The days have been hot, and not only because the temperature has reached 40 degrees. The current systemic violence its showing its discriminatory and murderous character. Sending thousands of people back to Libya, blocking their arrival in Italy, through making deals with militia that collude with people traffickers, is nothing less than criminal. These are collective push backs, the kind which Italy has already undertaken in the past and for which it has been condemned in the European Court of Human Rights.
|A photo taken during the eviction at Via Curtatone, Rome. Photo: La Repubblica|
Signing agreements with countries that do not respect human rights and in the process externalising European border controls is criminal. Creating the conditions to block the NGO vessels, the only ones that have always trued to save human lives, unlike the ships used by Frontex which are principally used for border defense, is criminal. In all likelihood it is for this same reason that European governments have allowed a far-right group that propagates racism and Fascism, to travel without hindrance. And again, it is criminal to not establish any effective plan for the reception of those who arrive alive at our shores, who instead are depicted as invaders by those who want to inseminate panic and stir up racism. Little thought is given to the millions of refugees fleeing violence, war, hunger and atrocity, nor to those who find refugee in countries nearby (Lebanon, Jordan, Pakistan). And finally it is criminal to evict – and furthermore, in a violent way – a building in which 100 refugees are living, including families, children, pregnant women, in the middle of August, without any proposed housing alternative – as happened in Rome; and still more, to close the social centres which so often step into the institutional gaps, as happened, again in August, in Bologna.
But the new approach which has been announced and enacted by the Italian government is clear enough: stop the landings or at least claim to have done so by sacrificing men, women and children, sending them back to the slaughterhouse. To quote one of the many accounts we have heard about Libya: “When they take you back, you have two choices: pay or die. They give you the chance to pay with your organs, but if you don’t pay then you can expect a slow and violent death.”
The situation in the city and province of Palermo
And so the number of people arriving has drastically fallen, and the invasion of dangerous, violent people has been blocked – and a block of votes has been recuperated, including by the pseudo-Left.
There have not been landings in Palermo itself for some time, but people arrive in the city all the same, from other ports. A series of reception centres have been opened, especially in the farer reaches of the province, given that the Minister of the Interior has requested Palermo (city and province) to activate a further 1,600 places to house arriving migrants. Despite the “planning” set in place, the situation appears less than clear, and yet again running according to a logic of emergency, thus far from a dignified and efficient system of reception.
The centres at Baita del Faggio and Piano Torre
One of the centres we visited was Baita del Faggio, a former hotel located 18km from the town of Isnello, in the heart of the Madonie Park. It has been used as a reception centre in the past, and since June 30th it has yet again hosted 90 young men, officially adults, the majority of whom come from Bangladesh, Mali, Nigeria and Ivory Coast.
The guys – the term most suitable to include the youngest of the residents – spend their time in the central courtyard of the communal space in the hostel, making use of the television and a snooker table. There is only a single member of staff, or rather a former resident at Piano Torre Park Hotel, another (ex) hotel which has been a reception centre for some time, located a little further down the same road, around 10km from Isnello. The manager of both structures intermittently helps the worker at Baita del Faggio, both hostels being managed by the same cooperative, which was hosting a total of 134 at the time of our visit.
Over the morning, both in the office at Piano Torre and during our visit to Baita del Faggio, the manager rightly demonstrated to us the positive outcomes of her incessant work, particularly in making available the possibility to formalise the request for international protection via the Commissariat in Cefalù instead of Palermo. The result has been a drastic reduction in the waiting times which, as already noted, represent a constant problem within the reception system for asylum seekers in Sicily. The importance of the direct connection with the Commissariat in Cefalù, thus bypassing the overworked police station in Palermo, was also emphasised by the vice-manager, recently taken on in order to support the manager’s work, who is all too aware of the importance of reducing the waiting times due to her previous experience as manager of SPRAR* projects in the Sicilian capital.
Despite an undeniable dedication to administrative tasks, there is a very clear lack of staff. Aside from the former residents who have been hired, or are being hired, there is a clear feeling that both Piano Torre and Baita del Faggio rely on the manager. Indeed, she herself admits the problem, and explains to us the huge difficult in finding people “from the area” available to work in the centres, the reason for which they have chosen to take on the former residents.
The situation at Baita del Faggio is particularly serious. The only worker does not speak French, which means they have no way of communicating with the large number of French speaking residents for whom, by consequence, the manager represents their only contact with the outside world. The needs to communicate emerged as soon as we arrived at the building. Immediately the residents asked us a range of questions about their immediate situation – entirely understandable and indeed predictable given their legal situation – but there were also many “off topic” questions, a symptom of their condition of quasi-total isolation, and not least a clear expression of their need to communicate with people from the outside.
The residents told us of their boredom and abandonment, and complained of the lack of information regarding their legal situation, and their possibility to do something about it. Despite the manager’s constant work, the unstable situation in the centre is all too clear. “We want to go to school, learn Italian, meet people, but here we’re so far away from everything”, a young Nigerian man told us.
The distance, we should add, is not only geographical. The lack of linguistic-cultural mediation creates confusion and misunderstandings that, if underestimated, can lead to extremely serious situations. For example, all of the residents complain of the strict rationing of running water, which is available only between 8am and 9am. The manager justifies the situation due to the dry Summer that caused a scarcity of water in the whole area and that, at the same time, the residents had used too much water, forcing her to take such measures.
It is worth remembering that in the past, these centres have already been sites of protest by the residents who asked for an improvement in their situation. The climate of desperation and suspicion felt at Baita del Faggio led us to believe that, without a decisive change of plan, it is certain that the situation will only worsen. Before leaving, we had a change to meet the manager yet again, as well as the owner. We underlined the serious situation at Baita del Faggio, recalling how any eventual protests – entirely likely if the situation does not change – could lead to criminal charges and/or the resident’s places in the reception system being revoked, having an almost irreversible impact on the young men’s futures.
Their future, in many cases, depends entirely on their ability to tolerate the present state of things. Some of them, for example, simply dream of going to school, such as with S. and A., two young men who we met almost a year and a half ago in a centre for minors in the countryside, located in Torretta. They speak Italian well and have already taken their middle school exams. Now they want to keep moving ahead with their studies and begin high school. This, however, is not possible because there is no transport available for them. It is clearly unacceptable that the geographical position of a centre should damage anyone’s chances of going to school. Furthermore, it is clear that going to school, beyond improving one’s knowledge of the Italian language, represents an important occasion to get to know people and make contacts, to widen out and create new perspectives and opportunities which could also bring the conversion of their right to remain.
For this reason the long periods of time which asylum seekers and refugees spend in the centres really is a serious problem, especially if the centres are so isolated. They create barriers for those who want to push themselves ahead, putting brakes on bright minds and snuffing out desires for self-determination, leaving people desperate. At the end of their administrative journey these young men will find themselves in the street, forced to survive from one day to the next, after years spent deprived of their rights.
Focussing our attention on Palermo, we note that new initial reception centres have been opened. Migrants are transferred to these centres immediately following the identification procedures and, in theory at least, remain here for no more than 48 hours before being moved to an Extraordinary Reception Centre (CAS*). The management of these emergency centres has been given to Caritas and, again according to an emergency logic, the Red Cross. The mechanism is not comparable to that of the CAS, first of all because the managing bodies do not receive the “famous” €35/day for each resident, but instead a sum established by the Prefecture directly or, as is the case with the Caritas, they work through their own funds.
We met some of the people housed in these centres as they roamed the streets of multicultural Palermo, who claimed to have not received any legal or psychological support, nor any Italian course. Some of the residents have found these services on their own, for example at Centro Astalli, the latest demonstration of the importance of civil society and voluntary organisations, forced to step in to make up for institutional failings. Caritas and the Red Cross staff are now faced with a range of tasks for which they have not been trained. It is hoped that these centres will soon be replaced with others equipped with professional staff, as requested in the many tenders which have ended in nothing over the years, forcing the Prefectures to open centres where hundreds of people are amassed together for an undetermined period of time.
The lack of information and the general uncertainty is proven, as an example, by what has happened at the Caritas centre, where of the initial 54 residents, only 30 remain. The others have all left the centre, thus losing even the little support that had been conceded to them.
The centres for unaccompanied foreign minors
In this general situation of a lack of governance, we are now faced with a ridiculous situation. At a regional level, authorisation continues to be given for centres for minors to be opened throughout Sicily, but the blocking of new arrivals means that there are always less minors for available places. The consequence is that the managing bodies of these centres are now complaining that they have empty beds and therefore reduced earnings.
Furthermore, serious delays continue in transferring minors from initial reception centres to “second level” centres, as otherwise new minors would not arrive to substitute them and, in this case yet again, earnings would be reduced. Indeed, the workers in these centres frequently receive no wages for months at a time, and have to argue with the presidents of the cooperatives who, in turn, complain of lossed earnings. As always, everything is governed by the great god money.
In Palermo, the reduction of the presence of unaccompanied foreign minors has allowed the Prefecture to reconvert, from one day to the next, centres of initial reception for minors into CAS for adults, given the necessity of places. The re-attribution and conversion, in some cases, has also had a negative impact on the residents, for example a lack of the consignment of pocket money.
Faced with a system such as this, it is inevitable that, lacking any possible legal and secure entrance, those who have arrived at our shores in one way or another often have only one clear road lieing ahead of them after years spent in isolation: the circuits of criminality, organisations which live of the exploitation of people reduced to mere ghosts, not by accident, but through the will of a system which always prioritises profit over people.
We want to explain all of this to the young Gambian man who arrived two weeks ago in Italy and who is still smiling, saying “Italyisverygood!”
*SPRAR = Servizio di protezione per richiedenti asilo e rifugiati (Protection service for asylum seekers and refugees)
*CAS = Centri di accoglienza straordinaria (Extraordinary reception centres)
Translation by Richard Braude