidio.

“Some governments would tell you that corridors may operate as a pull factor, so there would be more people trying to travel rather than less, and they don’t want to incentivize people to come here,” says migration expert Sigona.

Until they are fully endorsed by states, these corridors will likely remain small-scale exceptions to the norm. The fastest, most feasible option for an asylum seeker in desperate need will remain a dangerous overseas crossing.

In the meantime, the body count in the Mediterranean keeps mounting: On July 2, a Swedish vessel docked in Catania, Sicily, with 650 migrants on board, rescued from the water. Nine lay dead on its deck.

For a few refugees, safe passage to Europe – POLITICO.eu