Terra Firma

What becomes of the refugees who make it to Italy?

“She died in the sea. She was my close friend.” 

Eighteen-year-old Joy Aide speaks with a calm assuredness that belies her age and her experience. 

She and her friend left their homeland after a local gang asked them to join. Joy's elder sister had already been killed for refusing, so they decided to run.

After spending nearly a year in Libya, they were forced aboard a rubber boat along with around 190 others.

Eighteen hours later, adrift somewhere in the Mediterranean, her friend was one of the 25 people who tragically drowned in the melee when a rescue boat was sighted.

"When they were about to rescue us, everybody was in a haste to climb the rope," Joy recalls.

“Everybody was trying to rescue themselves. They pushed some in the water. That is how we lost so many people.

“I know how to swim. I wasn't rushing. I was just standing until they came to rescue us.”

Joy is one of the 100,000 migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean for Italy this year. 

With a staggering 14,000 people perishing in the Mediterranean since 2014, our focus is often on the trauma of the journey. Yet we shouldn't forget about their lives once they arrive.

What are people like Joy doing now? What are their lives like?

The answer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, mixed. New arrivals wait in transit camps for their 'transfer’ to reception centres where the bureaucracy that will assess their asylum claims shifts into gear.

Others find work or learn Italian while their claims are assessed. Some live with local families. The less fortunate fall out of the system entirely and are sleeping rough.


Under a gazebo on the side of a busy road in Catania, a group of young men chat with Red Cross mediators in Italian, English and languages from their home countries.

Sleeping rough, and with no documentation, some of these migrants are out of the immigration system completely. They have no prospect of legal status in Italy or Europe.

The safe point is designed to be an informal place for the Red Cross to meet people left floundering by the system – they offer advice on where to get a bed, legal support and something to eat.

Fifty metres or so down the street, Alegie Ceesay is resting under the shade of a tree. He picks his cardboard sheet up as the sprinklers start and begins to speak.

"Street life you know is very difficult now," he says. “Many people think you are a criminal… It is not like that. But life is managing, better will come one day.”

Alegie has got food from the Red Cross safe point in the past, though he won't be using it today.

"Mostly you meet some guys who are out of the system, that don't have a place to sleep."  

Nabi Ousmane is one of the Italian Red Cross mediators. In 2011, he made the same journey as many of the migrants he now supports. After six years living on the island, his expert mastery of the Sicilian dialect draws the odd double-take from migrants and Italians alike.

First to arrive at the safe point is a young woman who Nabi had met the night before.

She had travelled down from Turin to meet her boyfriend at a nearby camp. Unfortunately, without registration, she was not allowed to enter.

"For young girls like her sleeping rough is very dangerous," he says. "I found her somewhere to sleep but it’s only from 7 at night until 7am. Then she was to walk around the city."

There are Italians, as well as migrants, making use of the safe point. Midway through the morning an elderly couple come and shelter from the sun under the gazebo. 

The man is feeling faint and gets his blood pressure checked by the resident doctor, Gina Tuzza. Five minutes later, with their strength renewed, they are back on their way.

"I enjoy every day," says Gina. “I measure their temperature, give them advice… If they're injured I treat their injuries.”

Gina shelters a man’s eyes as an aerosol is sprayed on to what looks like a burn on the tip of his nose. The nose is then wiped and plastered before he walks away bleary-eyed.

Like many of the volunteers at the safe point, Gina is present when the migrants first set foot on Italian shores.

"First we ask if they have any problems," she says. "Some pregnant women have pain we can treat.

"Most people – 60 per cent – have burns from [sitting too close to] the fuel. There was a three-year-old child who had all her face burnt. She had burnt her shoulders – half of her body was burnt.

"We put a cream on the burns and then sent her to hospital. We treat the small cases. If it's beyond us they are taken to hospital."


Up the coast in Messina, young families are being housed in a new Red Cross reception centre.

The centre provides the essentials – somewhere to sleep, wash and eat. There is also the familiar sight of the cultural mediators in frequent conversation with the residents.

The mediators explain the other services provided by the Red Cross and the state to the centre's residents. They typically speak around seven languages each and are able to translate and answer most questions people have.

Newly-arrived Joy Alfred is here with her husband, Lucky, and her two young daughters. Her story is hard to believe.

Joy's husband delivered their youngest daughter, Victory, in the Libyan desert."There was no choice," says Joy.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the birth didn’t go entirely to plan and as a result Joy became very ill.

“I could not stand for two weeks,” she says. “My husband even carried me to the toilet.”

They managed to get some emergency medical treatment in Libya, which they are certain saved her life. They then made the journey across the Mediterranean to Italy.

"They starve you, they attack you for so many days... They sell human beings there."

Moses Pouson made the same journey with his wife Magdalene. They are expecting their first child, a boy, in a matter of days.

Moses speaks in detail about the horrors he faced in Libya. He was bought and sold as a slave multiple times over a two-year period – on one occasion twice in a single day.

"This scar for instance," he says, gesturing to his eye. “I attempted to escape from this farm and they held me. [I was] mercilessly beaten. They beat me with these tubes.

"They tied me after I tried to escape, they hung me up and my legs were not even reaching the ground. Then they were hitting me.”


Further north, on the outskirts of Turin, 21-year-old Mohammed Trawally is busy tending to a polytunnel full of cucumbers.

He arrived in Europe in November 2014, on the island of Lampedusa, having travelled through Libya from Gambia.

For the last five months Mohammed has been working here as one of three refugee 'interns'. The owner of the farm has employed refugees for nearly 10 years now, giving them vital work experience and an opportunity to become part of the community, as well as a modest salary.

Eight people went for an interview at the farm. Mohammed was not the biggest, he says shyly, but he was chosen. "The farmer prefers not so many muscles, but the will to work," he says.

"There is something that pulls these women outside. The forces that pull them outside are stronger than us."

Back at the camp where Mohammed sleeps, Serena Corniglia finds time for a quiet moment in her office.

As well as managing the various services the camp provides – legal support, psychological support, Italian lessons, internships – Serena's work extends to identifying the victims of trafficking.

It’s a big problem. IOM estimates that as many as 9,000 Nigerian women were trafficked to Italy for sex work in 2016.  

Serena is one member of the camp's staff to have specialist training on how to spot trafficking and which organisations to refer victims to.

"Every person has a badge," says Serena. “We know when they go out and when they come back. [We] look on the PC for women that stay outside overnight. We call the girls in if it happens too many days to explain that it's a big risk for the women to stay outside.”

Down a neatly kept path from Serena's office the smell of passata wafts out of a building where a queue is forming.

Inside, Hussain 'Zio’ Shoukat – a refugee from Kashmir – is working as a cook.

Zio first arrived in the camp in July 2013. Although he now lives in the local town, he is still considered one of the longer-serving members of the camp’s community.

He’s been here long enough to earn the nickname ‘Zio’ or ‘uncle’. It’s a term that carries respect, as he explains: "In the Italian language ‘Zio’ means big respect, everybody calling for me, even my boss calling for me."

At the end of 2016, Zio was able to bring his family to Italy with help from the Red Cross.

"In this moment I am very happy, my babies are going to the school. They are learning the Italian language," he says.

“The first three months was difficult because they did not understand anything, but now it's different. Especially for my youngest son – six years – he is learning very good the Italian language.”

Another of the camp's community to settle in the local town is 19-year-old Gumbo Touray.

Gumbo had spent six months in the Red Cross camp before he was 'adopted' by a local family. He now lives in a small apartment block near the Red Cross camp with theatre teacher Emilio Gigliotti, his wife, and son Alberto.

"Gumbo is a very polite guy," says the affable Emilio. “It was easy to integrate him and the family. He's very respectful of the rules of the house.”

Gumbo himself is a thoughtful young man. There is often a short pause before he speaks. "Since I got here, he [Emilio] has been helping me all the way," he says.

“[Before moving in] I was feeling depressed and kind of lonely. When the idea came I was so happy.

“I can live like a normal person. I can have a house and have a room. I have a much better living situation now – like a normal kid.”

Gumbo finished high school in June and now wants to study hospitality and tourism. He has a job working in a hotel two days a week. Emilio is helping him to find a full-time job.


Back in Messina, Joy Aide is sitting in the cool lobby of her new home.

"It's wonderful, they are trying," she says. “It is not easy because we are not from this country. They took us like their family. They are really taking care of us.

"All of us here we behave like one family. We laugh, we play, we do a lot of things. It’s not like Libya – in Libya you can’t talk because they’ll probably kill you. But this place is so fantastic. They are really trying.”

Despite her experiences, and like so many others here, Joy is filled with an overwhelming sense of hope. 

Of course, each person hopes for something different.

Some linger outside school gates hoping that soon their own children will laugh and learn with the children of their adopted home.

Others hope they will soon be able to work and support their families – to send money home and be able to afford small tokens of affection for their wives, husbands, or children.

Above all though, each and every person to have made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean hopes that, back on terra firma, they have finally found a peaceful place to live their lives.

Money from our Europe Refugee Crisis Appeal supports the work of the Italian Red Cross. Please donate today. 

Photos: Marco Panzetti/British Red Cross.