Young People, Little Protection: From Landing to Turning Eighteen. The Situation in Some Centres in Eastern Sicily

For a few months, the Hotspot at Pozzallo has included a container for “welcoming” children and families. A space is “dedicated” to those who are meant to only be passing through the Hotspot after the landing, but in reality they are frequently illegally and lengthily detained, a fact which has now become “normal and inevitable.” The situation is submissively accepted by some of the organisations that ought to be defending the rights of migrants but in fact continually fail to report violations of those rights, more concerned as they are to obtain a piece of the pie within the system than protect and safeguard the new arrivals.

While some NGOs take a stand and show their engagement in the field on a daily basis, the migration policies handed down from above provide humanitarian organisations with ever less powers to act, signpost and protect those who are in need. Institutional rhetoric is always pushing them to be content with the “less worse” option, and to become an operational cog within a system of the control, criminalisation and deportation of migrants. Becoming convinced of our own powerlessness, or attempting to be thus convinced because it is more “convenient”, is the first step in not changing anything whatsoever, or worse.

The conditions in which refugees arrive and are “welcomed” in Italy are increasingly desperate, including for the minors. The severity of the abuses and violence they speak of during our monitoring trips is difficult to communicate in writing. This has been going on for years, so that by now one can describe the situation as not only indifferent, but inhumane.

In the Hotspots and the Ports. Minors and Victims of Human Trafficking

In the middle of July it came to light that a large group of Eritrean minors were being housed in the Pozzallo Hotspot for over a week. Many others had suffered the same experience over previous months, only to then arrive in the initial reception centres close to turning 18 and thus finding a range of problems blocking them from beginning the request for documents as minors.

Both adults and minors are detained for days in the tent structures in the port of Augusta. Despite the temperature reaching 40 degrees and the total inadequacy of the structure, the inhuman practice continues of prioritising investigations and checks rather than immediately looking for appropriate places in which to house the vulnerable. We wonder how it is possible that those energies which are spent on looking for the so-called “suspected boat drivers” cannot be employed instead in fighting human trafficking for prostitution. This situation is visible from the landing operations themselves, where there are ever more underage women who are then transferred to normal centres where they do not receive the protection they deserve.

In mid-July we met some of them in a complex in Syracuse, an initial reception centre hosting around 30 girls from different countries including Nigeria, Eritrea and Morocco. Some of them had been flagged up by the IMO as possible victims of trafficking, but none had been inserted into any specific protection program. There seemed to be different reasons for this, including a lack of space in appropriate structures, due to overcrowding. In the meantime, a female member of staff explained to us, many of them have begun the procedure for requesting international protection and are also subject to specific restrictions. “They can’t go out unaccompanied, they don’t receive any pocket money and they can’t make phone calls except in the presence of their legal guardian.” These rules, imposed in a context which does not offer them in exchange any real protection or assistance, frequently risk penalising rather than helping the girls, rendering the living situation in the centre still more difficult to manage. “I’ve been here for 5 months now, and every day seems longer than the last. I go to the Italian course twice a week and then there’s nothing else, no telephone, few trips out, nothing new, even the food is always the same. They say its to protect me”, a young girl from Benin City confided to us. We are all too aware that there are dozens, even hundreds of young women in such situations. How much do the institutions truly take care of them, despite all of the conventions and lofty official declarations? Why are no methods and moments of actually combating human trafficking taken from the moment of the landings?

Clearly, we make few savings when it comes to deportations and border militarisation. There are teams of experts for screening nationalities at the landings, supporting the photo-identification, but there is no one dedicated to the protection of minors, from the moment of the landing even up till their transfer into a centre. “At the port of Catania, it’s up to each centre to pick which people to take to their own centre. Some of them “want” minors that are under 16, others refuse to take people of certain nationalities, like Egyptians and Bangladeshis” tell us workers from three different centres in the province. These are completely discriminatory practices which did not have protection as their goal but instead the hope that the running of the centre will be “easier” and “cheaper”, avoiding, for example, the need for linguistic-cultural mediators.

Outside of the System

“It’s been months since we asked for the 18 year olds to be transferred to appropriate centres, like the SPRAR network.* We haven’t had any reply from either the Prefecture or the SPRAR office in Rome. We can’t imagine simply putting the boys on the street but the whole situation makes the running of the centre very difficult.” This is the account of the manager of an initial reception centre for minors in the Province of Catania. Her difficulty is common to many workers in centres for minors, who find themselves “unprepared” for the event of the residents turning 18. “We started off as an initial reception centre for minors but we’ve been forced to host people for much longer periods of time. For us it’s been a huge effort to take on all the bureaucratic and administrative work relating to documents and, not least, to guaranteeing the “services” which aren’t within our competences but are the rights of any young person, such as education in the public schools and professional training”, the manager continues.

Between those who cannot, those who do not know and those who, for far too long, have not wanted to safeguard minors to any adequate extent, the situation remains continually more worrying for the hundreds of young adults transferred to the CARA* at Mineo (as far as the Province of Catania is concerned) and the many others who are “asked” to leave the centres of their own accord.

“They told me every day that they were trying to find another place for me, that they couldn’t keep me there any longer. I was asking help searching for a job for a year, but they always just told me that I should follow the example of my friends working in the fields now and then, or doing small jobs for someone or other here”, H. confides to us, who until a few days ago was housed in the reception centre in Giarre, which we wrote about some months back.

We know that there are currently around 65 migrants housed in the centre, including some young men from Bangladesh who have never had the ability to use a mediation service in their own language but instead have to communicate with English or Italian. For those housed here, another possibility to find a “job” is provided by the street sellers working in the nearby seaside towns. The walk involves a dozen kilometres under the scorching sun and whole days spent walking along the coast in search of customers among the bathers. The earnings are at the very most €65 in a day, of which at least €20 are earmarked for the “boss”. The managers of the centres are entirely aware of this, and seem to view the umpteenth exploitative situation as a chance to keep the migrants’ desperation “at bay”, as it were, given the lack of work, rather than as unjust and dangerous. On the other hand, there is no form of orientation for the guests regarding the world of regular work, even at the level of apprenticeships. “I don’t know what a curriculum is. I don’t have any books to read. There’s just my phone for information, and to translate things which I don’t understand when they talk at me”, one of the 18 year old guests tells us. “I’d like to stay in Italy, but if I don’t find a good job here I think I’ll need to go to Germany.” It is difficult to describe the shock on the young man’s face when we inform him that we will need a travel document to leave Italy, and that his Italian permit to stay does not give him any rights to a prolonged permanence in another European country, without very precise criteria at least. In the end, there have been protests by the migrants at the centre in Giarre for several months, always punctually met by the arrival of police and carabinieri.

Guaranteeing only the most basic of services, promising things which one knows are impossible, failing to inform the residents in a full and correct manner about what they can expect from Italian law and the time-frames for receiving documents: there are a range of “containment” strategies used by managers to control those arriving from countries and contexts which are entirely different from out own. In fact, this seems to be the real goal of many of the centres authorised by the Prefectures, those who win tendered contracts, rather than respect for their mandate to safeguard the minors and work towards their social integration.

Lucia Borghi
Borderline Sicilia

*SPRAR = Sistema di protezione per richiedenti asilo e rifugiati (Protection system for asylum seekers and refugees)

*CARA = Centro di accoglienza per richiedenti asilo (Reception centre for asylum seekers)

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

Translation by Richard Braude