At the beginning of October we went to visit the SPRAR* centre managed by the Sol.Co consortium in Francofonte, province of Syracuse.
These are in fact two centres, coordinated but independent, situated in a very central area of the Syracusan town. Our visit was carried out in a period in which the ‘immigration and security’ bill was being discussed, which means this report also represents a moment in the situation before the bill came in.
The first building we visited is a few minutes from the town’s historical centre. We were taken into a large open space where the residents were chatting peacefully, who pointed us to the office of the building’s coordinator. Here we found a Pakistani man and a cultural mediator. It was explained to us that this was a particular situation, in that the man was there with his daughter, and that there was another single-parent family in the centre – something very unusual for a centre for men.
The coordinator told us about some of the difficulties but also satisfaction of having minors in the centre, for whom they have tried to provide some ad hoc services, like a Summer camp.
After these short introduction, she explained to us that the two centres host 31 people each, as well as 26 more people divided into 4 nuclear families that are part of a resettlement project, making a total of 88 places. The 62 residents live in the two centres while the nuclear families are housed in independent homes spread across the town.
The majority of the residents are holders of humanitarian protection, a few asylum seekers and around 15% are engaged in appeal cases. There is also one person sent back to Italy under the Dublin Regulation. Aside from the single-parent families and the families awaiting resettlement, the residents are young adults ranging from 19 to 25 years of age.
As for the staff, there are four mediators who work on call, present only for individual meetings. The situation used to be that the mediators were a fixed presence, but with the passing of time some of the residents have begun to help out with the welcoming of newly arriving people from their own countries.
The centre has a psychologist, who seems to be employed only in interviews to identify skills and abilities on which to base an individualised project. This is unfortunate given that the majority of the residents have been subjected to torture and degrading detentions in Libya and thus will be in need of therapeutic pathways that go well beyond the mere identification of skills as provided by the centre’s psychologist. As we know very well, many people who have been detained in Libya develop post-traumatic stress syndrome, which can show itself in latent forms and thus require constant monitoring in order to effect rehabilitation.
The centres’ lawyers are present around once a week and prepare residents for hearings in the Territorial Commission and for appeals against negative decisions.
On arrival in the centre, residents are welcomes by the coordinator and a mediator, with whom they discuss the reception contract and the possibility to pass one night in the centre before deciding whether to accept the contract or not. This is because the contract includes not only rights but also duties, such as cleaning the communal rooms, with a penalty for those who do not respect their shifts. The penalty is a deduction of their pocket money at €1.50 per missed shift. This is an understandable choice, given that this present residents with their obligations, but the penalty is perhaps excessive given the low level of the pocket money receives, which amounts to around €45.
Entrance into the centre does not include any medical screening, following an order from the central office in Rome, who claim that this would represent a violation of privacy. There is nevertheless a doctor who, in coordination with the other workers, manages the distribution of medicines.
Our conversation shifted to cultural-linguistic integration. 14 people are enrolled at the provincial centre for adult education,* while others follow the Italian courses offered by the centre, run by an anthropologist for 10 hours each week. The remaining residents are enrolled in other public schools.
As far as work in concerned, a network has been set up with local businesses to raise awareness and create partnerships for the organising of apprenticeships of around 3 months, and in some cases contracts of 6 months to a year: six months paid by the SPRAR and six by the company, for around €350-€400 per month. The coordinator told us how this kind of training has been the best kind in terms of creating regular working situations, with around 7 people now working in companies for whom they had previously carried out apprenticeships. Furthermore, professionalisation courses have been run during the Winter, aas well as courses driving license courses during the Summer. Sport is important for integration and thus an agreement has been signed with both public and private bodies, with many of the young men taking part in local football teams.
When we ask about times relating to procedures for the recognition of forms of protection, we are told that the Territorial Commission of Syracuse has always managed for asylum seekers to have an interview within one month of their arrival. The difficult part is that the immigration office in Syracuse does not then issue the permit to stay for asylum seekers. Despite the speed of the Commission interviews – which means the period in the centre as an asylum seeker is only around 6 months – some people have remained in the centre for four years, awaiting that their request for asylum is decided upon in court.
We were then told about the resettlement program, which relates to single refugees who find that they cannot stay in the first country of reception and are transferred to a third country, in this case Italy. These are quotas established by the government, one of the few legal ways of entrance into a European country. The resettlement project, however, is managed by the second centre, the coordination of which, though connected to the first centre, is carried out independently. For this reason what happens in the first SPRAR centre is not automatically valid for the second.
The second centre is located in a historical building in the town centre, which still displays some of its former religious function as a convent. The project coordinator welcomed us, and we asked her initially about the problems of integration with the local population. In order to assist in making a meeting space between the local residents and the centres’ residents, various initiatives have been organised. The most important and successful was the “Coloured Houses” project, through which some of the rooms in the ex-convent have been done up, in order to create places for social meeting between young peopl e from the town and those from other countries. One of the terraces in the convent in particular has been re-done with murals, gardens and a film screen.
Our conversation turned to the resettlement program. The families are from Syria and Eritrea, originally received in Turkey or Lebanon and, from there, transferred to Italy. They live in independent housing, which has helped with social integration given relations with neighbours and the need for bureaucratic organisation and getting the children into the local schools. Once outside of the SPRAR project, there is also economic help for the families’ rent. Some of the families, following on from regular work found through the apprenticeship schemes, have decided to stay on in Francofonte.
The coordinator showed us round the centre, and we saw the kitchen, the dormitory wing – where the rooms include bathrooms, four people to each room – and the recreational space. The centre did not seem bad, and indeed it appeared that life is easy enough there. But not all that shines is gold, especially in the reception sector. And so, at the end of our tour of the centres, we went to find some former residents. We found a couple of them who were ready to tell us about their experience within the SPRAR.
The residents tell us some things slightly different from the coordinators’ presentations. As far as the first centre is concerned, it should be stated that the situation seems more positive, especially due to the work program. There are nevertheless problems, beginning with the above-mentioned deductions of pocket money that, some of the former-residents claim, are sometimes effected even if the person in question could not perform the cleaning tasks due to other commitments, such as school and work. These pocket money reductions have no small effect on the residents’ monthly economy, forced to pass clothes among each other. They told us that pocket money was also deducted in a collective manner when something was broken. He residents found that they had to pay for a clothes iron and a refrigerator from their own pockets, despite the responsibility for the incidents never being attributed to them.
From their account it came to light that there was no possibility of going into the kitchen alone, which is open only during mealtimes and with the supervision of professional cooks, who select the meals to be provided to the residents. Accoding to the former-residents, this constricted the personal freedom, inasmuch as if it were impossible to be at the centre during those meal times, they were forced to use the little money they had to eat out; if present at the centre at these times, they always have to eat something chosen by others.
A more serious problem is connected to the lack of relations with locals in the town, and the difficulty to interact with Italian bureaucracy, given that no one ever accompanies them to the immigration office, not even upon arrival. The Muslim residents complain, furthermore, of having difficulty in exercising their religious beliefs: a bus service was offered to the Friday prayers in Catania, but in an irregular way, only once or at most twice a month.
Another problem is the residents’ perception of their individual treatment. What they told us is that there is a difference of treatment in relation to the residents’ closeness to the workers and their obedience for the cleaning rota. Above all, we noticed a certain resentment towards th resettled families, deriving from the fact that they have greater autonomy and freedom in their decisions in comparison to the young men in the centre. These resentments also unfortunately mirror an ethnic difference; the resettlement families are generally Syrian and thus seem physically more similar to the Italian population, while the young men in the centres are all from Sub-saharan Africa. The main criticism was related by a young man with physical problems, who complained that he wasn’t accompanied to hospital despite having booked an appointment. Organising the residents’ transport certainly requires forewarning, but the fact remains that a specialist appointment cannot be missed by a young man with health problems.
In general, this is a SPRAR centre that offers decent services, and thought presenting some issues, certainly attempts to provide a service, despite the difficulties of the task.
Perhaps the real problem of the SPRAR centre is not specific to this one, but exists within the whole network, which is the lack of constructing real pathways to autonomy for a migrant who, for example, cannot decide between meals, forced to live blocked off from society in crowded dormitories, without the minimum of privacy necessary to any human being. That is, without the conditions of an active citizen instead of a (frequently unwelcome) guest in buildings transformed for that purpose. Furthermore, there are the unhappy geographical facts: small urban centres can be advantageous for creating projects of social inclusion, such as in Riace, where the mixed artisan workshops and spread-out housing has allowed the residents to become an integrated part of the local society. But these locations can also have a flaw, when instead people are housed altogether in places ringed off by the limits of a neighbourhood, which in the end become the limits of the migrants’ activity and places to be avoided by locals.
In this sens, one need to reflect – especially in light of the transformation into law of the Salvini Decree – how the SPRAR, a reception system praised across Europe, and the only system with the tools for linguistic, cultural and professional integration of migrants, might be made better and more functional, even through following best practices in Italy through which to improve the SPRAR, making the reception system as a whole a positive force within the whole country. Instead the government’s project has been to empty it out of asylum seekers and holders of humanitarian protection – that is, 70% of the beneficiaries – in order to fill up abominable centres such as the big CAS* and CARA* spread throughout the Sicilian countryside, in which no project towards autonomy is initiated, instead creating centres for exploitation and the violation of human rights, above all at the CARA in Mineo, as we have critically reported over the years.
The government’s intention is clear: to continue to back the interests of those who have made a business out of migrant reception, and the multi-nationals who profit from the low cost manpower provided by migrants, and increasingly criminalising those who dedicate their time on a voluntary and daily basis to saving human lives and protection inalienable human rights.
*SPRAR = Protection system for refugees and asylum seekers
*provincial centre for adult education = CPIA
*CAS = Extraordinary Reception Centre
*CARA =Asylum Seeker Reception Centre
Project “OpenEurope” – Oxfam Italia, Diaconia Valdese, Borderline Sicilia Onlus
Translation by Richard Braude