For months, the mezzanine of Milan's Central Station served as a makeshift waiting room for those refugees lucky enough to have avoided drowning while sailing rickety rafts from Libya to Italy—a treacherous stretch of water responsible for 75 percent of all migrant deaths worldwide. For many, the train station became a sort of limbo between their previous lives and the ones they hoped to forge by heading north.
Recently, after a huge surge of arrivals and the tightening of Italy's neighbors' borders, the mezzanine was cleared and new spaces were set up to accommodate the migrants. This piece was written just before that and tells the story of the migrants' journey from the floors of MCS to the streets of Paris.
The overnight Thello train from Venice to Paris (via Milan) was set up in January 2012 with the aim of "allowing passengers to rediscover the pleasures of night travel." For the base price of €35 ($38) a person can eat, drink, and share a sleeping cabin with five other people as they travel across the continent.
Since its inaugural journey, the train has shuttled nearly 900,000 people between Italy and France and, thanks to the fact that it provides a direct route between two countries with vast foreign national populations, it has garnered a reputation for itself; it's become a beacon of hope for refugees trying to find a new life in Europe. It's no wonder some call it "the train of second chances."
I decided to take the trip and experience the journey myself.
Upon arriving at Milan Central Station, I met a man named Muhammad. He was new to Italy and had only been in the country for four days. He'd spent the winter living by the coast in Libya, waiting for the Mediterranean's waves to die down. He then paid a trafficker €800 [$867] to get on a boat that could take him away from there. He explained that he was so terrified that he'd smoked five packets of cigarettes in the first ten hours of his trip.
His first two nights on the continent were spent in a Sicilian refugee camp and his third, on the floor of Milan Central Station. The mezzanine overlooking the station's exit had become a kind of gathering place for refugees as they awaited to begin the final leg of their journey by boarding a train heading north. Muhammad flitted in and out of the hall, wheeling his suitcase behind him. He was too nervous to sleep but too tired to distract himself. He kept coming back to ask about departure times, the price of tickets, and see if anyone new had arrived.
The weekend before I embarked on my journey, 7,000 migrants had been rescued from the Mediterranean as they were en route, via makeshift boats, to Italy from Libya. I wondered if some of them were there at the same time as me.
Generally, refugees stay at the station for somewhere between a few hours and a few days—it all depends on whether or not they have money or can get their hands on some. Every morning, a group of volunteers from SOS ERM—Milan Refugee Emergency—come to the station with tea, crisps, and biscuits. They also advise people on where to go and how to get there.
One of ERM's volunteers, Susy Iovieno, told me that Italy's welfare system "is almost nonexistent for refugees" and although there are camps around the country, the lack of jobs, opportunities or any real chance of meaningful integration means that Italy has become nothing more than a stopover for desperate people passing through. If they do stay, they often get sucked into the world of organized crime.
"I always tell them to go to Munich," Iovieno said. "A lot of them want to go to Switzerland, but they will just end up in some cold mountain village somewhere. Or they want to go to France or Sweden. You know, it's much cheaper to get to Munich. The journey is short and if you are sent back, the ticket is so cheap that you can almost always afford to try again."
On the train station's television, we heard the news that 700 people had drowned crossing the Mediterranean that morning. A man pulled out his phone and showed me a video filmed on the boat trip from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa. The wooden wreck of a ship was packed mostly with men, not all of whom were wearing life-vests. They had the look of people who had handed over control of their lives knowing well there was only a slim chance of ever getting it back. I saw that very same look on the faces of a lot of the people in the station and those nervously boarding the train.
As dusk settled in, the train got ready to depart. It was difficult to tell what kind of person was boarding the Thello train and even more difficult to tell why. As we were pulling out of the station, it struck me that this train was the perfect mode of travel for anyone trying to travel in anonymity—there are plenty of dark corners to tuck yourself away in that just don't exist on, say, a plane.
Half an hour into the journey, the stewards began making their way around the couchettes. They seemed to walk in pairs—one waiting in the corridor taking note of anyone leaving, while the other checked passports. An hour or so later, at Domodossola, border patrol and customs police boarded the train. They picked couchettes "at random" and questioned people about where they were from, where they were going, and which language they actually spoke. They began pulling open passengers' bags in the hallway.
I'd heard stories about how, last summer, a pregnant Syrian woman traveling with her husband and a group of other Syrian refugees had been removed from the train. They put her on a train back to Milan but she began to bleed in her seat en route. By the time they reached the station, she had miscarried the child.
I saw a man that I recognized from the station's mezzanine grab a hold of one of the stewards, trying to explain that the police had taken his wife and child and that he couldn't find them on the train. They told him to sit down and said he wasn't allowed to leave his seat to search for them. He just sat still with a look of worry painted across his face.
I noticed that people rarely talked to each other on the train. It seemed as if being in close proximity to strangers, makes you introverted. As if the less we reveal about ourselves, the less obvious our differences become.
I looked over at a Moroccan man who'd been sitting close by, staring down at his hands for an hour or so. We caught eyes and he began to tell me he needed money for a ticket: "I'm trying to get away," he said. "I don't want to sell cocaine anymore." I apologized to him and explained that I didn't have any money to give. It wasn't long before the security guards escorted him off the train at the Swiss border.
At about 2 AM, I began to feel sleepy. The train was somewhere just past the Swiss-Italian border, on its way to the flat French countryside near Dijon where it would later turn north toward Paris. I decided it was time to retire to my couchette to get some sleep. The "six-person mixed couchette" had three folding bunks stacked high on either side. Luggage is either stowed underneath or just below the roof. The central aisle was so slim that you were only ever a matter of centimeters away from the person next to you. I quietly, so as not to wake the others, tried to climb into bed, when I noticed someone was already in my bunk.
I stood staring down at the person laying there, trying to decide whether or not to ask them to leave when, all of a sudden, someone began shouting something aggressively from somewhere further down the train. The woman in my bed bolted up. She was clasping a ragged bag close to her stomach. She looked deep into my eyes, her pupils wide with fear—it was obvious that she was scared to death. I didn't even get the chance to tell her to lay back down; in one swift movement she stood up and shoved past me. She pushed so hard that I was thrown sideways ended up on the corridor floor. I watched her awkwardly fumble with the handle of the next couchette, slide the door open, stick her head in for a moment and then disappear further off down the train.
Confused, I took her place under the sheets. As I lay down in the warm bed, I couldn't help but feel like I was being watched so I decided to get back up and have a wander. Feeling restless, I took a stroll down to the bottom of the train. It was quiet down there, full of empty carriages. My phone buzzed: Muhammad was texting me. We'd exchanged numbers in Milan and I'd told him that if he ever needed anything, he could call. It turned out that he just wanted to send me a picture of the two of us standing together. I texted him back and I told him to let me know if and when he arrived in Munich. I sat and pondered what might have happened to that woman who'd commandeered my bed. I figured it was probably just a hilarious misunderstanding ("Typical her," her friends would say).
After heading back to my couchette, I managed to drift in and out of sleep for a few hours before finally nodding off for what felt like a few minutes. When I finally woke up, unsure if I had actually slept or not, it was morning and the train had slowly crawled back to life.
We pulled into Dijon train station. Those who were awake took the chance to get off and stand in the sun in an attempt to relieve the cumulative claustrophobia and stretch their aching legs. My clothes felt as if they were covered in a layer of mould, my breath stank, and all I could think about was hopping in a bath as soon as I got home. Everyone seemed bored and tense—as if the novelty of an 11-hour train ride had entirely worn off. People slowly began to surface for breakfast: A young couple took the only available seats in the restaurant carriage and sat down next to the man who I had seen tell the police he lost his wife and child. After a few moments of thoughtful reserve, they spread out a map and started to etch out their plans for Paris.
As soon as we pulled into Gare du Lyon, I noticed about 15 police officers stood on the platform, waiting for our arrival. The man I recognized from the mezzanine got off first, still without his wife and child. He was led to an office where he was destined to sit in silence while he waited for that evening's train to take him right back in the other direction.
It's difficult to say how many people are turned away at that station. No official figures exist, but there are plenty of accounts. In March last year, Le Parisien reported that a group of 85 Syrian refugees, including 41 children, were arrested upon arriving at the station and given one month to leave the country. They slept on the floor for a few days before trying to go to Germany, where they were blocked at the border and sent back into France.
A group of Ethiopian refugees—four women and two men—caught my eye. I recognized them from the train station in Milan. They stood hugging and laughing outside the train station. I felt like telling them how happy I was for them but shied away from it at the last minute. Just behind them, newspaper stands screamed about the fact that 700 migrants had drowned in the Mediterranean the day before.
My phone went off—it was Muhammad sending me a picture of himself giving a thumbs up. He had made it to Munich.