“Me and my brothers with their families came to Lebanon in 2012, and today we are all leaving to Italy,” a teary Abu Rabih told dpa in Tal Abbas in northern Lebanon’s Akkar region before the trip. “War is a ghost … and no one would ever know the meaning of it unless he lives through it,” he added.
Amid a wave of border closures that are making it increasingly hard for asylum seekers to enter Europe, the Community of Sant’Egidio and the Italian Federation of Evangelical Churches (FCEI) joined forces to guarantee safe passage to 1,000 of them over the next two years.
They are billing their “humanitarian corridors” scheme as a model for the European Union, which is facing the biggest inflow of refugees since the end of World War II but has so far been very timid on opening up legal migration routes for them.
“This project aims to keep people safe and to prevent them from taking the so-called death trips to reach Europe,” Pieter Wieers, a spokesman for Sant’Egidio in Beirut, told dpa.
After a trial run earlier this month, when a Syrian girl suffering from cancer and her family were brought to Rome, the initiatvie got under way with an Alitalia flight that took 93 refugees, including 41 minors, from Beirut to the Italian capital.
“I can’t find the right words, I feel like flying, I can’t describe how happy I am,” one of the refugees, Ahmad, surrounded by two children and his wife Maissa, said upon arrival in Rome. Maissa added: “We were risking our lives.”
Sant’Egidio, a Catholic non-governmental organization, and FCEI, part of the global Protestant community, will relocate incomers across Italy, and help them with asylum procedures, accommodation, language classes, schooling for children and professional job training.
The Italian government is not contributing financially but is supporting the project by issuing the necessary entry visas for migrants. The visas do not grant them travel rights to other EU nations.
“My children were planning to leave by sea to Europe on those death trips, but I convinced them not to after their cousin died in one of those trips,” Badiaa, a widower and mother of eight, said to dpa before what she called “the hope trip.”
Monday’s flight helped to clear northern Lebanon’s Tel Abbas refugee camp, which gave shelter to people who fled from the heavily bombarded city of Homs in 2012. Those leaving included a 72-year-old woman left with no relatives and whose children were said to be suffering from asthma.
“We believe it is from the heavy shelling they witnessed in Bab Amr and also from the bad living conditions in the camp here,” Badiaa said. “At least the children’s health will be looked after in Italy,” she added.
“This camp will be empty after we all leave… only our painful memories will remain behind,” Rami, another camp evacuee, said.
In total, humanitarian corridors should benefit 600 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, 250 asylum seekers from Ethiopia, and 150 from Morocco – a drop in the ocean compared to the record 1-million-plus migrants who entered Europe last year, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who went to Fiumicino to welcome the migrants, admitted that the project could not solve Europe’s migration woes but stressed its symbolic value.
“To face this migration crisis, we don’t need new walls or new fences,” Gentiloni said. “I hope that this message coming this morning from Rome will be contagious, that there will be other countries in Europe which will follow this example,” he added.