Asylum seekers strut their stuff on Italian catwalk

Asylum seekers from Mali and Gambia strutted down the catwalk on Thursday at Florence's prestigious Pitti Uomo exhibition, kicking off an initiative to school would-be migrant fashionistas in Italy's top art.

Asylum seekers strut their stuff on Italian catwalk
Asylum Seekers modeled clothes at a fashion show in Italy on Thursday. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

In a fashion world first, farmers and construction workers who made the perilous journey by boat to Italy in May took centre stage in Tuscany's capital, modelling everything from sharply-tailored suits to tasselled jumpers and outlandish hats.
Despite initially appearing a touch overawed, they pulled off the trademark model walk – one even shooting the cameras a smouldering look worthy of a supermodel as he stopped to pose at the end of the runway.
The men, aged between 19 and 27, who could not be identified for legal reasons, were handpicked for the show from their reception centres by the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative, which mentors young emerging designers from Africa.
“As we are in Italy and have a huge refugee crisis we also want to show that migrants are a resource,” EFI head and founder Simone Cipriani told AFP backstage before the event, which featured four collections by African stylists.
“We are setting up a training centre for refugees and migrants in Italy to work in the industry of fashion and be enabled to go back home and set up their own businesses there,” he said.
The project is being launched with Lai-momo, an Italian association which raises awareness of migration issues and since 2014 has been involved in running a series of reception centres in and around Bologna, in Italy's centre-north.

'Asylum seeker in a suit'

Five long-legged men with chiseled jaws were chosen from the centres for the fashion challenge, with two taking part in a photo shoot on Wednesday and three walking the catwalk in a converted warehouse, along with professional models.

Nigerian-American designer Wale Oyejide, whose Ikire Jones brand plays on a juxtaposition of African figures and classical Western art, said working with the debutants had been a perfect way to illustrate his fashion philosophy.
“Clothing is just a vehicle, I'm much more interested in discussing these issues… of migration, of borders being crossed.
“If I take an asylum seeker and put them in a suit, people perceive them in a certain way, which hopefully allows them to think of them as an equal human being, not as someones less than them,” he said.
As two of the first-time models apprehensively took their seats in the make-up studio, the third was given a one-to-one tutorial in how to speed up his swagger to match the pumping beats of the catwalk.
Lai-momo president Andrea Marchesini Reggiani said the plan was to tap into the Made in Italy resource to tackle one of the greatest problems plaguing those waiting for their asylum applications to be processed: boredom.
“It's very difficult to work with migrants today, it's very difficult for them to integrate, because their numbers are very high and we are faced with a very deep economic crisis,” he said.
But while many of the 140,000 migrants who arrived in Italy in 2015 are stuck doing nothing in centres, “we already have small-scale collaborations with guests who are skilled in couture or design.
“The idea is to develop those skills in a dedicated laboratory, and maybe even produce garments as well,” he said.


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.