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Agonizing Wait for Migrants in Italy   04/24 06:25

   MINEO, Sicily (AP) -- Silla Zelia, a 23-year-old from Ivory Coast, is stuck 
in Italy's largest migrant center with nowhere to go after her asylum 
application was twice rejected and she lost contact with her family in Abidjan.

   "One can get stuck here for two years, three years," she said from the 
former U.S. Navy housing complex in the heart of Sicily. "It's not easy."

   After making the treacherous crossing to Italy, would-be refugees like Zelia 
face another grueling test trying to persuade skeptical European countries that 
they deserve asylum. But the coveted refugee status is normally reserved for 
those fleeing war and persecution, while many of the migrants from sub-Saharan 
Africa are running away from poverty.

   Those rejected often remain in Italy as "irregulars," living on the fringes 
of society, said Flavio Di Giacomo of the International Organization for 
Migration.

   "They will end up working in the fields, in the agricultural sector, picking 
up tomatoes, oranges," he said.

   Italy has seen its asylum applications skyrocket in the last year, and even 
more requests are expected amid the unprecedented wave of migrants coming 
ashore. The Rome government is stepping up its response after coming under 
pressure to process and fingerprint them, as required by EU rules, rather than 
letting them slip through to northern Europe.

   Last year, Italy granted about 20,000 asylum applications and rejected about 
15,000 from people applying for the first time, according to European Union 
statistics. That's a relatively high approval rate --- across the EU about half 
of all applications were rejected.

   But Italy now faces unprecedented levels of asylum-seekers, with nearly 
65,000 new applications last year. It's not unusual for asylum-seekers to wait 
a year for a decision. If they appeal, the process drags on longer.

   The only EU countries with higher numbers were Germany and Sweden, already 
homes to large immigrant communities.

   Italy's Interior Ministry said there were 67,000 people in migrant reception 
centers across Italy as of February, about one-fifth of them in Sicily.

   "They are all at their limits, actually they have been stretched way beyond 
their limits," said Enos Nolli, a volunteer working with migrants.

   Mineo, located amid the orange groves of central-south Sicily, is the 
biggest center, with about 3,200 migrants from 30 countries, mostly in 
sub-Saharan Africa.

   Some of the survivors of the capsizing earlier this week that killed as many 
as 800 are staying here. It's been Zelia's home since 2013, when she crossed 
the Mediterranean on a boat packed with migrants.

   Originally built to house U.S. navy personnel and their families, the center 
resembles an American suburb, with neat lawns and clean streets lined with 
hundreds of homes.

   Men are everywhere, riding bicycles and playing football on a large dusty 
field.

   The women are harder to find. Zelia said they stay inside, going crazy 
because there is nothing to do.

   "There is no good food to eat," she said. "I have nothing to wear."

   Going home isn't an option.

   "Where I come from, life is not easy, my neighborhood has big problems, my 
house is all in a shambles, all in a shambles," Zelia said.

   Migrants are allowed to leave the compound, but have to be back in two days. 
Even outside the gates, there's not much she can do without an income. She 
pointed to her reindeer socks and sandals --- a combination she said was all 
she could afford.

   Besides food and housing, migrants get a daily handout of cigarettes or 
phone card credits, worth 2.50 euros ($2.67). They trade them among each other 
for cash.

   U.N. officials say the biggest groups of asylum-seekers in Italy come from 
Mali, Nigeria and Gambia. Syrians and Eritreans tend to not request asylum in 
Italy, even though they're supposed to do so in the first EU country they enter 
under the 28-nation bloc's rules.

   Many simply refuse to identify themselves to Italian authorities, so that 
they can continue their journeys and apply for asylum in northern Europe, said 
Mikael Ribbenvik, deputy director of Sweden's immigration authority.

   Sweden and other EU nations have pressed Italy to fingerprint those coming 
in, so that there is a record of them having entered Italy.

   "If you arrive at an airport and refuse to identify yourself, you won't be 
allowed in," he said. "The same principle applies on the beaches of Sicily."

   However, he acknowledged Italy faces a huge challenge with thousands of 
people arriving on its shores every week.

   Many of those awaiting decisions in Mineo work at nearby farms, just to make 
time go by quicker. Collins, a 28-year-old Nigerian who gave only his first 
name, said it helps him stay happy, even though he earns only 10 euros ($11) 
for a hard day's work of picking oranges or tomatoes.

   "Being in one place, not to do anything, you understand, is stressful," he 
said. "You think, think, think."


(KA)


 
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