Chronicling Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Alessandro Penso

Photos by Alessandro Penso

Text by Ye Charlotte Ming


The influx of displaced refugees and migrants in Europe is considered the worst humanitarian crisis the continent has witnessed since WWII. The catastrophe heightened in 2015, as the number of refugees and migrants arriving in the E.U. by sea that year surpassed one million.

Photographers from all over the world descended on the shores of Greece and Italy to document what was happening, making it one of the most recorded events in visual history.

But as the media came and went, photojournalist Alessandro Penso wanted to go beyond the daily news coverage and focus on telling the long-term stories behind Europe’s migrant and refugee crisis.

A group of Afghan boys, aged 14 to 18 years, try to illegally board trucks in Greece that will be loaded onto cargo ships going to Italy. These young people make this desperate attempt every day.

“We, as photographers, should seek to take the time to understand what’s happening and why,” Penso said. “[We] need to find and develop a story and a point of view that goes beyond simply taking a photograph and leaving.”

Penso, who is based in Italy, first began to chronicle the issue in 2009, when he visited a detention center in Malta where refugees accidently ended up by mistaking the island for Italy. After witnessing the dire living conditions for migrants there, he expanded the project to other parts of Europe on the migration route. He primarily focused on Greece and Italy, two E.U. border nations under immense pressure by an E.U. law to accept asylum seekers.

A young girl from Syria cook inside the Harmanli camp in Bulgaria, the biggest emergency center in the country.  Around 1,000 asylum-seekers are being detained on the former military base, housed in tents, containers and a dilapidated building. People living in tents have no access to sanitation facilities. 

While most media reports of the crisis emphasize the dramatic images of migrants trudging up the shores of Europe and the despairing situation back home that propelled them to flee, Penso said their condition upon arrival in Europe is not ideal, either. “On the contrary,” he said, “it might actually be worse.”

In Italy, he probed the exploitation of seasonal migrant workers; in Bulgaria, he investigated the use of Europe’s refugee fund. In Greece, Penso followed young refugees, many of them unaccompanied minors, as they struggled to navigate their new life. He witnessed a local driver brutally attacking a group of young migrants, hitting one by car. The event renewed his determination to expose through his images the xenophobic ideologies within Europe, Penso told World Press Photo

Mohamed, 17, from Morocco, and his friends hide behind the rocks at the port during the night, waiting for the right moment to illegally board a ship to Italy. Many young migrants see other European countries as their only hope of a future and attempt to leave Greece at the first possible moment. 

“I felt the need to show what the real situation for refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants was like here,” Penso said. “People had been abandoned, [their] rights were not being respected.”

Penso’s quest to document the plight of refugees itself was arduous. Even within the E.U. where press freedom is protected by law, photographing migrants’ conditions proved to be challenging. 

He faced police aggressions in many of the countries he worked in. Beyond the common tactics used to deter photographers such as denying access and forcing the deletion of photos, Penso was detained, interrogated and had his equipment confiscated on a multiple occasions.

Desperate refugees, asylum seekers and migrants attempt to board a train in the Croatian town of Tovarnik, near the border with Serbia. Some have been waiting for days to catch a train, with little food or shelter. Families have been separated in the chaos. 

To Penso’s dismay, many photographers who went to cover the crisis in 2015 approached the subject blithely, generating among refugees a sentiment of feeling exploited and distrust against the media. It became common among photographers to override the consent of refugees and take pictures without permission. Besides encroaching the privacy of those fleeing, they put the people escaping political prosecutions and their families back home in tremendous risks.

“The refugees realized that even if they were being photographed every day, their situation was not getting any better,” Penso added. “That’s why they stopped believing in the power of images.”

Alessandro penso
A Syrian who swam to shore after the boat he was on began to leak off shore in Lesbos, Greece, August 5, 2015. His condition was critical, but fortunately, around an hour later, a local doctor came and managed to assist, saving his life.

Beyond that, the overwhelming volume of images created also left viewers inundated. “I always ask myself how I can make a different contribution,” Penso reflected, acknowledging the difficulties of making his work stand out and stay impactful.

But Penso believes that creating long-term storytelling on the issue is key, and vows to dig deeper, hoping to leave no stones unturned. “Where are [the refugees] now? Have their asylum applications been considered with due care and attention?” Penso asked.

A mother and child are wrapped in an emergency blanket after disembarking on the beach of Kayia in Lesbos, Oct. 18, 2015. 

With the help of the Getty Images Editorial Grant, Penso plans to extend his reportage into the next chapter, investigating the conditions of migrant “hotspots”— new ghettos around Europe that, he said, trapped people whose lives fell through the cracks.

Penso will also investigate the human rights violations against refugees in Turkey, after the E.U. signed an agreement with the country in 2016 to contain refugees there from spilling into Europe. “It is not just the refugees who are at the center of this story, but Europe itself,” Penso said, “and everything it claims to stand for.”

“I want to remind people that we are talking about mothers, children, elderly people,” Penso added. “We must never lose our empathy. We must remain human in our approach.”

See other 2017 editorial grant winning projects: 

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