SICILY, Italy — Fabiana Giuliani is a legal associate for the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees, but in the last few months she has spent most of her time in ports.
Based on the southern island of Sicily, Giuliani, a 31-year-old Italian native who has been working for the UN refugee agency for 18 months, has found herself in the middle of a refugee crisis. Since the beginning of the year, some 20,500 people have boarded overcrowded fishing boats in Libya and crossed the Mediterranean Sea en route to Sicily, which is located about 320 miles away.
These boat migrants are mostly people fleeing from Syria, Eritrea and Somalia, who head into the dangerous journey searching for shelter and asylum and safety. They leave their countries and find their way to Libya, where human traffickers have developed an extensive network serving those who want to enter Europe illegally, through the sea. (The Syrians, for example, first travel to Egypt and onward to Libya.)
The Italian Navy, which has ramped up its presence in the Mediterranean since more than 360 migrants drowned when their boat capsized in October 2013, rescues the migrants in international waters and brings them to Sicilian ports, where Giuliani is one of the first people they interact with as they land in Europe.
“In the beginning, we provide the migrants basic information; where they are, who we are,” Giuliani said of her role in the ports during the migrants’ frequent landings. “It is very important because sometimes they don’t know anything.”
Giuliani communicates with the migrants in English and distributes booklets — translated to seven languages, including Arabic, French and Tigrina (spoken in parts of Ethiopia and Eritrea) — that provide legal information about the asylum procedure. “We try to identify the vulnerable people — like pregnant women, unaccompanied minors or others who have particular problems — and refer these cases to the immigration police to follow up,” she said.
Giuliani is on call 24 hours. Navy vessels patrolling at sea spot migrants’ boats and notify Italian immigration authorities as to the number of people who were rescued and to which port they will be taken. The Italian authorities update Giuliani and she heads to wherever the landing may be, to be present when the migrants disembark from the Navy vessels.
While most of the time she is the only UN refugee agency representative ready at landings, Giuliani is not alone. Her work is part of the Praesidium Project, a cooperation among the Italian Red Cross, Save the Children and the International Organization for Migration. The project, which started in March 2006, was designed to contribute to a protection-sensitive reception system for asylum seekers and others arriving by sea amid irregular mixed migratory flows to southern Italy.
Each organization has a different role in handling the issues that arise during landings, including providing medical services, taking care of minors and collecting information about the trafficking process the migrants had been through.
On April 8 this year, Giuliani arrived at Augusta port in southeast Sicily at about 3 p.m. Earlier that day, she had been informed by the Italian immigration authorities that the Navy had rescued in international waters 553 people of various nationalities who had left Libya four days earlier. The group included 86 minors and 67 women, two of whom were pregnant.
Giuliani’s work began as soon as the Navy vessel docked and the migrants began to go ashore. For nearly five hours, she approached families and individuals and tried to ease the difficult transition and let migrants know they had arrived in a safe place and that their situation would be addressed. She comforted crying babies, played with children and patiently answered questions of worried adults, while continuously taking notes of relevant details.
The genuine smiles of Giuliani and the other members of the Praesidium Project team were the single welcoming faces in a port full of Italian security forces, including Navy officers, police officers and the Coast Guard.
“It is challenging because we have to be efficient, we have to do a lot of things, but we can’t forget that we are dealing with human beings,” Giuliani said. “We must pay attention to the needs of each one but take care of all.”
That day, she left Augusta well after sunset. She came back the next day for another landing. Overall, some 8,500 migrants disembarked in Sicily during the second week of April alone, and many of them had at least a short talk with Giuliani upon their arrival.
The UN refugee agency expects cross-sea migration from Libya, which is hostile to migrants, to increase as a result of the war in Syria and the growing instability in several sub-Saharan countries. For some Africans, the trek to try to reach Europe to live and work and send money home is a rite of passage. But the situation is worsening, with a tenfold increase in arrivals of asylum seekers this year alone compared with the start of 2013.
And Sicily, for now, is likely to continue being the prime destination.
Yermi Brenner reports on migration and other sociopolitical issues for Al Jazeera, Global Post, Deutsche Welle and other publications. He is based in Berlin and is a graduate from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter: @yermibrenner.