Ferry Tale

A radical solution to the Mediterranean migrants crisis

Illustration by Kyle Metcalf
Illustration by Kyle Metcalf

Julius Okoduwa is a strong, healthy-looking thirty-year-old Nigerian man who spends most days standing outside a Carrefour supermarket in the Garbatella neighbourhood of Rome. He says little other than buongiorno or grazie bella or bello when customers drop change into his cap. He tries to smile and make eye contact with people, but some days he just stands there staring straight ahead and looking utterly miserable.

“I am one of the lucky ones,” he says, when I ask how it is that he came to be in Rome.

Okoduwa was on a ship that capsized in the Mediterranean Sea in fall 2013. Along with hundreds of other desperate migrants, he’d paid Libyan smugglers who’d promised to land him safely in Malta. But somewhere off the Italian coast, the boat lurched and tipped over. “I thought I would die,” he says, “but these good people came and pulled me out.”

In one incident, on April 19, 2015, an estimated 800 migrants from Africa drowned when an overcrowded boat capsized. Worldwide, nearly 80 percent of all migrant deaths this year have taken place in the Mediterranean.

The April 19 incident prompted the European Council to convene a special meeting devoted to the issue. But the EU’s approach typically has focused on military-style tactics aimed at stopping migrants from getting on boats in the first place. François Crépeau, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants (and a law professor at McGill University) proposes a radically different approach. “Since they’re coming no matter what we do to stop them, why don’t we organize this mobility? ” he asks. “Why do we leave it in the hands of the smugglers? ” He’s been telling anyone in Europe who will listen that migrants represent a valuable economic resource that could help address the continent’s demand for low-wage workers.

Of course, in Italy and other EU countries with struggling economies, unemployment already is high. Legions of young people are looking for work abroad. Yet a stroll through a Roman neighbourhood shows that immigrants are finding jobs and creating businesses at the low end of the retail economy.

Traditional pizza shops now are run by Egyptians who also offer “Arab specialties” such as doner kebabs. The alimentari, where one buys wine, Parmesan, and olives, increasingly are run by Bangladeshi immigrants—much as Koreans run many convenience stores in North America. (The Bangladeshi mini-marts, like their Korean counterparts in Canada, tend to stay open longer.) The casalinghi shops that sell small household goods such as kitchen implements and clothespins are so commonly run by Chinese newcomers that they are known as the Cinesi. A peek inside most restaurants shows that it’s not ethnic Italians who are preparing tourists’ spaghetti carbonara, but a multi-ethnic mix of recent arrivals.

“We need to change our mindset toward migration, toward mobility,” Crépeau says. He points out that workers in Canada have the Charter right to move around within the country—wherever there’s work available. EU citizens now are able to seek jobs throughout most of the continent. Why not allow such mobility on a global scale? “Migrants are not stupid,” he says. “They go where the jobs are available.”

Crépeau, a native Montrealer, believes opening up labour markets to migrants would lead to inexpensive, legal, and safe transport routes; he even has suggested that the International Organization for Migration run a ferry service between Africa and Europe, which would cost much less than what smugglers charge.

“Canada could take leadership on a plan of action,” he says. “For example, the international community could resettle 1 million Syrians. Based on its population, Canada could easily accept 8,500 people a year over five years. Germany could accept three times as many, and France twice as many. They would barely be noticed.”

Crépeau points to the arrival in Canada of Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s and ’80s as a precedent for the successful mass resettlement of migrants from war-torn countries. “Some of their children are now my law students,” he notes.

When Okoduwa left his Nigerian village seven years ago to take a construction job in Libya, he never imagined that he’d end up begging on the streets of Rome. Like 200,000 other migrants working in Libya when the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi began, he was trapped.

“I couldn’t go back to Nigeria,” he explains. “I have nothing there—nothing. It is very dangerous for me.” Okoduwa is a Christian, and consequently a target for the Islamist group Boko Haram in Nigeria and for Islamist militias in Libya. That’s why he was willing to risk death in an illegal Mediterranean crossing: “I had nowhere else to go.”

Standing outside the Carrefour, he doesn’t know whether his parents are safe back in Nigeria. They don’t know that he’s even alive. Italy has granted Okoduwa asylum and a work permit. He picks up construction jobs when he can, but he says there still is resistance to hiring Africans.

Others echo his complaint. Another Nigerian, who goes by the name Destiny, came via Libya; he sells packets of tissues on the street. He’s extremely friendly and asks passersby if they could use his services as a labourer. Destiny also flirts with women. A friend of his recently got a job through his Italian girlfriend, cleaning the hallways of an apartment complex. And so Destiny has come to believe that the best way to find a job is first to find a girlfriend.

“Life is better for me now. I am alive and no one is trying to kill me here,” says Okoduwa, reflecting on his time in Italy. But what he really wants now is a proper job. So does Destiny—preferably one “in the white,” meaning above-board employment in the legitimate economy.

Then, Destiny spots an approaching female customer—another potential girlfriend—and laughs.

Jeannie Marshall
Jeannie Marshall (jeanniemarshall.com) is the author of Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products.
Kyle Metcalf
Kyle Metcalf (kylemetcalf.com) is an artist. His work has appeared in the New York Times and the Guardian.