Talking about Immigration in Sicily – We’re meeting Paola Ottaviano at the Theater’s café in the center of Modica. I’ve met her – thanks to Giovanni, who introduced us – by chance a few days before in the bookshop Mondadori.
“She’s a capable woman. She founded, together with others, an association that helps migrants” he said, and I asked him to call her and to set up a meeting.

Four of us are waiting for her in front of the café. Giovanni, me, my travel companion Chiara and the painter Ignazio Monteleone, who happened to come by and joined us. We’re sitting at a table in the shade of a tree. It’s ten in the morning and already very hot.

Paola arrives shortly after and immediately starts to answer our questions. She’s 42 years old, a lawyer and part of Borderline Sicilia, an association created to monitor the situation of migrants.

The association has its headquarters in Modica, a few kilometers from Pozzallo, one of the main landing spots in Sicily. Here as well as in other parts of the region, the volunteers are collecting the stories of men, women, and children who experience on their own bodies the consequences of the agreements with Libya, the loss of rescue missions, the catastrophic mismanagement of arrivals, and the hate campaigns against migrants which have only gotten worse recently due to the Covid-19 emergency state.

“We have a homepage, a Facebook page, and a Twitter profile where we publish and boost information concerning the arrivals and the reception situation of migrants,” says Paola. The information is about abuse, illegal recruitment of underpaid agricultural workers, problems related to the reception centers, deportations, and migration-related politics.

“As an association, we started in 2008 and our first public initiative was a commemoration for the victims of the 2007 shipwreck near Vendicari. We realized that we couldn’t remain indifferent to the fate of migrants destined to die at sea. We wanted to do something and tell the realities of migration, beyond the stereotypes and political instrumentalizations.

We are a small organization, and this gives us freedom. We don’t depend on institutional sponsors who could influence our decisions. More than just monitoring, we offer juridical assistance to migrants. And we try to carry out advocacy activities in view of collective applications, e.g. on the issue of the so-called time-delayed deportations, or rather: ordered after disembarkation. We have worked with Oxfam, the Waldensian Diaconia, and the Doctors for Human Rights. There were projects such as reports on torture in Libya and the support of migrants in special need of protection who nonetheless are being kept out of the protection and reception system.”

Borderline Sicilia demands a dignified reception for the survivors of the landings and calls out Italy and the EU for their responsibility towards the dead and the suffering of migrants brought back by the [so-called] Libyan coast guard.

The situation of those who manage to arrive after risking death at sea has worsened due to the political climate that is hostile to the opening of borders. At the height of the Treaty of Dublin, which forbids those who land in Italy to move freely to other countries across Europe, legal and secure channels of entrance to Europe are missing. Migrants are forced to stay in the country of first landing and are being driven into the clutches of exploitation, crime, and despair.

One of the recent stories published on the website is that of Sana, a young man from the Gambia who fled from the Libyan prisons and is fed up with waiting for documents that have to be issued by the Italian police directorate. He joined the ranks of the invisibles out there. There is also the story of Fred, also from the Gambia, exploited for twelve hours daily on the fields of Agrigent. Furthermore, there is the story of Ebrima, a young man from Ghana with psychological problems pointing to the Libyan camps who roams the streets of Palermo like a robot.

But luckily, every now and then there are stories with a happy end. Like the one of Kwausu, who arrived with his companions in Palermo in 2016 after having been rescued at sea. Today, he lives in Germany with his wife Amira who arrived in Siciliy on the same boat. Recently, they had a son: “I called him Matteo, like your son,” Kwausu told the volunteer who four years earlier helped him find his wife who had been admitted to a hospital. “I couldn’t call him Borderline Sicilia.”

Paola has been talking to us for more than an hour by now. It is time for a coffee with almond granita. I ask her to tell me something about the reception centers which have been scaled down recently due to financial cuts and more restrictive regulations.

“The main problem of reception is that it is still handled as emergency management, even though people have been landing here for twenty years now. This prevents the efficient control of those doing the reception and prevents the development of projects serving the growth and autonomy of people. In public, there is only talk about it to complain about money being spent on migrants, but nobody talks about the problems related to bad management. Just like nobody talks about the positive repercussions in the region. In recent years, the reception centers have given work to a lot of young people who otherwise would have left Sicily. Public money finances Italian cooperatives that also work in areas where there is essentially no work.”

While she speaks, I watch the panorama of Modica with its beautiful houses in the historic center, mostly abandoned, because there are not enough buyers. And I think about how the city would be like, with its wonderful light and pleasant climate, if there only would be more future prospects for everyone, and if it would be possible to stay here.

Laura Salvi
Via the Blog Sotto il cielo delle Ande

Translated by Christian Lamp