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Milano Centrale: a resting stop for refugees

By Jonas Füllner, photos by Mauricio Bustamante

This article first appeared in Hinz&Kunzt, Germany. It was the winner of the INSP Award 2015 for Best News Feature.

Milan’s central train station, Milano Centrale acts as a hub and temporary safe haven for floods of refugees, mainly from Syria, who seek a better life in Europe. While some remain in Italy, the station connects many to their journey north. Inside the station’s majestic marble halls, hundreds of refugees have sought food, shelter and the help of “haulers” who charge them money to travel to France, German and Sweden, as the police turn a blind eye. Hinz&Kunzt journalist Jonas Füllner and photographer Mauricio Bustamante visited the station, and spoke with refugees and the volunteers giving them food and support.

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A young man works his way slowly through the masses in Milano Centrale, Milan’s central train station. He stops to question anyone wearing neon-coloured safety vests. Yet their replies don’t seem to satisfy him. Finally he gets to me. “Are there any border controls on the way to France?” he asks, in English. It turns out Yasser has fled from war in Syria and was stranded here in Milan two days ago. After three years of civil war, Yasser doesn’t believe the fighting will ever end in Syria, a place which he can no longer call home.

When I came to Milan with our photographer Mauricio Bustamante three days ago, Yasser had just alighted from a ship in Sicily. He paid $5,000 for the crossing. On arrival he wasn’t really checked. “Because we didn’t want to give our finger prints, first the police struck us, then just chased us away,” he says. Yasser then took a train to Italy’s second largest city. Now he wants to cross the border. If no one stops him in doing so, he could apply for asylum in France.

But I don’t know of a safe path either, so I shrug my shoulders and explain that I’m just visiting from Germany. “I love Germany!” Yasser (pictured below) beams. Has he been there before? Yasser shakes his head. But Germany is meant to be great, of that he is certain. Much better than France. Why doesn’t he travel to Germany then, I ask him. “My brother lives there,” he explains and points with his finger to the point north of Nice on a map of Europe which hangs on a wall nearby.

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Yasser search for information is conducted in the gigantic entrance hall of Milano Centrale, a hulking structure built under Mussolini. An escalator leads to a few cafes on the lower ground floor below where we stand on the mezzanine level. Two wide staircases lead onto the train platforms. The people on the mezzanine level attract hardly any attention.

It’s almost exclusively Syrian refugees who gather in front of the map of Europe. Here, they exchange information, and pick up contacts for transporters who promise a safe onward journey by car in exchange for a lot of money. It is also a place to find food, clothing and somewhere to sleep. In the next room the members of the private aid organisation Emergenza Siria Milano have set up their support base. There’s panettone, bottles of water and woollen hats. At the end of the gallery, students are playing with refugee children on a woollen blanket.

“At the beginning of the year the situation was catastrophic,” says Susy Ivieno (pictured below). The 49-year-old coordinates the work of Emergenza Siria Milano to help hundreds of refugees camped in the corridors and hallways of the station. “The people are on the run. They are hungry, thirsty, worried, and nobody helps them,” says Ivieno. “I didn’t want them to be ignored any more.”

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She called for support via Facebook – and now more than 80 volunteers work with her regularly. Every morning from 9am to noon, a group gives out food and clothing to Syrian refugees in the entrance hall of the train station.

Metres away, a clerk sits at a beer table with a laptop. Under the 70-meter-high roof of the entrance hall, the impact of this improvised information point is ridiculously small. Yet for the support network it is irreplaceable. It’s here that the arrivals will be found accommodation so that no one has to sleep on the streets.

No one stays here for long, Susy Ivieno assures us. “That’s why they send the refugees straight to us.” For months, up to 300 refugees like Yasser have arrived at Milano Centrale each day. It’s clear to all those involved that their journey will begin again soon. In the past six months alone, more than 52,000 refugees have passed through the interstation.

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Whilst Yasser speaks with me, he keeps his eye fixed on his mobile phone. His brother will call him and help him, he maintains. But perhaps he is also dependent on the help of the haulers. A former restaurant owner, Yasser left Syria with all his savings. Here in the gallery, he can meet people who will help him with his onward journey, but at a price.

According to the aid workers from Emergenza Siria Milano, most of the haulers come from Egypt. No one makes a fuss about their presence. Not even the police officers, who patrol the station and greet everyone politely. Nonetheless it’s easy to make out who they are. They avoid conversations with us. Again and again they disappear with refugees one by one. We get the impression that they are having negotiations.

Some aid workers stay at the station late into the evening. Only at night things change. From midnight, police officials block off the building – only travellers with tickets are allowed to stay overnight in the station. And – unofficially – the refugees.

We accompany a small group to their sleeping areas in a corridor. Some want to go to Bavaria to their relatives. The majority see Sweden as their best destination. We haven’t noticed that some of the haulers are amongst the group. Only later it occurs to us that they negotiated with the spokesperson for the group while others told us of their plans. Suddenly police officials surround us, accompanied by one of the haulers. As the refugees immediately fly the coop, the police make a request to us: delete any images of the haulers.

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We are shocked by how the police and haulers operated hand in hand. Right after we get rid of the photos, we are let out into the night again. The travelling group for Sweden are long gone, accompanied by some of the haulers. Whether they’ll reach their destination is unknown. Sweden is high on the list for refugees; many Syrians believe the country will give them the permanent right to stay, plus financial support.

“But Sweden must be hell,” says aid worker Ivieno. “It is terribly cold and the sun only shines for a couple of hours.” And most probably won’t find work. She says Italy offers a greater chance of finding work, even if most of it is undeclared. “It would be easier to make ends meet here,” she thinks.
Yet only a few want to stay. Karim is one of them. Though he hasn’t stayed in Italy completely of free will – when the 40-year-old Syrian arrived with his family in Italy two years ago, he had to provide his fingerprints immediately – he isn’t unhappy to be here. Now he lives in a housing block owned by district activists.

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Aid workers told us of this project. We travel by train to his four-room apartment not far from the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza (the stadium that is home to A.C. Milan and F.C. Internazionale Milan). “All the furniture and kitchen appliances were given to us,” says Karim. He leads us through the spacious apartment and proudly shows us the walls he painted himself. His children attend school nearby. Throughout the day the trained hairdresser does work on the house or earns a few euros cutting his neighbours’ hair.

Although Milan is a growing metropolis, thousands of apartments stand empty. It is an opportunity for many poor Italians and migrants, who have begun to live in the properties again. Politicians had looked on without action, until last December when the governing Northern League (Lega Nord) party announced an eviction offensive.

“They create an atmosphere against foreigners, all of whom apparently don’t want to pay rent,” thinks Karim, who is left cold by the threat. “There’s never been problems here with the police or anything and we can also pay a small rent.” Nearby the children noisily play with neighbouring Italian children. Karim appears perfectly integrated. He sees his future in Milan.

“I won’t go back again,” he says. He believes the civil war has destroyed everything. “Anyone who still can is leaving Syria.” Over two million people are reportedly fleeing, including more than half a million refugees who have been taken in by Turkey. In comparison, in summer 2014, the Federal Republic of Germany agreed to take in 10,000 refugees from the Syrian crisis region. “There’s still room in Italy too,” Ivienio is certain. “We just need more financial help from the other European states now.” She thinks the country could hold 100,000 refugees without problems.

Yasser however will not stay in Milan. His phone rings. His brother is on the other end of the line. They talk for a long time. The tips he receives stay secret but Yasser is satisfied. “Tomorrow I’m travelling to France,” he says cheerfully. We wish him luck. Later we board the night train back to Hamburg. When we change trains the next morning in Munich, the German police receive us on the platform. They don’t take any notice of us. Right behind us they stop three Africans and take them to the police station.

Translated by Jos Weale.

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