March 10, 2017 / 11:57 AM / 9 months ago

Roman citizens defy law to help migrants

ROME (Reuters) - Volunteers served macaroni in marinara sauce to dozens of migrants outside one of Rome’s biggest train stations this week, offering help to travellers largely ignored by institutions on the frontline of Europe’s migrant crisis.

Migrants stand with their tents at a bus station in front of the Tiburtina railway station in Rome, Italy, March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Max Rossi

While other European cities including Milan have set up information centres and shelters for migrants, Rome has repeatedly cleared out impromptu camps citing security concerns.

“We’ve had 13 evictions,” Andrea Costa, director of the Baobab Experience group of volunteers, said before the migrants settled in for a cold night.

To keep from being cleared out yet again, volunteers cook meals at home and bring them to a bare plaza outside Tiburtina station where tents are set up at 9 p.m. and taken down in the early morning.

There are now 50 migrants staying here, mostly from Africa, as they attempt to reach other European countries. That number is expected to soar this summer with sea arrivals to Italy up 60 percent already this year after setting a record last year.

“With boat arrivals at this pace, in a little while we’ll have hundreds of people to take care of,” Costa said.

A migrant carries his belongings at a bus station in front of the Tiburtina railway station in Rome, Italy, March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Max Rossi

Baobab saw between 500 and 1,000 migrants per day last summer, and volunteers have helped almost 63,000 migrants over the past two years with no state funding - only donations.

Robel Tesfit, a 27-year-old Eritrean-Ethiopian who everybody calls “Bob”, arrived in Italy by sea in 2015, hoping to reach Britain where he wanted “to play for Manchester United”.

Slideshow (15 Images)

He never made it to Britain, and returned to Rome where he was granted asylum. Now he uses his knowledge of Italian, Arabic, Tigrinya and Amharic to help Baobab volunteers, who gave him food, shelter and advice on his journey.

Pointing to the men and women lining up for pasta, he said: “When I arrived, I was the same as them.”

While Italy has shelters to house 175,000 asylum seekers, it does not fund structures for migrants in transit, in part because the European Union wants to stop migrants from moving on, not help them to do so. EU law says they must seek asylum in the country where they first set foot.

At the end of last year, Rome set aside about 60 beds in a nearby Red Cross centre for travellers and officials say they want to renovate a hotel near the station to provide beds for about 100 more.

Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Julia Glover

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