Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

No way to find home: common stories of Eritreans in Italy and the Netherlands

Refugees cannot start a new life if they are not allowed to create homes for themselves.

Milena Belloni Aurora Massa
9 July 2020
Police evict Eritreans from a building in Rome in August 2017.
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Danilo Balducci/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.

The aspiration to find a new home – not only a safe place, but also a ground to exercise freedom and to think positively about the future – is a key ingredient in the life histories of the Eritrean refugees that we met in Italy and the Netherlands. Aspiration here refers to the individual and collective capacity to imagine possible alternatives to present lives. This capacity is a crucial resource for Eritreans who risk everything to change their lives. However, as much as they want to find a stable place for themselves and their families they are continuously struggling with precariousness and isolation.

“Life here is like a traffic light: sometimes it's green, when you have a job, but can suddenly turn red”, Kibron, 37, said. In Italy for over eight years, he lives in a squat on the outskirts of Rome and recently lost his seasonal job. “Maybe it can be green again, but then it will be red, and again, and again”. It’s an apt metaphor for the unpredictability of daily life for Eritreans in Italy. Poor or lacking inclusion policies for newcomers have led to widespread economic precariousness among refugees. They are often relegated to underpaid, irregular and unskilled jobs and face chronic residential instability. As a consequence, many Eritreans experience social marginality and feel without control over their lives, even after years spent in the country.

But precarious jobs and bad housing are not alone in preventing Eritreans from feeling at home in Europe. In the Netherlands refugees mostly struggle with social isolation and feelings of helplessness. Although there are several institutional programmes and, depending on the area, local organisations' initiatives to support inclusion, many refugees we spoke to had a hard time starting a new life there. “I do not feel at home anywhere here”, said Yohannes, who at 39 lives in a provincial town where Eritreans are an absolute novelty. “Back in Eritrea, the house is not what we mean by home. Our neighbourhood instead, is what we call home... the friends, the people, the ground.” He's not there by choice. In the attempt to reduce concentration of specific ethnic groups in bigger cities, such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam, Dutch asylum reception policies have moved people into small towns and semi-rural areas. In doing so, they have neglected the importance of community connections for the wellbeing of newcomers and their long-term integration.

“I met so many 50 even 60 years old men who went into military when they were seventeen and then they were never released. Life stopped for them … I did not want it to be the same for me.”

– Yakoub

These difficulties, this continuous sense of unachievement, come at the end of a long series of obstacles marking refugees’ pasts. Like most young men in Eritrea, Yohannes and Kibron saw years of military service, violence, and poverty before them. The idea that a better life was possible elsewhere motivated them to leave, yet doing so was not easy. They were incarcerated multiple times for attempting to escape the country. Yohannes was in and out of prison more than four times before managing to reach Sudan.

Many Eritreans spend years in camps in Ethiopia or hiding from police while employed in low-paid jobs in Sudan. They then invest their extremely limited resources and those of their families in a potentially deadly journey across the Libyan desert and the Mediterranean Sea. Their aspiration to find a new home, a safe and comfortable haven to allow them some emotional and material stability, drives their actions along this entire pathway. “Since I was a teenager, I dreamt of leaving”, said Yakoub, who is 26 years old. “I met so many 50 even 60 years old men who went into military when they were seventeen and then they were never released. Life stopped for them … I did not want it to be the same for me”.

Aspirations can at times lead migrants into extremely dangerous circumstances. The stronger the aspiration to change one’s life, the higher the level of vulnerability one is willing to tolerate. The high number of Eritreans imprisoned in inhuman conditions in Libya, facing daily abuse and torture, is a testament to the driving power of aspiration. The counterintuitive flipside, however, is how hard the landing can feel once they get where they are going. After all the risks taken in pursuit of an imaginary future, once they arrive refugees often look back on their trajectories as a cumulation of losses. Losing their families, losing what was familiar to them, losing money, and not finding a new home. As one Eritrean we spoke to said, “I don’t feel at home here…I don’t have a job, I want to achieve something but I do no manage… as far as I don’t have hope and happiness inside me I don’t have a home.”

“We need a place where we can share our experience, feel safe and also exchange ideas on how to deal with our new lives here.”

– Aaron

Accumulated homelessness

Within our research we’ve taken to calling this feeling accumulated homelessness, a notion which points to the subjective meaning of protracted displacement. This idea – this state of being – is far more than a simple policy category referring to the situation of refugees living for five years or more in exile in refugee camps, mostly situated in Africa and Asia. Marginality, a lack of ‘durable solutions’, and institutionalised precariousness characterise refugees’ lives even after reaching a safe place in Europe. Eritreans we met in Italy and the Netherlands were constantly struggling to find a house and a job, and they were unable to escape the feeling of being out of place.

This struggle, however, did not stop them from aspiring. In Italy, living in an informal settlement or in a squat is an ordinary solution to fight housing precariousness and job fluctuations. Huge buildings occupied for years by hundreds of refugees lie on the outskirts of the Italian capital. These places, often described by media as ghettos, represent homes for most Eritrean refugees. Once ex-municipal bureaus, they have been turned into functional, at times cosy, apartment blocks by the Eritrean squatters. They usually have common areas for watching TV, eating together and playing table tennis. Although inhabitants complain about job instability, racism, and their precarious accommodation, living together in these squats allows them to re-establish a familiar environment and to overcome stress and isolation by supporting each other.

Pic_Rome, Aug. 2017_The night prayer after the eviction_credits A. Massa.jpg
Rome, August 2017, The night prayer after the eviction. | Image by A. Massa. All rights reserved.

Eviction is an ever-present threat for people in a squat. This became clear in August 2017, when a building inhabited by 600 people, mainly refugees from Eritrea, was suddenly cleared out. The pictures of police water cannons used to violently repress the protest of inhabitants have had some resonance in the local and international media. But the effects of this eviction in people’s lives have been far more profound. Beside facing the practical consequences of being without a shelter, many inhabitants lost their homes once again. “Now we are here chatting together and someone is even laughing”, said Binyam, 37, on the evening of the eviction, “but our hearts are crying because our lives have been broken today”.

In the Netherlands, Eritreans often visit each other in different villages to overcome solitude. In 2018, Yohannes and his co-nationals living in the same region were planning to establish a cultural association, called “Our Home”, where they could meet to listen to Eritrean music, talk among each other, and drink coffee the way they used to do back home. “When we arrive here, we all have traumas”, said Aaron, 40. “We need a place where we can share our experience, feel safe and also exchange ideas on how to deal with our new lives here.” According to him, this association would have been a way for his community to find a place in a society which they perceived as hostile and unwelcoming.

Pic_An Eritrean home from the inside in the Netherlands_credits M.Belloni.jpg
An Eritrean home from the inside in the Netherlands. | Image by M. Belloni. All rights reserved.

Unfortunately, the association had a short life. After a long negotiation to convince the municipal authorities that the association will not be “a site of ethnic segregation, but of integration”, Aaron found a place to rent and furnished it the way he liked. He placed a long bar resembling Asmara art-deco cafes right in front of the door, a big TV to play Eritrean videos in the corner, and traditional carpet on the wall. He opened the doors and people came. A few weeks later the police came as well, and the doors were shut. Some said the neighbours had complained about young Black people hanging out in that area. Others explained that the place did not fulfil all the right legal requirements for a cultural association. “They took away my home… again,” Aaron said. “I feel emptied.”

Squats in Italy and the attempt to start cultural associations in the Netherlands materialise migrants’ aspirations to establish a place to call home in their new countries of settlement. Amidst widespread discrimination, little institutional support and unfamiliar cultural surroundings, Eritreans keep finding creative solutions to feel at home and to start anew. From a policy perspective, this points to the importance of building on migrants’ initiatives, rather than destroying them through evictions or hindering them for fear of ethnic segregation. Surely many aspects of the home left behind cannot be reproduced in exile, but it is not unimaginable to think about a policy which would work towards facilitating refugees’ initiatives to reconstruct of a familiar and safe environment for themselves. This would imply that the need for a home is acknowledged as a basic condition for the exercise of more functional activities, such as working, supporting oneself, one’s own family and the society at large.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme within the ERC HOMInG project (grant No. 678456).

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