On a sound file​ sent to me via WhatsApp, a teenage girl sobs, and an older woman says: ‘Don’t worry, the white people will help you.’ The girl is 17, from a village in Edo state in Nigeria. A family friend came to her house, she says, and asked her parents if they’d like to send their daughter to work in Europe. The friend didn’t say what kind of work she would be doing, only that she would earn money she could bring home, after she had paid back a bond of €5000. They made her swear an oath that she would honour the debt, then sent her north, through Niger and across the Sahara to Libya. The journey took several months. By the time she reached Libya she had discovered that when she finally arrived in Europe she would be forced into sex work.

F, the older woman on the recording, is also from Nigeria and lives in the same reception centre for asylum seekers as the girl, in a small town near Sicily’s east coast. Since F arrived in Italy last year, she has been collecting evidence of the conditions inside local reception centres and sharing it with me. When she tells the girl that the white people – by which she means the various state agencies and private associations that make up Italy’s asylum system – will help her, she is only half right. They may help her. They may recognise her as a survivor of human trafficking; temporarily house her in a place where the ‘madam’ she was assigned to can’t reach her; grant her asylum and provide the education, psychological support or job training that will help her to build a new life in Italy. Or they may not. They may leave her in a poorly run reception centre, where the funds for her upkeep are embezzled by the manager. Her asylum case may take years, leaving her with few means of supporting herself.

The crisis in the Mediterranean is talked about as an issue of European concern, yet maintaining a functioning asylum system is largely treated as a problem for national governments. Although the situation in Greece has come to dominate people’s attention, Italy remains a major point of entry for irregular migrants. Last year, according to UNHCR, more than 150,000 people arrived in Italy after being rescued off smugglers’ boats sailing from the coast of Libya or Egypt. Another 25,000 have arrived so far this year. Many will have continued their journey towards northern Europe, but the country is currently home to some 80,000 people with active asylum claims.

Italy rapidly expanded its reception centre system at the end of 2013, in response to the growing refugee crisis. The existing, overcrowded centres were supplemented by ‘emergency’ accommodation, generally contracted out by local prefectures to private landlords or charitable associations. In theory, asylum seekers are supposed to be housed in these only for short periods before being moved on to better accommodation, and given support to help them integrate into the local community and job market. In practice, because the system is inadequate, they tend to be sent wherever there is space for them and to stay there for extended periods. Many asylum seekers have to work their way through two or three levels of appeal before a final decision is made on their case. It can take years. Even when they receive documents they stay in the reception centres because there is nowhere else for them to go.

This system is less brutal than the routine detention of asylum seekers that takes place in, say, Britain or Greece, but it is even so a breeding ground for exploitation. The Mafia Capitale scandal in Rome is evidence that contracts to run the reception centres have been handed out to criminal gangs. (‘Do you know how much I earn from immigrants? Drug trafficking is less profitable,’ a police wiretap recorded the alleged ringleader as saying.) Petty corruption and inefficiency are also common: in two years of visiting reception centres in different parts of Italy, I have seen case after case where centres don’t provide the services they are supposed to provide. A Syrian refugee showed me photos of accommodation in a former youth hostel that didn’t have electricity or hot water.

F sent me another recording. This time an 18-year-old man, originally from Gambia, tells her that his reception centre won’t give him the ‘pocket money’ he’s entitled to – a €2.50 a day subsistence payment from the Italian government – unless he sells packets of cigarettes in the town. F, who owned a restaurant and was an English teacher before she came to Europe, told me that she was given a ‘work experience’ placement selling flowers. These official placements are supposed to be paid, but she only received wages for two months out of three. When I met her she showed me photographs of a bedroom inside her own reception centre. Bunk beds are arranged from wall to wall, and some are pushed together so that three or four people can share two mattresses. When she arrived, she had to share a room with 15 other women. The food, she says, is prepared off-site and arrives cold, or sour when it shouldn’t be – they are forbidden to cook their own. I’m relying on F’s evidence because whenever in the last year I have tried to visit this reception centre I’ve been refused. In any case, F tells me, it would be pointless. When visitors come, she says, ‘they send everyone out. They make the rooms look nice, and tell us we can come back when they have gone.’

The manager of her centre told F not to speak to journalists, so she told me all this while we drove around the town in my car. The town is typical of this part of Sicily: sprawling postwar suburbs surrounded by farms, with a pretty historic centre visited by French, British and German tourists. As we drive, F tells me that the girl she recorded was a rare case, in that she had asked an aid worker for help when she arrived in Italy. F has seen many teenage girls and young women become sex workers within weeks of arriving. Some are trafficked, working to pay off their debts, she says; others do it independently. Either way, the customers are Europeans. The centre knows this is happening but turns a blind eye, she says. Nor does it keep track of people’s whereabouts. In January, a report by Europol estimated that Italy had lost track of at least five thousand unaccompanied children in its asylum system; this is probably a conservative estimate. Many will leave because they have contacts waiting to take them to northern Europe, but there is no way of knowing for sure. ‘If ten children arrive here,’ F says, ‘five will be gone by the end of the week.’

The recent deal between the EU and Turkey, which aims to close off the refugee route into Greece, has provoked a flurry of speculation about whether Syrian refugees will go back to using the Libya-Italy route, but there has been little attention paid to the people who have been using it anyway. Since the start of 2016, Nigerians have been the largest group of arrivals, followed by Gambians and Senegalese. Because they come from these places, they are dismissed as ‘economic migrants’, though at least some will be fleeing violence or persecution. Traditionally, Italy has given temporary identity documents to people whose asylum claims it rejects: migrants from West Africa and elsewhere have long been a source of cheap labour in the country’s agriculture and service industries.

Now there is pressure from elsewhere in Europe to stem the flow. Austria recently announced plans to build a fence on its Italian border, while Switzerland has cancelled leave for two thousand soldiers in case they are needed this summer to close the frontier. At the ports of arrival in Italy, the EU border agency Frontex has launched a new system of ‘hotspots’, processing centres that are intended to filter the genuine refugees from the economic migrants more quickly. The hotspots were part of the EU’s emergency response to the crisis last summer and were supposed to go hand in hand with the relocation of 160,000 refugees from Italy and Greece. But the deal hasn’t been honoured and fewer than six hundred refugees have been relocated from Italy under the scheme.

An increasing number of arrivals are being denied the right even to claim asylum by Frontex officials and Italian police officers. They are asked a series of leading questions, then issued with a letter that tells them to leave Italy by their own means within seven days. But they don’t have any means, so many migrants stay in Sicily and sleep rough as they look for ways to make a living. F tells me to drive to a park on a nearby hillside and stop the car. We get out and pick our way through a patch of scrub until we reach a large rock that juts out from the hillside. At the base of the rock, in a natural cave, are mattresses, discarded clothes and a cooking pot. A half-eaten meal is still inside the pot. The inhabitants are out earning money, she says, begging or directing cars to free spaces in the local supermarket car park. ‘They work in the town, but they come back up here to sleep. They are ashamed to be seen.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences