Migrants who make it across the Mediterranean to Italy dream of continuing on to northern Europe. Most, though, are unable to make it past the Brenner Pass. A visit to Europe’s waiting room.
The train station in Bolzano, a city in the northern Italian province of South Tyrol, has become a waiting room for Europe in recent weeks — a transit camp for two types of passengers. Both are traveling with little luggage, and they are from worlds that rarely intersect.
On a Wednesday morning in late August, a young man from Gambia named Zacharias is standing at the window of the express train from Verona to Munich. He gazes down at colorfully dressed mountain climbers, vacationers and European travelers as they disembark in Bolzano and meet friends or family on the platform. Zacharias, though, stays on the train. He manages to escape the notice of police officers and border guards who comb through the compartments and fish out anyone who looks like a refugee. The train begins to move.
Zacharias, 18, is one of about 100,000 refugees and migrants who have arrived in Italy this year. He hopes to make it to Austria and from there to Germany, though he has been told that this second part of his journey will be difficult and that securing asylum in the north is impossible.
Whereas the number of migrants arriving in southern Italy has dropped recently, a new border has been established here in the north. In mid-August, the Austrian army sent 70 soldiers to the Brenner Pass, the Alpine border between Italy and Austria, and they use iron rods to poke through freight trains for stowaways. In addition, police are checking passenger trains more thoroughly than ever before. Austria is in the midst of an election campaign, and gone are the days when around 200 Africans, Pakistanis and Afghans heading north were waved through the border each day, while Bolzano residents handed out food and clothing. Today, says one railroad worker, residents are more likely to point out refugees hiding under the seats and say: “Look, mister conductor, there’s another one trying to hide.”
Zacharias’ trip comes to an end in Fortezza, four stations before the pass, when Italian police officers ask him to leave the train. Five Somalis are already sitting on the platform, on their way back from Austria – five of up to 1,000 migrants apprehended by Austrian authorities each month and sent back across the Brenner. At a police station in Austria, the Somalis’ fingerprints had been entered into the Eurodac database, their cash and cell phones had been confiscated, and they had been told to report to the immigration office in Bolzano. They return to Bolzano with Zacharias and the train station becomes the last stop on their journey.
Trying Again and Again
It is as if a new dividing line in border-free Europe now passes through Bolzano, an invisible boundary for Africans like Zacharias, who keep trying again and again but are shot back like pinballs. For the past several months, 20 to 30 new migrants have found themselves stranded in Bolzano every day – and there are no indications that the situation will change soon.
Somalis, Afghans and Ghanaians now loiter in the park outside the Bolzano train station, smoking marijuana and selling drugs. Nigerian women prostitute themselves on the street behind the station. Those who have been unable to find a place to sleep wash themselves on the banks of the Eisack River. A group of about a dozen volunteers, most of them children of migrants, attend to their needs. They can only laugh at the words of Interior Minister Marco Minniti, who says that he finally sees a “light at the end of the tunnel.” The volunteers in Bolzano only see tunnels, and they say their work has just begun.
Two of these volunteers receive Zacharias in Bolzano after his aborted train trip. They provide him with a cot in a church for the night, but he is homeless after that. Despite all obstacles, Zacharias is self-confident and certain of victory, and he has even learned to speak decent Italian. In speaking to him, you realize that no one can stop him on his journey to the north. Not his mother, whose parting words were: Don’t waste your life with people who don’t want you. And not those in uniform, who have now blocked his path for the third time on his odyssey.
In Gambia, Zacharias used to build working computers from the electronic garbage coming from Europe. He says he hasn’t come to Europe empty-handed; he has something to offer. He wants to complete a training program, work hard, and “become an independent man.”
He is still a long way from his goal. After being beaten and harassed in Libyan camps, he finally made the crossing to Italy, where he lived in a reception camp near Brindisi for six months. He worked as a day laborer picking tomatoes, and felt he was being exploited like a slave. He doesn’t have a particularly high opinion of Italians. He believes they are disorganized and spoiled. He, on the other hand, wants to do something with his life, he says.
Hopelessness and Aimlessness
Zacharias is firmly convinced that he will make it, and that he will lead a life of prosperity and dignity in Germany. Other Africans have also made it, he says, citing as proof the photos they send him every day, and the success stories he reads on Facebook and WhatsApp. He refuses to believe that these are sugarcoated versions of the truth, and that migrants are too ashamed to describe what life in Europe is really like. Instead of describing their loneliness, hopelessness and aimlessness, they lie and send photos of themselves standing in front of expensive cars.