“We Can’t Stop”. The Signs Of The Borders Written On The Bodies Of Those Who Arrive

“It was a long journey, but I put some money aside from my ‘pay’ these last few months. And I had an accident too, when my finger was crushed. My friends took me to the hospital and they had to amputate it. I’m better now though, I’m in a reception centre, I can talk and be understood.” ‘M’ writes to us again after a month of silence, from his new hostel in Germany. In May he will turn 17, and in June it will have been a year since he landed at Pozzallo.


The Golfo Azzurro, from the NGO Proactiva, arriving at Catania

Sadness, frustration, anger and a determination to chase after a better future in the end won out over his attempt to not lose faith in that which is still called the Italian “welcoming” system. The interests of the managing bodies all too frequently count far more than migrants’ rights. Flagging up of cases of bad management and abandonment fall on deaf ears. “You think the risk is any greater than what I already went through between Cameroon and Italy?” was his response when we warned him about the dangers of leaving his centre in Italy. “I’m covered in marks from all the borders I’ve crossed, one more won’t make a difference.”

The wounds inflicted upon the minds and bodies of the men, women and minors who are landed on the Sicilian coastline show the very real consequences of a policy of rejection and closure which characterise Italian and European borders. Such wounds provide an unanswerable denouncement of the violence of a “reception” system which is formed more and more on the grounds of profit and clientism. We mean both the visible and invisible scars, those caused by torture, beatings, inhumane treatment in prisons south of the Mediterranean and petrol burns, from gunshot wounds, and the signs of malnutrition which you see at the rescue operations. We mean the trauma, the abuse and fear which so many never manage to communicate in the moments of arrival, where there is not only a lack of psychological support structures but also of mediators, an extremely serious failure which no one wants to remedy. We mean the depression into which so many people fall after being left for months or years suspended in an eternal waiting for an Italian document, stuck in the middle of nowhere, staved off with false promises, maintained in a state of precarity and blackmail, the exact opposite of the kind of social inclusion which ought be carried out.

On Sunday 2nd April, the Golfo Azzurro docked in at the port of Augusta with 220 migrants, originally from Nigeria, Bangladesh and The Gambia, making it the port with the most arrivals since the beginning of 2017.

We hope that between the identification operations, the investigations an the drawn-out police interrogations, the migrants might have had the chance to better understand the situation in which they now find themselves, because we can only speak about this in terms of fortune, not guaranteed protection. Many of the migrants who arrived only a week ago at the same port did not even receive adequate information in their own language, in a context in which humanitarian organisations are allowed only a very limited margin of activity. We know this from the dozens of unaccompanied minors who we met recently in Syracuse, mixed up among the reception centres in the area, in Melilli, Floridia and what used to be the Umberto I centre, now managed by the cooperative Città Gratissima, in Caltagirone. There are young men and women from Somalia, some of them very young to the eye, who arrived on March 20th at Augusta. Some of them manage a few words of broken English. “We’re nearly 50 people at the centre”, one minor housed at the former Umberto I centre tells us. “We have food to eat and a change of clothes, but we can’t make ourselves understood, and we haven’t been able to call our families this last week, to tell them that we’ve arrived.” “I gave the contacts for my relatives in Germany. I don’t know who can help me get to them, or how. If no one tells me anything, after a few months I’ll make my own way, I can’t stop now.” Not many of them think like this, but instead choose to move on immediately, like the group of young women who we met, but then could not find a few days later. The same goes for the dozens of minors on their own like ‘M’, who cannot tolerate the situation of being abandoned in the centres where they are left, and put their final scraps of faith in the words of people from their own countries who got to Europe before them.

On March 29th the Chamber of Deputies finally approved the law for the protection of unaccompanied minors. This is an important decision which we hope will harmonise, and render more effective, the protections already provided for by law, but which unfortunately has been presented by the media in a distorted manner. They have claimed that, with the new law, foreign minors can “no longer” be rejected means providing serious incorrect information (it has not been possible to expel unaccompanied foreign minors since the Immigration Act of 1998*), and at the same time stirring up a populist and xenophobic response. Bearing witness to that which is truly taking place is increasingly urgent in a context in which disinformation goes hand in hand with the interests of those who are using the media to their own advantage and of whoever is reconciled to their power. The reality of the fact is kept at a distance. The words and bodily marks of those arriving provide us with a necessarily crude and irrefutable account – one which does not, however, seem to lead to anger but extraordinarily to dismissal and indifference.

On the morning of March 25th, the corpses of five migrants arrived in Catania, on the Golfo Azzurro, the vessel of the NGO Proactiva. The bodies were recovered after hours of endless searching and recovering, bodies presumably kept floating due to the small life jackets they wore. Five people who found a different from of burial than the hundreds of others who took the same rubber boats, and were swallowed up by the sea. They will remain only through the memory of their faces and names on a list of those lost at sea, witnesses to the continual massacre on the Mediterranean. The dead of Italy’s borders no longer make the news, instead remaining mere figures, as invisible as those who arrive alive. To assist with the arrival of the bodies on the Golfo Azzurro and document their arrival there was, in fact, only one journalist on the quay, with three cameramen and one representative from the UNHCR and Save the Children. There was no one else around, save for the port staff and the police, by now ever more present when there is a connection to the crews from the humanitarian ships in the ports, with military ships in the background. The silence which accompanied the passing over of the bodies did not, this time, mean a moment of meditation and commemoration, but sadly only forgetting and indifference.

Faced with all of this, neither can we stop now, in our movement towards an active recollection.

Lucia Borghi
Borderline Sicilia

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

*Immigration Act of 1998 = Il testo unico sull’immigrazione

Translation by Richard Braude