Porta Felice: Exception Or The Rule?

For those working in the Italian migrant sector, “MSNA” is a well-known acronym. The following reflection ought be similarly well-known: “This is a complex phenomenon and to understand it, define it and in the end manage it better, it would be slowly move forward by starting from the objective data.” Even if it is not possible to proceed in this way here in any exhaustive way, we will nonetheless try to read and interpet the single case in question from within the general context.

MSNA” stands for Minori Stranieri Non Accompagnati, that is, unaccompanied foreign minors. In 2016, 25,846 such minors were disembarked on Italian coasts, signifying an exponential increase in comparison with the 12,360 who arrived the previous year. Such a figure explains the attention which is now being laid on the issue, and which might have a positive outcome in the definitive approval of the so-called “Zampa Law” after a long legislative journey. However, pending the implementation of new norms and practices, one can still observe the persistence of old problems, all of which are more or less well-known.

A brief overview of these problems: the time spent by unaccompanied foreign minors with the Hotspots (perhaps it would be better to define them as “crisis spots” in light of the Minniti-Orlando law); the extended periods spent within first reception centres*; the lack of named legal guardians or the continued use of delegating the role to hostel managers, flouting the principle of third party neutrality; the high number of cases of minors who turn 18 while still within these centres and are then forced, in the best examples, to begin the whole procedure for the recognition of international protection from scratch as “adults”, usually within an Extraordinary Reception Centre* far away from any inhabited location. And indeed, in many cases, turning 18 simply means ending up in the street, with all the dangers this entails.

Less well-known, however, but no less serious, are the consequences of the problems connected to the duties and responsibility of various institutions. Even if this aspect has been recently changed in terms of regulations, we still seem very far from any harmonisation of the different practices, and even the most simple questions prove difficult to answer in any clear manner.

The case of Porta Felice raises a series of questions of various kinds, but in the end one question in particular: exactly who arranges the transfer of minors from a first reception centre to a “second level” community?

Why this question in particular? And so now we turn to the Porta Felice “case”. The inverted commas are necessary because we feel – indeed, we are certain – that what we’re about to describe does not represent an exception within the panorama of the reception system in Sicily. In relation to unaccompanied foreign minors, this panorama has a particular importance, as 38.5% of all such minors registered in Italy are currently hosted in Sicily (official figures from the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, 31 May 2017).

The Porta Felice cooperative opened its first complex in Palermo in 2015, on Via Juvara. Despite clear problems of financial liquidity, a few months later a second complex was opened, again in Palermo, on Via Marinuzzi. In May 2016, due to continuing delays in payment, the cooperative decided to organise a protest by physically taking the residents and putting them at the door of the Palermo Council office. The promise of an immediate payment resolved the situation until July 2016, when a second protest was organised with the same method, leading to the transfer al of the residents and the informal closure of the buildings due to the cooperative’s inability to continue their activities, engaged at the same time in managing the lido at a nearby beach resort.

We will come back to this approach to management and representation later.

The Summer thus saw the end of the “first phase”. The “second” one began in October 2016, when the building on Via Juvara was reopened, or perhaps it would truer to say that it returned to hosting minors, given that it had never been formally closed, and this time with a new manager who stayed in the role for about a week. The following manager took on the role till mid-May, when she handed in her own resignation. A few days later the first court orders from the Public Prosecutor for Minors arrived, ordering the immediate transfer of all the residents to more fitting structures. Within a week the centre – which in the meantime was quickly moved from Via Juvara to Via Marinuzzi, perhaps to avoid the effecting of the court order – was emptied out.The reasons for these transferrals ar not at all clear, or rather are not known to us.

It is clear, however, that the events at Porta Felice are well known to everyone working in the sector, in institutions and otherwise. There have been several inspections over time by the Public Prosecutor for Minors, as well as Palermo’s social workers.* It is also clear that something does not add up, as there is no clear reason as to how the “second phase” could be followed by a “third” one.Yet this is exactly what happened. After being emptied out of its residents, the centre returned to hosting minors. The method of installing the new residents represents the most cloudy aspect, and thus that worthy of the greatest attention. From various accounts it emerges clearly enough that the council administration does not consider the cooperative, or at least not the quality of reception offered, to be up to the standard of current regulations. The sources explain that the council aide for Social Citizenship explicitly rejected the cooperative’s request to take on more residents following a recent landing at Palermo, given that the centre was officially still open by empty.In order to overcome this obstacle, the cooperative’s managers went themselves to Mazara del Vallo – the location of a centre of very first reception for unaccompanied foreign minors, managed by the cooperative Fiori di Pesco – in order to remove 13 of the current residents and house them at Via Marinuzzi. This method of installing residents, according to some of our sources, also allowed the managers to select the most suitable: 9 out of 13 come from Bangladeshi, as they are perceived to be more meek and less inclined to rebellion in comparison with their African peers.

We can now return to the question we posed at the beginning, and now in a more definitive manner: who arranges such transfers? Is official permission required? If so, from whom? Can it be the case that the Palermo city council can decide not to send minors to a centre in its own territory but not be opposed, for the same reasons, to a transfer arranged by the competent authorities? Does accreditation in the regional register for such structures (l.r. 22/86) have any impact on the event? Or is the transfer from a first reception centre to a “second level” one a simplified procedure?From a regulatory point of view, we can cite the following.The regional regulation (DPRS n.600, 13/08/2014) for the approval of structural and organisational standards for unaccompanied foreign minors in Sicily (Section 2 “Second level reception centres for all unaccompanied foreign minors, including those within the SPRAR project”) states:“The structure receives minors transferred from a first reception centre via an order from the court authorities, with subsequent communication to the local council in which the structure is located.”

An official note from 7 April 2016 (n. 2), the council aide for Families, Social Policy and Labour states:“With the Decree 513 of 18 January 2016, published in Gazette n. 9 of 26 February 2016, a new structural and organisational standard for second level reception centres for unaccompanied foreign minors has been confirms, modifying the preceding standards laid out in Decree 600/2014.”

And in particular:

“As regards the functioning of the residential service within the second level structures, by regulation unaccompanied foreign minors will be installed following transferral from initial reception structures via an order from the court authority for minors and with a subsequent communication to the local council in which the structures is located and to the public prosecutor for minors, situated at the appropriate Court for Minors. In emergency situations or in absence of availability within the initial reception centres, installation into the second level centres can occur through the police stations or Prefectures with an order from the court authority for minors. In this case, again, the information ought then be communicated to the local council and the public prosecutor for minors.”

The management and organisation of transfers, therefore, seem to depend principally on social services, who must subsequently communicate with the relevant authorities. Sometimes such communication is not provided promptly to the court for minors. For this reason, as we have already mentioned above, the legal guardian is often named as the manager of the community, entrusted with the role temporarily in the absence of a named guardian.Returning to the events at Porta Felice, we can delve into another aspect. After the transferals ordered by the public prosecutor for minors and the consequent emptying out of the hostel, and the city council’s evident criticism of the workings of the cooperative, how is it possible that such a centre continues to operate, including physically going and taking new residents from another province?In place of an answer, we want to unravel two final aspects which till now have not been closely examined.What happened and/or is happening inside the community managed by the cooperative Porta Felice? And is the attention/aversion shown in relation to it simply the consequence of its working method, or are there other reasons?

As far as can be understood and deduced from interviews with various people involved personally in the events (here we underline that among these there have been neither any of the managers, nor council workers), we get the feeling of an entirely inadequate reception centre, as has already been shown, but not only which is particularly exceptional in the context of the other communities active across Sicily. That does not mean to legitimate the failings or remove responsibility from the managing body, but it does ask us to stay alert about all of the reception centres for minors, rather than defining Porta Felice as simply an “exceptional case”.Returning to the natural order of events, and in the hope that some final claims might have some effect, we return to the final key episodes,The thee phases we have identified (the opening in 2015 till the informal closure of July 2016; the reopening of October 2016 to the court order and the emptying of May 2017; the “repopulation” in May 2017 until today) evidence some continuing characteristics.

There is no correspondence between who formally and informally manages the centre. The management of business affairs of the cooperative seems to be dealt with entirely by the owner, consistently supported by his wife, who has a background in the tourism sector. The legal representative of the cooperative is, on the other hand, a worker who takes on the cleaning work within the centre itself. A disabled person with serious deafness who sleeps in the centre covers the night shifts. The continual high overturn of staff is another constant: aside form the various managers, there have been at least 18 workers who have quit. The reasons for the high number of resignations are connected to the conditions for the residents at the hostel. More specifically it seems that it is the general climate in the centre rather than the physical conditions which makes the work impossible. Before there were problems of financial liquidity, it seems that the residents lacked nothing. Or rather, nothing that could be found in the shops. Many people recall how at the beginning the shopping was done regularly and the residents were allowed to cook. The delay in payments simply exasperated a situation already marked by serious shortfalls: a total absence of experience among the cooperative’s senior management, full instead with prejudices – not so much an expression of racist feelings but the consequence of perceptions quite different from reality – as well as a lack of communication, of dialogue with residents who have perhaps been unfortunately confused for clients using a service. In this sense, the fact that the shower has a timer to block water use seems more appropriate to a beach cabin than a second-level reception centre. The situation soon degenerated through recourse to pointless methods of intimidation and repression (beyond the well known method of deducting pocket money or threatening to impose a wrist X-ray in order to change a resident’s age, in the first phase CCTV was installed in the sitting room, the corridor and the staff office, in order to foresee any eventual revolts).

In the light of everything which we have said here, we underline that Porta Felice does not in fact anything but the latest example of a cooperative dropped into the world of migrant reception simply because it was attracted by the possibility to make some money.Furthermore, it seems clear to us, on close examination, that the cooperative is attemptng to gain credibility by collaborating with various figures regarded in the sector as being experts in human rights. And by we cannot blame people for attempting to save the image of their own work place. Nonetheless, it is also clear that there needs to be a formal modification of some kind, one which hopefully would precede a substantial change. Because besides defending one’s “own job”, if it is within the reception business, it is necessary to have some humility, and the desire to learn: that without a project of ongoing education, or the steadfast desire to offer the “guests” a chance to engage in society, one cannot claim that one’s task has been achieved with flying colours just because, beyond that which is strictly contracted, you’ve also bought spices and assorted condiments.We close with a questions. Is it possible that the focus which has been laid on Porta Felice is in fact the product of events of which we are not aware?All the people we spoke with made reference to the regional register of accreditation. Searching the regional register however, there is no trace of the cooperative Porta Felice among the reception centres. But if this were the case, how can the centre remain open?

Elio Tozzi
Borderline Sicilia

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

*Extraordinary Reception Centre = Centro di accoglienza straordinaria (CAS)* “social services” = Ufficio Nomadi e Immigrati del Comune di Palermo, the office in which social workers for foreign minors are organised.

Translated by Richard Braude