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Julian Mährlein
Photography Julian Mährlein

How do we humanise Sicily’s migrant crisis?

In a small commune near Mineo people spend months, even years, waiting to be processed for a better life in Europe: this photographer captures that limbo

At a time when the refugee crisis is on the public stage, this photo series couldn’t be more poignant. The plight of the displaced has been captured in the ‘jungle’ of Calais and on the shores of Lesbos, as thousands flee persecution, terror and loss in their countries of origin.

LCC graduate Julian Mährlein embarked on a trip to Mineo, a commune in Sicily, to capture its population of asylum seekers on camera, hoping to peel back the distorted view of those leaving everything they’ve ever known behind. After an initial trip in January to scope the area, he came back several times to complete the project. He explains: “I wanted to show these people from a different, more human angle. I got a strong feeling that the imagery that is produced by the media about the theme, has a stigmatizing effect that distorts the way we perceive the whole situation and especially the people who are dealing with it.”

Mineo is home to the Centro di Accoglienza per Richiedenti Asilo, the largest migrant holding centre in Europe and a base for asylum seekers in central Sicily to register and collect documents. Life there can be laborious and difficult, with some, according to Mährlein, waiting 18 months for their papers and processing. Having survived what, for many, was a treacherous journey to Europe, many are bound to the overcrowded camp and the surrounding area.

“In the beginning this situation of time passing by, while the longing for another place in the future is growing, was a theme that I recognized in many conversations,” he explains. With the more general theme of displacement and longing in place in the camps, Mährlein began to explore the representation of the individuals he met against the foreign, Sicilian landscape. Juxtaposing his subjects with wildlife and plants, he plays with the metaphor of a beautiful but fragile society, with men spending so long somewhere they disappear into the sun-dappled, green environment.

Mährlein met most of his subjects on the streets of Sicily, many hailing from places we know well from the mainstream media, like Syria and Afghanistan. “One man that I spoke to had already left his home in Ghana years ago to start a better life in Libya,” he explains. “He had worked in a marketing agency over there for 5 years but when NATO intervened in the civil war in 2011, he had no choice but to leave again. In the end he was literally forced onto a boat towards Italy by military personal without ever intending to come to Europe.”

Despite his obvious privileges as a photographer, Mährlein found himself relating to the hopes and dreams of his subjects. “It made me feel that the perceived differences between us as Europeans and the so-called migrants are way smaller than most people believe. I wanted to create another approach on the way we show people as ‘Others’,” he says.

Check out more of Julian Mahrlein's work here