Yet another tragedy. At least 40 migrants have died in an overcrowded boat in the Mediterranean, the Italian navy has said. Some 320 others were rescued when the vessel was intercepted off Libya. The dead were found in the fishing boat's hold. It is thought they died after inhaling fumes from the engine, the rescue vessel's captain said. Officials say the plight of migrants, almost 250,000 of whom have crossed by boat to the continent this year, is "beyond urgent". So far this year, more than 2,000 migrants have died trying to cross the sea to Europe. Coastguards on the Greek island of Kos told the Reuters news agency that they rescued more than 200 people in several small boats on Saturday the UN says.
Hungary is building a wall to keep them out and France has sealed its border with Italy to turn back refugees. Many back their governments’ anti-immigration stance but their xenophobia masks another phenomenon – that of a huge drive by ordinary citizens to welcome refugees, rather than reject them.
‘Refugees Welcome’ is a a web-based service which has so far places refugees in towns and cities around Germany. It also arranges for rent to be paid via benefits where possible, or via crowdfunding if the refugee has no other options. As well as helping solve accommodation problems, Geiling believes the scheme helps refugees integrate and learn the language, while their flatmates have their eyes opened to the fact that people seeking asylum are no different from anyone else. In the town of Goslar in Lower Saxony which has a population of 50,000 and falling, the mayor has a plan to reverse its declining fortunes: refugees.
“If we want to retain our wealth, our economy, our jobs, then we need more people. I see the refugees as an opportunity, not as a burden,” said the mayor, Oliver Junk, adding that without an influx of new residents public services would become unsustainable. “There are lots of people in Goslar who find it positive. But of course there are also people who say, ‘Do something for us, not just for refugees,’” he said. “I try to explain that without these people we would not be able to have infrastructure, swimming pools, schools, our library or our buses… almost all over Germany, cities and the overall population are declining. If Germany wants to remain economically strong and prosperous, then it needs immigration.”
In Cadiz programmes run by the Tierra de Todos (Everyone’s Land) foundation and Cardijn association helps newcomers to learn Spanish and integrate into the local culture. Fr Gabriel Delgado said his work stems from a basic conviction, that “immigrants are people, with the same dignity and rights as you and I”.
Many of the newcomers attend courses on first aid and languages, as well as care for the elderly, retail or hospitality sector skills. When Spain’s economy was booming, courses on construction would allow the immigrants to find work.
“We give them tools so that they have options like everyone else,” says Delgado. In Spain’s temporary migrant accommodation centres, such as the one in Tarifa, southeast of Cádiz, “There they are treated as if they had committed a serious crime. They take away all their rights. They should close the centres and come up with other formulas.”
His colleague Santiago Yerga “They’re refugees, people who have rights according to international agreements to receive asylum in Spain but they aren’t being treated as such.”
Civil groups have been springing up all over Hungary in recent weeks, as Hungarians rally to provide food and clothing to the beleaguered migrants entering the transit country across the border with Serbia. The first provincial Migszol (Migrant Solidarity) group was formed in Szeged, southern Hungary when it was noticed that migrants – mainly Syrian and Afghan refugees – were being locked out of the city’s railway station overnight. Migszol Szeged co-founder Márk Kékesi said: “In mid-June it was surprisingly cold and they had no blankets or warm clothes: among them were kids, sometimes babies, so we made a pot of hot tea and brought warmer clothes.” The group now has over 2,500 members. A core of about 200 volunteers provide round-the-clock support to 400-800 migrants each day. Szeged is the only major Hungarian city not controlled by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, which has a starkly different stance on migrants. According to one Migszol volunteer, Szeged’s status as a border and university town has made its residents “less manipulated by government campaigns … and more interested in different cultures”. Whatever the politics, the Migszol movement has now gone national, with initiatives in Budapest, Debrecen, Pécs, Bicske and several other towns. Meanwhile, the similar Migration Aid group has amassed over 7,000 Facebook followers.
The little village of Capriglio in the southern Piedmont region, located in northern Italy has 281 inhabitants, and most are united in a campaign to stop the deportation of Abu Taleb Mridha who is being returned to Bangladesh by the Italian authorities.
“Taleb must stay and we will do everything possible to make that happen,” said Capriglio’s mayor, Vittorina Gozzolino, who, together with a neighbouring mayor, priests, local NGOs, and people from the area, have started a committee, “Taleb is one of us”. Mridha’s positive references – a letter from the mayor and the traders association, and from a pastor and the teacher of a local Italian school.
He was tortured in Sudan for having a false passport and was imprisoned, and endured that heatof the Libyan desert to reach the coast and embark.
Mridha said: “Now I want to die here in Italy, in Capriglio. It’s better than returning to Bangladesh. If I went back in Bangladesh before having paid the debts I would be killed because I am the eldest son. My father is still alive only because he has a disability. And the law. Our law. But yours, the Italian law, is no less ruthless.”
Lesbos has become the Lampedusa of Greece, with more than 1,000 refugees arriving daily. The Greek authorities, struggling to deal with an economic crisis, cannot cope with the influx – so the vacuum has been filled by volunteers. “The refugees just need help when they come in, they’re shellshocked,” said Eric Kempson. “So the first thing we do is take the wet clothes off people and give them dry clothes, and then give the mothers hot water-bottles, so she can put it between her and the baby, and keep the baby warm.”
Once the refugees are out of the boats, the president of the local village, Thanassis Andreotis, comes to clear away their abandoned rubber dinghies. There are locals who think the migrants should be left to their own devices, and be discouraged from coming. But Andreotis is not one of them. “It’s a matter of humanity,” said the retired policeman, hauling the remains of a boat from the beach. “You have to get out there and do something. The people who complain about it are just sitting in their lounges, and coming up with crazy rumours.”
After they have left the boats, the newcomers face a 40-mile walk to get to the government-run camps. Even if they get there, there is rarely enough space or food. So locals have set up their own volunteer-run camps. One is the Village of All Together, co-founded by Efi Latsudi . On the site of an old scout camp, Latsudi and her team have created temporary housing for about 80 migrants. “We cannot stay watching hundreds of people with their children – walking, lying in the streets – and let them die there under the sun,” she said. “It’s impossible.”
On the other side of the island, Australian-Greek restauranteur, Melinda McRostie, has done something similar. Behind her restaurant, the Captain’s Table, she has set up a makeshift migrant camp for 150 people. She gives them three meals a day, using donations from tourists and locals alike. It is exhausting, but there is no alternative, she said. “It’s obvious that it’s not something that’s going to stop, so the only obvious thing to do is to do something about it.”
The ‘Welcome to France’ project run by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). “We offer temporary lodgings with families to asylum seekers to whom the state provides nothing,” said Pierre Nicolas, general secretary of the JRS, which also organises French lessons, meet-ups and clothing exchanges for asylum seekers. Although the law supposedly guarantees it, barely half of all asylum seekers in France have access to accommodation. Welcome’s 105 host families last year provided more than 6,200 nights of accommodation – each one a night less on the street for a migrant. Operational since 2010, the network was initially confined to Paris but has been expanding since this spring to take in a number of medium-sized cities – Dijon, Bordeaux and Valence are now among the 15 or so to have their own Welcome project. “Sometimes, in Toulouse for example, it has taken off remarkably quickly,” said Nicolas. “And in Rennes it is entirely independent from the Catholic church – a secular group has successfully copied the model to create an organisation called Bienvenu en France.”
For the migrants, it’s a home from home. “I appreciate the fact that my history is respected here and that people are available to answer all my questions,” said Ghaith, from Syria. Over breakfast, at 8am, he raises his first questions of the day – the fruit of two hours morning French study. “I have to learn the language very fast,” he said, speaking well-structured French after only four months in France. Pépin said immersion in a family is “the most efficient way to integrate. That’s what satisfies me about the whole Welcome project. It’s a way to rectify, on a small scale, the problems French society has in integrating new arrivals.”
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