Miss, I’m Sorry, But I Have To Inform You That Your Son Has Been Killed

There have been too many, far too many phone calls over the last week. Too many messages from mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters looking for information about their loved ones, prisoners of our war on migrants. A battle which claims its victims every day: the last ones – if only they were truly the last – were those claimed last week, on the weekend of 13th -15th January, when Europe’s policies murdered around 200 people.


Four bodies arrived at Lampedusa, 2 at Messina and 4 at Trapani. Eight bodies were recovered without names, while no hope remains for recovering the other 180 people, unless the sea decides to consign them to the shores. But even in such an instance it would be near impossible to match the body with a face or a name. And thus the army of the nameless, of the Mediterranean desaparecidos grows in number exponentially, as does the number of mothers who have no peace about the fate of their children. Mothers who received no phone call from their own children before they left Libya, and who will never receive any phone call telling them about the arrival on the yearned for European coast.


The last bodies which arrived were taken to Trapani from the Norwegian ship Siem Pilot, utilised by Frontex, along with four survivors who recounted that the boat began to fill up with water only a few hours after departure, and slowly went down. All of the nearly 200 people on board ended up in the water, many of them drowning immediately in the sea, while others slowly lost their strength and gave up the fight. All of them died, and slowly, hour by hour, the four survivors saw their friends, cousins, brothers and wives die. They remained in the water for eleven hours before the Siem Pilot arrived, eleven hours in freezing water. They struggled and resisted, but the news once again passed by in silence, a resounding deafness which collaborates in this system of death.


The survivors are Eritreans and Ethiopians. The Eritreans could have accessed the relocation program, but the Prefecture has put them in an Extraordinary Reception Centre (CAS*). This is a system completely out of control, which thinks only about rejections and opening new detention centres (CIE*). And so, despite the lull since the Summer, today the Hub is yet again overcrowded, transformed into nothing but a container. And perhaps, as is certainly the case with the survivors of the shipwreck, there are people who have experienced deep traumas, raising questions about the decision to put them in the Extraordinary Reception Centres, an act void of humanity.


The Prefectures are at the mercy of the Minister of the Interior, who provides no direction whatsoever, but instead is simply creating intolerable conditions, particularly for the vulnerable, people who are given no form of assistance but instead, as with women and minors, are often amassed in the Extraordinary Reception Centres due to the lack of subsequent transferrals, and abandoned.


We have seen situations like this, and continue to, at Poggioreale in the province of Trapani, or in Boccadifalco and Giardinello in the province of Palermo, where the Prefectures have been asking for transfers for some time, but no words arrive from Rome. In the case of Poggioreale, the managing body is no longer able to take care of the women hosted in the building after all of the workers resigned and only two people are left, who have no particular capabilities. The resulting dynamics are disastrous for the residents, leading to them either voluntarily leaving or having their right to hosting revoked, pushing the women into networks of invisibility. The consequence is that the street ends up being the only way of living, exploited yet once again.


The dynamics are similar enough for unaccompanied foreign minors, with the constant opening of centres where young people are crammed in. The Sicilian regional government continues to provide accreditation to structures in a completely reckless manner, riding the waves of the “emergency”. All too frequently the local councils are not even aware of the existence of all the complexes in the area, but nonetheless the minors end up being “parked” for long periods of time, far too long.


What then happens to these young men? Often they turn 18 in the hostel for minors where they have been housed, without having begun any kind of process whatsoever, and frequently running away is then the only method of escape they believe they have. Today, for example, around 20% of newly-turned 18 year olds are in the centres for minors, and even in these cases the Ministry fails to provide any indications to the Prefectures about transfers. Available positions in the Extraordinary Reception Centres in Sicily have run out, and the dynamics within them are increasingly those of conflict between the 18 year olds (who receive a different kind of treatment, and have different needs), the minors, and the staff.


In the course of 2017 the amount of such 18 year olds will reach an extremely high number. This means that either there can be some quick planning for a solution or, falling back on the “emergency”, the time bomb will simply be left to explode, for which the minors will pay the consequences, along with whoever is directly engaged with them.


All in all, whoever remains stuck in this quagmire ends up with serious psychological problems which no one pays any attention to. The sparse availability of positions for vulnerable persons within the centralised hostel system (SPRAR*) means that they usually remain in the Extraordinary Reception Centres, where people are housed without any appropriate divisions between men, women, 18 year olds and vulnerable persons, in contravention of every minimal criteria of housing, without forgetting that some of such centres also house court witnesses.


This is a system which failed long ago, and which continues to kill people before (in Libya), during (at sea) and after (in our cities). The work left for us is to deal with the anger and difficulty of communicating with the relatives of those who didn’t make it, because the stories and the tears indelibly remain, even over the phone. The depth of these tears if fathomless. We have no words of consolation to offer. The anger thus remains, for all that we have taken from these families, from these young people, from these children of a world in which so little humanity is left. And so, despite the difficulty, we manage to say: “Miss, I’m sorry, but I have to inform you that your son has been killed.”


Alberto Biondo

Borderline Sicilia


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


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

*SPRAR = Servizio Centrale del Sistema di Protezione e Accoglienza per Rifugati e Richiedenti Asilo (Central Service for the Housing and Protection System for Refugees and Asylum Seekers)

Translation by Richard Braude