Minors in Tent Cities and Hotspots: Pozzallo, Augusta, Catania and Messina

The year 2016 ended with more arrivals, more deaths, more missing persons. The year 2017 has begun with the proposal for new detention centres and other limitations on migrants’ freedom of movement. The criminal policies of Fortress Europe increasingly require new discussions, commemorations and real solidarity. On December 24th, 111 migrants landed at Pozzallo, but the daily news recounts nothing but the immediate arrest of two alleged boat drivers, which bring the number of arrestees in the Province of Ragusa to 200.


Photo: the Pozzallo hotspot – Lucia Borghi


At the same time, 417 migrants came in at Augusta, on board the Echo, having been recovered in four rescue operations; among them there was a Guinean woman with a 7-day-old baby. A few hours later, 39 Iraqi migrants arrived at the port, including 10 women and 6 minors, recovered from the Vendicari nature reserve the night before, very likely having arrived from Turkey. Meanwhile, the witness accounts provided by the new arrivals made it increasingly clear that up to 100 people were lost at sea, simply the latest of so many shipwrecks on the Mediterranean. A piece of news which passed over far too quickly by a media crazed with the racist and xenophobic discourse of those who call on new security policies, mass deportations and new detention centres (CIE*) for those who have survived the hell of Libya and subsequent crossing. Migrants are depicted as an indistinct, homogenous mass, not as individuals; refugees are labelled according to their nationality, their future seemingly irrevocably bound to the power relations in place between our country and their own. There is deliberate choice not to talk about places from where migrants come, or through which they pass, such as Libya, where the climate of war, terror and violence is forcing even those who were born there, or who have been there for decades, to flee. The bodies and minds of those who arrive consistently bear clear signs of the Libyan horror, signs which we cannot ignore.


We are speaking about thousands of men, women and children, including a vast number of unaccompanied minors. In 2016 around 24,000 unaccompanied minors arrived in Italy, many of whom continue to be subjected to illegal, inhumane and degrading practices even in our own supposedly democratic and welcoming country. This is not mere rhetoric: this the reality which we see every day.


The minors who land at Augusta are left for days or weeks at a time in the port’s temporary tent-city, a structurally substandard place, a stone’s throw away from an incinerator and deprived of appropriate medical, material, psychological or legal assistance. Packed into tents throughout the winter, without any appropriate separations between adults, women and families, sometimes without sufficient blankets and clothes. Many people have left of their own accord, under the uninterested gaze of those who know very well the risks they run, but prefer to believe in the usual excuse of the lack of appropriate places (when the tent-city is really the first that ought not exist), and to take home their pay-packet without reporting the situation or creating problems, because the “migrant emergency” is an ever more profitable business. The situation in Augusta is also extremely serious for many of the adults, who often go to hospital immediately after the landing and are then sent to the tent-city once discharged, another way in which even basic rights are not guaranteed, even to the most vulnerable. And these illegal practices are all too likely to be repeated in the places to which the migrants are then transferred. One example of many in the province of Syracuse is the Extraordinary Reception Centre (CAS*) at Rosolini, where nuclear families are sent without any thought as to their protection, as well as vulnerable persons, and witnesses who have been used to arrest alleged boat drivers. People remain here for different periods of time, often very long period, without adequate individual assistance, and yet again subjected to restrictions on their freedom of movement, due to the managers’ decision to not allow migrants to move around of their own will.


The situation is also extremely serious for the many minors who arrive at the port of Catania. Transferred after the landing operations, which are organised according to time and space necessary for security procedures, and not for protection, the migrants often end up in overcrowded, isolated centres, such as the various ‘initial reception centres’ (CPA*) which have been recently opened, where there is not only a lack of social and legal assistance, but even material support. Not only do they lack clothes and blankets, but many centres do not even have hot water or heating, places where 70 minors mights be housed at the same time. The young men pass by as mere numbers for the workers, who communicate only in Italian, and who delegate the management of any problem increasingly to the police. The times taken to arrange transfers seems entirely accidental, with some minors remaining long after the few months they are supposed to, while others move to the other reception centres after only a few days. The whole situation tends towards misunderstandings, minimising any trust between the residents and staff, foreclosing any involvement in the social fabric of the area, simply giving a sense of being treated like a lost parcel, all of which also means an elongation of the time it takes to receive documents. The managers themselves view the possibility for migrants to understand the logic of these processes as a luxury, and not a right. In the area of Caltagirone the overcrowding at the CARA* at Mineo continues, where there are officially 3,700 people present, and to which migrants continue to be transferred after they reach the south-eastern ports. The last few weeks have shone some light on the project to create a Hotspot inside the centre, “with new works to make 90 housing units available, creating 900 places, physically separated from the rest of the centre, which will continue to remain active in parallel to the new block”. This is a decision which has been strongly criticised by the Parliamentary Commission as well as by activists across the region, who are all too aware of the violations which such a decision implies.


The CARA at Mineo, far from being closed down despite being under investigation for years, is instead becoming a “model” to be imitated. At Messina, the former “Gasparro” barracks in the neighbourhood of Bisconte, is about to be turned into one of the largest centres for the near detention and inappropriate mixing of migrants, following a tender opened at the beginning of the summer, yet to be adjudicated. Nonetheless, the preparations for the expansion of the former barracks are already visible, which will be able to “welcome” between 500 to 1000 people, thus becoming a new Hub/Hotspot for processes of the containment, selection and rejection of migrants, without any juridical basis. The Hotspot approach, which has entirely failed, continues to be repeated, a state of exception in which acts of control and repression are acted out and experimented on migrants themselves, and then in all likelihood becoming future models of activity and governmentality. In the meantime, the former ‘Gasparro’ baracks, along with the tent-city at Pala Nebiolo, in Annunziata, house hundred of unaccompanied minors, in extremely serious and concerning conditions. Here again, just as in the centres of “very first reception” in other provinces which we have already cited, the situation of structural inadequacy is joined by overcrowding, lack of appropriate divisions based on age and gender, a total lack of individual responsibility or attention to particularly vulnerable cases. The “welcoming” system has been reduced to an act of the most basic assistance organised within parameters laid out by the impersonal logic of large numbers. From December 1st, the two complexes have been managed by the Senis Hospes and Domus Caritatis cooperatives, which also manage the Pozzallo Hotspot.


We also meet many minors in the centres in the province of Ragusa: from 100-200 at a time, stuck in holding hangars for weeks or months. We often seem them on very brief trips into town, for the local papers to then admit their presence in order to immediately give space to panegyrics about the work of the associations, police and volunteers in the Hotspot. According to this perverted logic of disinformation, the message that one wants to communicate to people is about the bravura of those Italian who “welcome” migrants. Not a single word is given over to the relations of power which are established in context of humanitarian assistance and aid, no citation is made of the historical reasons which have led so many migrants to seek refuge in Italy, and which would directly or indirectly send us back to the political and economic choices made by those who govern. And this would also examine the so-called “welcoming” system, which clearly does not work, but is implementing policies of exclusion, control and selection which have no meeting point with migrants’ rights or social inclusion. Understanding the various interests at stake, the responsibility and possibilities of the agents involved, allows one to not fall into the traps of an “emergency” standpoint, a vision which can only lead to useless complaining or the acceptance of an illegal situation which nonetheless does not directly affect us. A clear vision of the current situation would need to wake up and move every one of us to work hard for the restoration of a state of law, reporting the continued violations and thinking about different solutions. This would also be of benefit to staff, managers and all those confronted with the inhuman failure of this system, who feel like there is no choice but to take refuge in the “lesser evil” or paralysing impotence. But we know that in the end this game is not being played out on our own backs, is not prejudicing our own futures, and it is this indifference which too frequently wins out, with all its dehumanising charge, allowing us to remain blind to massacres even when they unfold before our very eyes. Adults and children who still remain for weeks, months, years in situations of marginality and exclusion, passing through Hotspot, tent-city and detention centre. It is impossible for them to manage to re-socialise themselves into this new context, and to acquire a voice which is more than just narration, but which can develop into a political discourse.


These experiences, lived out by the majority of migrants arriving in Sicily, have an extremely concerning knock-on effect on their possibility of building a future in our country. Fortunately it is not always like this, and that provides some hope for change. In a small town in the province of Milan we meet ‘G’, a young Egyptian man we met years ago in Sicily, where he arrived back in 2011. ‘G’ was part of the crew on an Egyptian fishing boat which had made various journeys to Sicily bringing migrants, for which reason he was accused of having collaborated with the alleged boat driver. His new life in Italy, at only 16 years of age, thus began with a spell in prison and subsequent probation, as foreseen for minors in criminal trials. ‘G’ studied for 18 months and then worked in a small town in inland Ragusa, eventually forced to admit responsibility, unable to context the accusations: “the decisions on the boat were the commander’s. I just took orders, I didn’t even know what was going on and above all I never wanted to come to Italy.” Now ‘G’ has decided to move up North, and has found work in a pizzeria, trying to leave a past behind him, one which is already heavy despite his age: “I’m working here, I’m doing OK, and above all I’ve managed to restart my life without anyone already knowing my story and automatically thinking I’m a criminal. It’s hard, but being like other people gives me the hope to do it.” Basically, just being recognised as a person, with the same dignity and rights as any other human being. For the majority of migrants arriving in Italy today, this is still not permitted, whether they be men, women, children or unaccompanied minors.


Lucia Borghi

Borderline Sicilia


Project “OpenEurope” – Oxfam Italia, Diaconia Valdese, Borderline Sicilia Onlus


*CPA = Centro di Prima Accoglienza (Initial Reception Centre)

*CIE = Centro di Identification e Espulsione (Identification and Expulsion Centre)

*CAS = Centro di Accoglienza Straordinara (Extraordinary Reception Centre)

*CARA = Centro di Accoglienza per Richiedenti Asilo (Reception Centre for Asylum Seekers)

Translation by Richard Braude