On a recent evening, two volunteer doctors and a handful of medical students moved gingerly around a dimly lit room, examining dozens of newly arrived migrants from the Horn of Africa. The medics treated blotchy arms, legs and feet — symptoms of scabies — lighting the infected areas with a smartphone app. Nearby, a pediatrician listened to the chests of newborns and toddlers.
The impromptu clinic was set up in an abandoned building on the outskirts of Rome, colloquially known as Salaam Palace, where hundreds of migrants have squatted for years. Europe’s quickening migration crisis has now filled the place to overflowing, with most new arrivals relegated to an underground parking garage, sleeping on soiled mattresses on the floor.
The overcrowding of Salaam Palace is a crisis within a larger, nationwide emergency set off by a fresh surge of more than 50,000 migrants to Italy since the beginning of the year — more already than in all of 2013. The inflow has severely taxed Italy’s resources, spawning miniature Salaam Palaces in cities across the country as asylum seekers are distributed to refugee centers, hotels and makeshift dormitories.
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With summer here, the numbers are only expected to spike. The system is already creaking under the strain: A national news program reported this month that one group of migrants, recent arrivals at Italy’s heel in Puglia, had been bused to the capital and left abandoned and disoriented in a parking lot. Even in Rome, Salaam Palace is just one of several similar squats, though certainly the most famous, or infamous. Italy’s president called the building a national shame in a televised address in 2012.
Salaam Palace is so well known that migrants from hundreds of miles away make it their destination. The mayor of Rome visited last year and pledged help. Pope Francis has quietly sent his own “Almoner,” or alms giver, to put his social message into action, sending workers to unclog sewers and donating a prefabricated hut with showers.
But those who live here say each round of attention, and each wave of newcomers, merely underscores the persistence of all that is not working with Italy’s immigration policies, and those of Europe more generally.
This year, populist parties have gained ground across Europe by playing on fears of immigration, shifting the debate toward themes of economic competition and the social cost for a tradition-bound Continent that seems more inclined than ever to wall itself off from global forces, whether corporate competition, digital innovation or the movements of people.
None of that, however, has stemmed the tide of people breaching Europe’s defenses. This month, in one weekend alone, the Italian authorities recovered three bodies and rescued more than 5,400 people, most crossing the Mediterranean from Libya in overcrowded, rickety boats run by people smugglers.
“They know about Salaam, this place is known in Africa, and before they even leave Libya they think about coming here,” said Bahar Abdalla, from Sudan, a longtime resident. “We won’t send anyone away. But we’re worried. This can’t continue.”
Few migrants voluntarily ask for asylum in Italy, but rather hope to continue to northern Europe, making Salaam Palace a way station for some, and a permanent home for others forced to remain in the country as a result of the European Union’s so-called Dublin regulation. Intended to discourage multiple asylum claims, the rule calls for asylum seekers to request refugee status in the first member state they enter.
Human-rights workers say the rule does not provide efficient or effective protection for the migrants, and puts a disproportionate burden on the European countries that border the Mediterranean.
Last October, after several hundred migrants died in an accident off the island of Lampedusa, the southernmost Italian point in the Mediterranean, the European Union stepped up naval patrols, both to control the flow of migrants and to assist vessels in distress. Critics say the patrols have only increased the incentives for migrants to risk the dangerous passage. More and more keep coming.
“Now they arrive still covered in sea salt,” said Donatella D’Angelo, a doctor with the volunteer group Cittadini del Mondo, or Citizens of the World, which has run the weekly medical clinic at Salaam Palace for eight years. “In the past at least they’d get fed and cleaned in reception centers on Lampedusa.”
“This crisis has been dumped onto the occupied centers, rather than being handled at a national and European level, on the part of those who have the power to actually do something,” she said.
Despairing of waiting for help from the government and local authorities, D’Angelo recently made a public appeal for soap, towels, sheets, clothing and pharmaceuticals. Many charities and institutions responded, she said, including an elementary school that took up a collection of toothbrushes and toothpaste.
Rome, like other cities still feeling the strains of Europe’s long economic crisis, has struggled to provide assistance, and much of the care for those here rests with volunteers.
There is some evidence that the recent influx has caused the Italian authorities to take note. The health authorities met with various groups in recent weeks to discuss the situation. Officials have pledged to refurbish the medical clinic and build a deposit for donated items. The International Committee of the Red Cross set up an aid van, and one nonprofit organization has promised to clean up the garage and donate camp beds.
Mayor Ignazio Marino of Rome visited Salaam Palace last September with a delegation from City Hall and also promised help. But for those who have lived in Salaam Palace for years, the assurances of official assistance have little coinage.
“Marino came, he spoke with us, but in the end it’s as if he hadn’t come, nothing has changed, it’s just getting worse,” said Ali, a resident of Salaam Palace who declined to give his last name. The residents have protested countless times for help, to no avail, he said. “Governments have come and gone but nothing has happened, just a lot of talk and we’re still in the same boat, waiting.”
Mayor Marino sees the problem as extending beyond Rome. Europe as a whole “has to offer opportunities to people, not just beds, but new opportunities for their lives,” he said in a telephone interview earlier this year. He called for a strategic plan for refugees.
“This is a challenge that has to be faced at the European Union level,” he said.