Shining a Light on the Plight of Europe’s Migrants, From Rome to Brussels

2012. Corinth. Greece. Mohamed from Morocco and his friends hiding behind the rocks at the port during the night, waiting for the right moment to illegally board a ship to Italy. In Greece, more than 99.5% of requests for political asylum are refused, and for this reason, these young people are forced to hide from the authorities, because having a Greek police record would mean the end of the dream of safe reception in Europe.This is the story of young, unaccompanied migrants in Greece: young people who, everyday, confront the difficulties of a country tormented by the economic crisis. Greece also refuses asylum requests more than any other country in Europe, reaching a 99.5% refusalrate in 2012. Many young migrants therefore see other European countries as their only hope of a future, and attempt to leave Greece at the first possible moment, often indesperate ways, tolerating desperate conditions.
Alessandro Penso
Mohamed from Morocco and his friends hiding and waiting for the right moment to illegally board a ship to Italy. 2012. Corinth, Greece.

Italian photographer Alessandro Penso has spent the last few years documenting immigration issues in Europe. He’s photographed migrant workers in the south of Italy, detention centers in Malta and young men who risk everything trying to board trucks bound for Western Europe. For the next month, Penso is crisscrossing Europe on one of these trucks — bringing his award-winning images to an audience that has largely turned a blind eye to the continent’s intractable immigration crisis.

In Europe, migrants must apply for asylum in the country where they are first identified. These regulations have transformed Greece and Italy — two countries with some of the toughest immigration rules in Europe — into administrative limbos and have led “to an unfair distribution of asylum seekers and requests in European countries,” Penso tells TIME. “This situation has received much criticism in recent years, including in a report from the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, which found that the regulations obstruct the legal rights and personal wellbeing of asylum seekers, including their right to a fair examination of their request for asylum.”

Alessandro Penso

Alessandro Penso

The European Dream truck in Rome, Italy

Despite the criticism, little has been done to help these migrants, especially at a time when much of Europe is still grappling with an economic calamity that has raised unemployment rates and, to no one’s surprise, has fueled the rise of nationalistic rhetoric and sentiments virtually everywhere.

“I wanted to find a way to re-establish contact with the broader community,” says Penso. “I felt the need to speak with the people who usually see only a small part of the situation, with the aim of raising awareness and encouraging discussion. What better place to do this than in piazzas and city squares, and what more symbolic a way than on a truck?”

Organised in collaboration with the Cortona On The Move photography festival, Penso’s truck has already visited Bari, Ancona, Rome, Florence and Milan in Italy, and will continue its way north to Strasbourg, France, and Brussels, Belgium – two cities where European regulations are crafted. “Most institutions and organizations talk only about numbers,” Penso tells TIME. “This project gives a face, a voice and a story to these people. We want to reach Brussels, where the laws are actually discussed, in order to show their consequences. We want to bring the discussion back into human terms.”

The entire project is relayed on Twitter and Facebook, as well as on the Cortona On The Move website. “This social element is at the base of this project,” the photographer explains. “We speak to people, we discuss the problems and issues, and the conversations are always stimulating and intense. [We’re trying to] light a fuse — a flame of curiosity so we can continue to ask ourselves questions and to critically evaluate what we hear and read about immigration.”


The European Dream project will culminate in a three-day exhibition at the Cortona On The Move photography festival in Italy on July 17, 2014.

Alessandro Penso is a freelance photographer and a World Press Photo winner.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent.


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