With E.U. leaders finally working on a Europe-wide refugee policy, there is growing concern among some migrants and aid officials that the new policies might unwittingly divide the migrants into two distinct classes—with two different kinds of welcomes.
First, the hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing the war back home, whose stunning flight into Europe has seized world attention; and second, the hundreds of thousands of much poorer, less educated newcomers who have also fled dire circumstances in Africa.
As EU officials prepare to meet in Brussels on Monday to hash out an emergency plan, the details are sketchy as to how the continent will integrate the massive influx of migrants who have crossed into Europe from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. On Wednesday the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker made it clear to the EU Parliament that the union’s 28 countries were duty-bound to help host the 160,000 asylum-seekers currently stuck in Greece, Italy, and Hungary, and emphasized that all would be treated equally. “Europe has made the mistake in the past of distinguishing between Jews, Christians, Muslims,” he said. “There is no religion, no belief, no philosophy when it comes to refugees.”
Yet, for some of the 80,000 or so who have landed in Sicily this year—the vast majority African—the promise of fairness for all sounds unconvincing.
Africans who have fled deadly, often forgotten conflicts, or various kinds of persecution—including religious and anti-gay violence—say they believe it could take years to win refugee status or residence in Europe, if they ever receive it at all. Those simply fleeing poverty, and there are many, are not eligible for asylum.
Instead, many predict a long, tough road towards acceptance and employment somewhere on the continent. Several African asylum-seekers in Sicily described overwhelming bureaucratic hurdles towards those goals — a far different picture than the tens of thousands of Syrians whom the E.U. and U.S. now appear willing to host.
Yet both sets of newcomers share one experience: life-threatening journeys to Europe. “”We risked everything to cross the Mediterranean,” says Samate, a tall 17-year-old from Senegal, sitting in a detention center in the Sicilian town of Messina on Wednesday. He said he fled his home last February after separatist rebels in the disputed Casamance region where he comes from tried to draft him into battle. The Italian Coast Guard rescued him and other migrants as they tried to cross the Mediterranean on in late July, and brought them to Sicily.
About half of those who have landed on Europe’s shores this year have been Syrian, according to the U.N. refugee agency, most crossing from Turkey to Greece, before moving quickly on to Austria, Germany and Sweden. But a large portion of the rest are Africans who have crossed from Libya to Italy—a more lethal sea route that has so far killed more than 2,200 migrants this year. Most have arrived after hair-raising treks across the vast, searing Sahara, and then weeks in Libya’s migrant jails. Samate’s five-month journey included working for traffickers in Niger and Libya at meager wages.
Far different from the Syrians clambering off boats in Greece, the Africans land in Sicily penniless and empty-handed. When I ask to see what they carried with them, most look puzzled, then point to the clothes on their back. “I arrived with nothing, not even my documents,” said Mandjo, 16, from Guinea, who fled when religious violence destroyed his village. What little he grabbed as he fled was lost to bandits along the way.
Now, the plight of African refugees like Mandjo risks getting lost amid the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe, aid officials say. “It’s important to us that Europe is now beginning to talk about opening their borders and welcoming refugees,” says Giovanna Di Benedetto of Save the Children in Sicily. “But it is not only Syrians who have to be welcomed.”
To underscore her point, Di Benedetto whips out her iPhone to show me photos of dead African infants whose bodies washed ashore on a beach off Zuwara, Libya on August 28, when their smugglers’ boat capsized. About 200 people drowned when the ship overturned.
Five days later, a photo on a beach off Bodrum, Turkey showed another dead toddler: Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy. That image finally jolted EU leaders into action. “Syrians of course need help, but they are not the only ones,” Di Benedetto says. Shaking her head at the photos of dead African children on her phone, she says she wonders whether Aylan’s “white skin” made the difference.
On Wednesday, Juncker, the European Commission President, announced a new €1.8-billion fund for Africa that will be financed from the EU’s operating budget. The fund is meant to address “root causes of illegal migration in Africa,” and Juncker expects individual European countries to “pitch in” with more money to effectively persuade Africans to stay at home, rather than move to Europe. He said the money would help generate jobs in Africa, thus reducing “destabilization, forced displacement and illegal migration.”
Such programs, sorely needed, could take generations to work, however. In the meantime, thousands of African migrants await settlement inside Europe’s borders.
How the EU will address this more immediate problem that problem is less clear than the issue of the new Syrian arrivals. “The EU is talking about the Syrians,” says Valeria Morace, an Italian working in the Messina center for unaccompanied minors. “But politicians don’t talk about Africans in general, because they are not really doing anything for them.”
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