African migrants go to Italian quake zone to help survivors

PESCARA DEL TRONTO, Italy (Reuters) - African migrants hoping to start a new life in Italy after risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean have headed to the area of Wednesday’s earthquake, helping local people who lost everything in the disaster.

Wearing bright orange overalls, the group from a temporary hostel about 50 km (30 miles) away blended in on Friday with other volunteer workers who have come from all over Italy.

“We need to help the people here,” said a 20-year-old man from the West African state of Benin, who gave his name only as Abdullah.

“We saw people losing their lives and we feel bad. It’s to show respect for them and their dignity,” he told Reuters Television on the outskirts of Pescara del Tronto, one of the devastated villages.

Using shovels, hoes and rakes, the group of about 20 migrants helped to prepare the ground for tents and cleared a field for helicopter landings. During a break, the migrants, who are all Muslims, knelt to pray near one of the tents.

“It was their idea. They wanted to do something, so we helped make it happen,” said Letizia Dellabarba of the Human Solidarity Group (GUS) charity that brought the migrants to Pescara del Tronto.

Hopes of finding more survivors faded on Friday three days after the powerful quake hit central Italy, with the death toll rising to 267.

Italy has taken in more than 420,000 boat migrants, most from Africa, since the start of 2014. The influx has caused political friction, with some right-wing parties lambasting the government for not doing more to halt the flow.

Even the tragedy of the earthquake did not temper some anti-immigrant sentiment in the country.

Under a headline reading “Criminal State”, the right-wing newspaper Libero ran two pictures side-by-side on its front page - one showing Italian quake victims sleeping on the floor of a basketball court and another showing smiling African immigrants in front of a hotel where the government is putting them up.

Dellabarba said most of the migrants who helped in the quake zone were from Burkina Fasso, Niger and Senegal and had arrived in Italy in boats run by human traffickers.

She said some of them had been jailed in Libya before paying traffickers to travel on unseaworthy rubber boats to Sicily. Thousands of migrants have died trying to make the crossing.

All of the group are seeking asylum in Italy, she added.

Writing by Philip Pullella; Editing by Crispian Balmer and David Stamp