Within 24 hours of the leaders of the G7 nations leaving Taormina, Sicily, the designer shops and sleek bars of the hilltop town were once again teeming with tourists. Hardly any trace of the summit remained, just some flags on the town hall, a half-dismantled stage in the Roman amphitheatre, a sign for a French press conference in the main square, and a small art exhibition including Caravaggio’s Ecce Homo.
The leaders had been invited to Taormina by their Italian hosts not just because of its beauty or views of Mount Etna but because Sicily is 300 miles from the Libyan coast, on the frontline in Europe’s battle over migration. Sicily is the island to which tens of thousands of people from Africa and Asia are heading, their first stop in Europe and an escape from poverty, war, religious conflict or personal rejection.
The Taormina summit did not prove to be the diplomatic turning point in the debate on migration that the Italian government had once hoped. The Trump administration squashed an ambitious plan for a positive statement defending the rights of refugees. Possibly the only practical outcome of the summit was that all refugee boats were banned from landing in Sicily for seven days. Taormina residents sent a discreet letter to the local prefecture after the world leaders had left saying they wanted no migrants housed in the town as it might put off the tourists.
The failure leaves migrants and refugees continuing to struggle to forge a new life for themselves in Sicilian towns such as Ragusa, two hours’ drive and a world away from Taormina. Many of those who have survived the hell of the Mediterranean sea crossing face the purgatory of Italian bureaucracy, and 18-month waits to find out whether they are to be granted asylum or instead be deported.
Numa Touray, 17, from the Gambia and now living in Palermo, summed up the choice refugees faced. “I knew the journey would be dangerous but if you have the lion behind you and the sea in front of you, you take the sea. I was 100% certain to die at home, 100% certain to die in Libya, and thought I had a 50/50 chance to survive the sea journey.”
In Ragusa, Chiekhou Giulro, a 21-year-old from Senegal, newly arrived via Libya, was sleeping rough after being served with an exclusion order by the Italian government, accused of being a smuggler.
Two years ago he had been a cattle herdsman close to Richard Toll, a town in northern Senegal. Tribal conflicts over grazing rights led him to flee, and he travelled to Sabha, an oasis city in south-west Libya, to one of the notorious connection houses where he said he witnessed innumerable beatings and death threats from the Libyan smugglers.
“They force you to ring home and then start beating you with rubber pipes, so you scream down the phone and then they try to get family to send you more money. If you do not do what they want, they beat you. The Arab people shoot people for nothing, or €50. The Asma boys, the gangs, they chase you in the street. They only care about money. In Libya, if there is a difference, it ends with the gun. They are crazy people.”
He said he escaped from Sabha and travelled to Tripoli, where he worked for six months in a storehouse to raise enough money to pay for the crossing. He paid 1,350 Libyan dinars (£750), he said, adding that different nationalities had different rates. The smugglers told him the journey would take three to four hours.
He said that soon after being set to sea in a large inflatable dinghy with 130 or so migrants on board, the Libyan smugglers started to jump off the boat on to another smaller boat that had been escorting them. They demanded someone come forward to take over steering of the migrants’ boat, and handed over a compass and the keel.
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