Since the Balkan route was closed in March, the influx of refugees to Greece has decreased dramatically. Instead, people desperate enough to cross the Mediterranean to escape conflict and oppression are heading mainly for Italy, which received over 90 percent of the migrants arriving on European soil in July, according to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).
As the Italian government struggles to set up a proper system to house the migrants that continue to hit its shores – leaving women and girls, in particular, vulnerable to exploitation and violence – thousands of people across Italy have stepped in to respond to the humanitarian crisis at a grassroots level. In Rome, a group of volunteers set up a reception center near the Tiburtina train station last summer to provide shelter, food, clothing, medical care and counseling for people on the move. Named the Baobab Experience (after the African Baobab tree), the center quickly became a popular meeting point for thousands of African migrants and refugees seeking a new life in Europe. Organizers estimate that 40,000 people have passed through the camp in the past year.
The center was closed by police in early December in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks. But Baobab volunteers decided to continue their work and set up a camp on the street with tents and chemical toilets. They have also appealed to the government to fulfill its duty and guarantee proper structures and security for migrants.
Human rights activist and volunteer Maria Grazia Patania, 31, visited Baobab last month. She spoke to Women & Girls Hub about the conditions in the camp and the risks that women and girls face there.
Women & Girls Hub: What is the current situation at the Baobab transit camp in Rome?
Maria Grazia Patania: When I visited the camp at the end of July, nearly a hundred people, including families with small children, were living on the street, sleeping in tents and on dirty mattresses, unable to access basic facilities and exposed to violence perpetrated by extreme-right groups. The camp is located in Via Cupa [Gloomy Street] and entirely run by volunteers and donations.
Its guests live in constant fear of being identified or evacuated by police officers or local authorities. A couple of weeks ago, the police raided the camp and several were taken to the police station for identification. Most are from Africa and want to go further north. They are afraid of the police and having their fingerprints taken. But with the borders [to France and Switzerland] closed, they are stuck in Italy and have no place to go.
Women & Girls Hub: When did this unofficial camp open and how does it work?
Patania: The Baobab Experience was founded in June 2015 in response to the increasing number of migrants arriving from southern Italy. They were often left alone and in need of help to get accommodation, food and clean clothes. The center was first located in a building where it was possible to offer basic assistance for the newcomers, despite the lack of any kind of official support from local or national authorities. Baobab can only carry on thanks to the local community. Citizens and shop owners are bringing food, medicine, sanitary items and other donations. Volunteers are posting on Facebook what they need. It’s mostly working through social media and word of mouth.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, the building was evacuated by the police. But Baobab volunteers didn’t give up and decided to keep on assisting stranded migrants even without physical premises.
Women & Girls Hub: Women and girls on the refugee trail are at increased risk of sexual violence. Are there services or accommodations available to protect female migrants from abuse?
Patania: Migrant women are, of course, more vulnerable and exposed to violence and rape. Many of them arrive in Italy in severe psychological distress. Some are pregnant after being raped during their refugee journey. The Red Cross has some facilities in Rome with a limited number of beds. Priority is given to pregnant women, girls and children. If there’s no place available, women and children will get the best tents at Baobab Camp that are monitored all night by volunteers. They are also offered legal and medical assistance and counselling by cultural mediators. Once a week, they can take a shower at a nearby gym.
Women & Girls Hub: How did you get engaged in volunteer refugee work?
Patania: I’m from Augusta on the eastern coast of Sicily. The port of Augusta has played a major role in welcoming migrants who have been rescued while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. My first encounter with refugees was in May 2014, when I went home for a vacation and visited a temporary shelter set up in my old elementary school. A group of unaccompanied minors had already lived there for several months and local volunteers took care of them. I’m fluent in English and French and had the chance to speak with the young guys. In some cases, we became friends and are still in contact.
I was so shocked by the hardship of their living conditions as well as by their stories that I decided to give them a voice. In May 2015, we launched a storytelling project and multilingual blog, called Collettivo Antigone, to give a voice to the migrants who have landed on our shores. At first, the blog was conceived as a virtual place to collect their stories, but since then new people have joined and we now look at the migration issue and our shared humanity from different perspectives, including arts and creative writing.
Baobab’s future is uncertain. Volunteers are tired of being ignored by the government. People live in tents without access to basic sanitation. They need a safe shelter from adverse weather conditions and human traffickers. The city must provide a proper reception center and refugee camps, like in Germany.