Ayman, 42, his wife, Susan, 38, and their 3 children: Ahmad, 16, Aya, 14, and Suleiman, 8. Photo: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam Intermón
Oxfam has joined a program to help Syrians find refuge in Europe. 60 people, including many families, will arrive in Italy today to seek asylum as part of a humanitarian visa programme approved by the Italian government. The people will be hosted by Oxfam in the Italian region of Tuscany for the duration of their asylum process.
The scheme, called ‘Humanitarian Corridors’, allows people to reach Europe on a safe and regular route in order to claim asylum, without having to risk their lives in perilous sea crossings or long and dangerous journeys over land. Already this year more than 1000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean.
The initiative is the only concrete example in Europe of such a project by civil society alongside an EU government. It aims to support 500 people from different regions in 2017 that are currently located in three transit countries – Lebanon, Morocco and Ethiopia.
Roberto Barbieri, Executive Director of Oxfam Italy, said: “The people who try to reach Europe are often desperate, searching for a life in safety and dignity. For many, risking their lives in unseaworthy boats is a last resort to escape violence, disaster and poverty. We are now offering an alternative route for people in need so they can reach Europe in safety.”
The programme was started by three faith-based organizations – the Sant’Egidio Community, the Union of Methodist Churches and the Waldensian Church – with Italian government permission. Oxfam Italy is joining the initiative this year to host Syrians in reception facilities. Oxfam will also provide legal assistance and help for them to access cultural mediation services and Italian language courses, as well as work and education mentorship for up to 250 people.
The ‘Humanitarian Corridors’ program selects people who are either, according to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, likely to be recognised as refugees in Italy, or particularly vulnerable people, for example those who have been abused, unaccompanied minors, families with children, women alone, elderly people or ill people.
28-year-old Fatem from Syria, who is a mother of two and is arriving in Italy as part of the first group hosted by Oxfam, said: “We just want to be happy. We don’t want to live in constant fear that we will not be able to make it through the day. My children deserve a chance at a better future."
“We cannot find work here in Lebanon. And when it comes to rent, landlords are not merciful. My son is disabled, he needs a roof to protect him,” adds Ayman, 42, a father of three who will also find refuge in Italy.
European member states have repeatedly turned their back on these people by shutting their borders and putting in place deals like the EU-Turkey deal and EU-endorsed Italy-Libya deal.
“EU member states have consistently failed to expand alternative safe and regular routes to Europe, nor expanded resettlement and humanitarian admission schemes for vulnerable refugees. Organizations have stepped into the gap because there is such an immense need. This programme shows it is possible to provide more humane routes to Europe that have government support,” Barbieri said.
In addition to falling short on resettling vulnerable refugees, the lack of other safe and regular routes also means that many people see no choice but to turn to smugglers and use increasingly dangerous routes to cross to Europe.
“Instead of shutting borders and migration routes, which only leaves people to turn to smugglers and risk their lives, European governments need to provide real alternatives. Not one more person should die trying to cross the Mediterranean in search of a life in safety and dignity,” Barbieri added.
Oxfam is calling on European governments to urgently improve access to international protection for those fleeing conflict and persecution, including through humanitarian visas. In addition, more flexible family reunification policies and more resettlement programmes are needed. The agency has called on rich countries, including European nations, to resettle or offer other forms of admission to 10 percent of the Syrian refugee population by the end of 2017.
Oxfam is also calling on European governments to create more and varied channels for regular labour migration beyond selected highly-skilled sectors and take a more progressive approach to creating safe, transparent, temporary as well as permanent options for migrants across sectors.