SICILY – The mass migration of refugees from the Middle East into Europe is the new normal, according to the mayor of the Sicilian city of Catania, where camps are set up to house the never-ending wave of people fleeing their war torn homelands.
Enzo Bianco, who also is a former interior minister of Italy, told Fox News the movement of people will likely continue for decades due to ongoing conflict and demographic pressures, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. Bianco objected to the demonization of refugees that has been common in parts of Europe.
"They are not criminals," he said. "Criminals don't travel in inflatable boats and shops. Terrorist organizations don't risk sending their people on little boats. They have other ways to get to us."
More than 100,000 refugees have passed through Catania in just the last few years, with no tangible increase in crime, he said. Bianco believes the future prosperity of the continent depends on coming up with effective ways of integrating immigrants.
Most of Italy's recent refugees come from Eritrea, where human rights abuses are commonplace, according to the UN. One young Eritrean man who had been jailed once for trying to leave his country and asked not to be identified by name told Fox News men there are locked into perpetual military conscription. He said he managed to break out of jail, and make his way across Africa to Libya, where he boarded a boat, and came to Italy.
"My message is, instead of people asking why are so many refugees coming to Europe, they should understand the reasons refugees are leaving and help resolve these issues," he said.
He said most Eritreans love their country and would prefer to stay there, but the international community has simply turned a blind eye to his country.
At a Red Cross camp in Rome, Giorgio De Acutis, who helps settle refugees, said the process can be both uplifting and heartbreaking.
"My experience has been beautiful, because I mostly meet young people with a great will to live and develop their talents," De Acutis said. "But we also have a little bit of sadness, because we know many of these dreams will remain just that, dreams."
The Italian media has covered a group of young African men from a previous wave of migrants who picked oranges for the paltry sum of $25 a day until they could start their own successful yogurt business. But one of the men, Ismail Mewada, said he hopes to return to Benin.
"When you go to someone else's country and learn something, you must also contribute to your own country," he said. "My country needs me, and the children of Benin need me. After I learn something here, I would like to open a factory in Benin."
Amy Kellogg currently serves as a Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent based in Milan. She joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999 as a Moscow-based correspondent. Follow her on Twitter: @amykelloggfox