October 22, 2003
Nearly two hundred Sudanese refugees are squatting in an abandoned railway station in Rome, Italy. Many have applied for a refugee status and are awaiting the outcome of their procedure. Others have been granted asylum but simply have nowhere to go. The buildings are being demolished and Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is pushing the Prefecture, Rome's City Council, and the owner of the site to find a solution for the Sudanese and other squatters, who total around four hundred at Tiburtina station.
Last week, an MSF team distributed hygiene kits among the refugees, who live without running water and electricity. There are no sanitation facilities and the risk of diseases is very high.
"Today MSF negotiated with the authorities the supply of running water to the people living in the area," says Andrea Accardi, who coordinates the MSF intervention. "But this is just one part of the negotiation. We are pushing the local authorities to find a long term solution for all the people living in these buildings."
The refugees have made their homes in what has been dubbed Hotel Africa, a stone construction that was once a barrack for storing rails but is now an empty shell. They come from the south of Sudan, a war zone for decades, and from the country's west where a violent war is being fought this year. In addition to monitoring their situation, lobbying for a better housing solution, checking their health and providing basic assistance, the MSF team also takes down the refugees' stories.
One man from Darfur, western Sudan, tells the typical tale of violence, escape and flight: "Three of my brothers have been arrested because they refused the forced recruitment. They have been detained in a jail for months, tortured and humiliated. When they tried to escape the soldiers executed them. I've been arrested too. I stayed in a jail for three months, then I escaped and I decided to flee. When I was in Libya I heard that in Italy, in Europe there are human rights and there's the chance for refugees to find protection. Is this the kind of protection have I heard about?"
Many of the refugees landed on the Sicilian coast during this year's Spring or Summer, after an often hazardous trip across the Mediterranean from Lybia. Commonly, they were stuck in Lybia for many months as they gathered the fare for the trip, which averaged $500 USD last year but has since gone up to $1,200 USD. This money buys them a spot on a boat, but often it means having to share a forty-foot vessel with more than one hundred others. There are many stories of people washing overboard as they could not keep their balance on the overcrowded ships.
In Sicily, people who arrive generally find good reception in the centers put in place by the authorities. But Tiburtina railway station clearly demonstrates how the main problems arise after this first reception. "The situation of the people in the area is the legacy of the lack of a second reception assistance system," says Andrea Accardi. "The people fleeing wars or general violence arrive in Italy after a long and dangerous journey and what they find is more or less nothing: a basic assistance at arrival and then they are left on their own."
On the rails between the buildings, an old man is cooking water on an open fire. "Here it's just like Africa, isn't it?" he says with a discouraged tone of voice. A few yards away, construction workers are demolishing one of the station's buildings. Hotel Africa will be knocked down as well, as this site is meant to become Rome's largest railway station in the future. For the people living here, no alternative location has been found.
Another man from Darfur tells how he fled, after six months in jail, to escape being forcibly recruited. "I left Sudan four years ago, because the situation is very bad. The government does not help western Sudan. There are no schools and there is no medical care. They look at our people as if we are nothing. There is no water and no electricity where I come from. Our people have no rights. My country is one million square kilometers, but nowhere can I get my rights. I lost my father and my mother. I lost my friends. Now I am here, again I live like an animal. I have been given asylum, but I have nowhere to go."
MSF has mounted an emergency intervention in eastern Chad for tens of thousands of Sudanese who have fled the violence in Darfur.
© 2013 Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)