Milan's cavernous central train station, covering more than 700,000 square feet and fronted by a majestic stone façade, is one of the biggest railway hubs in Europe. More than 300,000 people stream through its vaults every day.
Today, in among the throngs of commuters and tourists, a very different type of traveler fills the station. Lying at a central point on the route between the Libyan coast and northern Europe, Milan has become a key stop-off for migrants and a thriving marketplace for ground smugglers.
Trains and buses link the city to southern Italy, where reception centers are crowded with freshly arrived migrants. At the same time, France, Germany, and Austria are a train or car ride away. A train ticket from Milan to Paris costs as little as 40 euros ($45) and one for Munich around 100. But for refugees fleeing war in Syria and Libya, dictatorship in Eritrea, or the violent chaos of Somalia, these relatively close destinations are a world away.
Germany has just ramped up controls on the German-Austrian border. Police stop trains and patrol border crossings, in a temporary halting of the Schengen system. The measure aims at containing the number of migrants streaming into Germany through the Balkan and Mediterranean routes. According to the Italian Interior Ministry, 116,149 migrants and refugees entered Italy in the first eight months of 2015.
The number of migrants and refugees and the increased obstacles on the way to western Europe are creating an exceptionally strong demand for alternative ways of crossing into Austria and then Germany. Smugglers are more than happy to provide their services. A few hundred meters away from Stazione Centrale, a first-aid space where volunteers hand out fresh clothes and food is constantly operational. It has been dubbed the "Hub" by the city council.
Outside the Hub, a sign reads Emergenza Migranti – Migrant Emergency. From here, migrants are sent to temporary accommodation, where they usually stay for a few days before leaving again.
An atmosphere of fear and confusion dominates. Some migrants are still sunburned from prolonged exposure to sunlight while crossing the Mediterranean. There's fear of being stopped, identified, and fingerprinted. That would mean abiding by Europe's Dublin Protocol and having to file an asylum request in Italy, a country "that, unfortunately, has little or nothing to offer them," according to Fulvia, one of the Hub's aid workers.
Migrants and refugees want to be as invisible as possible. "Those who arrive here want to become ghosts," Ariam, a second-generation Italian-Eritrean activist told VICE News. "They want to get out and get out fast."
There is confusion about how to reach a final destination. Ahmal, a twitchy and nervous Syrian in his 40s, standing away from everyone by a window, is speaking on the phone. Save the Children volunteers are taking good care of his kids, while his wife rests. It has been an exhausting journey to get here. Ahmal is desperate to find a way to leave the city, he says. A friend translates from Arabic: "How much is it for four plane tickets from here to Germany?" he asked me.
I scribble "600 euros" on my notepad: an approximate number. He replies in Arabic, asking whether I could buy those tickets on his behalf. But fellow travel companions swiftly interrupt him. They remind him he doesn't have a valid visa.
Faced with very limited choices but equipped with rock-steady determination, people like Ahmal are turning to smugglers to reach safety in Sweden or Germany. Most of the migrants at the Hub have already paid 2,000 euros to cross the Mediterranean on a flimsy boat crammed with people.
Masood, from Iraq, tells how he had to flee Mosul after the Islamic State took the city. He headed to Egypt and then to Sicily. "There were 450 people on the boat. The engine broke down in the middle of the sea." They spent nine days adrift, before the Italian coast guard rescued them.
Once in Milan, aid workers advised him against talking to a smuggler and recommended he catch the first train north. "But it is really hard, there is police on the trains," he said. "If I can't find a way out, I will look for a smuggler that can take me by car."
Finding a smuggler is no hard task. Most of the times, the smuggler finds his customers. Smugglers infiltrate local communities and even reception centers, according to aid workers who spoke to VICE News. "Entering a reception center is quite easy. It is not that controlled," said one worker who did not want to be named. "Access is granted with a small piece of paper with you name on it. Technically, if you pass it on to somebody else and ask for a replacement, that "somebody else" can enter the center without anybody knowing."
Reception centers have been trying to stem the smugglers' aggressive approach with the help of Italian security forces. Massimo Chiodini is the director of a temporary accommodation center hosting hundreds of migrants from Eritrea, Syria and sub-Saharan Africa. "Last year was crazy," he recalled. "When the center was full, we had vans right outside our doors waiting to pick up our guests and bring them to Germany. Smugglers were striking deals in the street opposite."
Local immigrant communities are, however, the best place for smugglers to market their service. "When we think about smuggling in Italy, the first thought is about mafia," Giampaolo Musumeci, journalist and co-author of the book Confessions of a Human Trafficker told VICE News. "Reality is that when you travel thousands of miles across two continents and you are trying arrange a passage to your final destination, you will end up trusting a fellow Syrian, Eritrean or Ugandan. Not a white Sicilian man."
The birth of a smuggler is casual. It usually happens within small diaspora communities. "At the beginning a smuggler is just somebody who is trying to help his fellow compatriots," Musumeci said. "At the beginning, he doesn't do it for profit. But at one point he starts receiving donations from those he helped. Something clicks in his head. He realizes he can make a huge amount of money."
Money dramatically affects the length of the stay in this refugee limbo. Many of the migrants VICE News met were temporarily stuck in Milan for lack of funds.
Families usually fund a migrant's journey, sending money through wire transfers. "But there is a cap on the sums you can send," said Salvatore, from a local group of volunteers that supports Eritrean refugees. "So there is a well-oiled system of dummy recipients."
Relatives make multiple transfers to several people based in the city. These fake beneficiaries claim the first commission on the transfer. The owner of the shop then charges the customer his cut. "You see? There is a real business all around it," Salvatore explained. "Think about the number of migrants streaming through Milan every day. If you make even 5 percent out of [what] each of them [spend] you are going to get very rich, very soon."
Last month, Italian police cracked down on a major smuggling ring within the Milanese Eritrean community, arresting 25 people. "Operation Sahel" uncovered a fluid yet extremely efficient network of Eritrean smugglers stretching from Sicily all the way to Milan and beyond.
Smugglers infiltrating reception centers in Sicily were moving migrants from southern Italy to Milan, using buses or trains, getting them to Stazione Centrale in as little as a day. Upon arrival, ringleaders would arrange further transfer towards Germany or beyond in cars or vans.
The smugglers hid their businesses within internet cafes and bars in Milan's Porta Venezia neighborhood, today known as "Little Eritrea," where the majority of the Eritrean diaspora has re-settled. Earlier this month, Interpol and Europol pledged to work together in a joint effort to tackle "to curb the organized crime groups which smuggle and distribute migrants across Europe," said Europol Director Rob Wainwright.
Europol has identified almost 30,000 suspected people smugglers in 2015 alone, Wainwright said. "Most of our work is concerned with what we call the secondary distribution of migrants and refugees," he told Irish radio station NewsTalk, pledging a wider action to crack down on land-smuggling. According to Wainwright, Europol and Interpol are confronted with increasingly sophisticated and unscrupulous syndicates which are becoming more agile, more international and more innovative in their use of new tools such as social media.
The announcement came just a few weeks after it was discovered by the Guardian that Eritrean smugglers were doing business a few hundred meters away from Europol's offices in Catania. Despite renewed effort to clamp down on the practice, Italian people smuggling is going nowhere. As Alessando Giuliano, head of Operation Sahel, admitted, "arresting 25 people is not enough. There are no appointed leaders. We arrest members but the mechanism keeps running."
All photos by Matteo Congregalli
Follow Matteo Congregalli on Twitter: @MattCngr