The Coronavirus Emergency and the Racism Generated by Ignorance

In these agitated days, when the news cycle is consumed by the spread of Coronavirus and its damaging effects on the country’s economy, we have returned to Messina to monitor the situation of the hotspot and the extraordinary reception center (CAS*) inside the former Gasparro barracks, which as of yesterday are being utilized as places of forced confinement and quarantine of migrants rescued by Sea Watch 3.
But before recounting the latest events, we want to revisit the monitoring that took place under “ordinary conditions”, that is, before the ship’s docking and quarantine. Obviously, our ongoing monitoring can only be done from outside the facility, talking with the residents and with those involved from outside the center in the relevant legal affairs, as no visit to the two centers has been authorized since 2016.

Critical Issues of the Hotspot and the Change in Management of the CAS

Regarding the hotspot, newcomers continue to face hardships. We are informed of a total lack of basic resources: clothes, diapers, personal hygiene products are not provided. There is no linguistic mediation offered, and no resources with legal information; nor are particular medications and treatments readily accessible.

We are compelled to report that, despite public complaints and letters sent to authorities, nothing has changed and nothing seems to be flexible in the management of the first reception center within the facility.

The average stay in the hotspot is getting longer and longer: several months go by before being moved a mere ten metres, within the CAS, divided from the hotspot by a simple fence.

The CAS, previously entrusted to the Medihospes cooperative, has now fallen under the management of the same organization supervising the hotspot, the Badia Grande in Trapani, effectively unifying management of the facility. The tender, which saw the Trapanese cooperative win control, resulted in a reduction in operating costs of around 18%.

Badia Grande is one of those cooperatives that is funded mainly by migration, managing over the years the hotspot of Lampedusa, the detention and repatriation center (CIE*) of Milo, various other CAS between Trapani and Palermo, and the reception center for asylum seekers (CARA*) of Mineo in its last phase prior to its closure. Throughout these facilities we have received consistent reports of shortcomings in the management of services and poor conditions for reception.

With the change in management at the hotspot, we have heard of a further decline in the already poor conditions at the structure. We are told that where before there had at least been some operators present, now there is only one, unable to speak any language than Italian.

Redistribution and the Bureaucratic Labyrinth

Until the Coronavirus emergency, interviews carried out within the facility by delegations of member states continued to redistribute some of the migrants rescued by NGOs who exercise rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea.

Given the lack of any meaningful division within the structure, the interviews were held either in the hotspot or the CAS, depending on when a certain member state came to speak with asylum seekers. France, the fastest country in this regard, carries them out in the hotspot; Germany, the slowest, in the CAS.

In fact, in both cases, asylum seekers wait – first for the interview with the delegation and then for the transfer – for months. A boy who landed in December with Ocean Viking, is still in Messina after more than three months, and has only just been interviewed by the German delegation without knowing when or even whether he will be transferred. Considering that the people who landed in June 2019 from the Sea Watch 3 have waited more than six months, there will likely be much more time spent waiting.

Not only that, but the lack of specific regulatory protocol regarding redistributions means that each nation has a different approach to the assessment of applications for protection. France evaluates applications via the delegation in Italy, and indeed all people transferred to France obtain international or national protection without further interviews on French territory. Germany, for its part, opts instead to start the entire procedure over from German territory and, from what we are told, with a very low rate of admission, considering the requests as manifestly unfounded, which is probably due to the list of safe third-world countries.

A further complication concerns those rejected by the various delegations. One emblematic story is that of H., a very young boy from Guinea, who arrived in Messina in June, and whose name was not included on the list of people to be transferred to France. Through documents to which we were granted access to the Dublin unit, we’ve discovered that not even this unit has knowledge of the boy’s fate. Indeed, his legal status still appears to be suspended, such that his redistribution is still pending, though months have passed since the French delegation’s rejection. H. will likely remain in Italy and his application for protection will be examined by the territorial commission of reference, but for the moment, he is yet another one lost in the system, confined in a legal limbo with no guarantees.

Coronavirus and Collective Psychosis

The spread of the Covid-19 virus on Italian territory, and the management of the emergency by the institutions have triggered alarm and collective panic that are fueling and fomenting the already strongly xenophobic climate that characterizes our country.

This xenophobic strain is found even in Italians residing or traveling abroad, as with the 40 tourists apprehended in Mauritius, forced for some hours to remain in quarantine in an airport wing. Some commented that they felt they were being treated like “refugees.”

Such a comment reflects the situation in Italy: it’s considered normal for a refugee to be maltreated, locked up in confined spaces, unable to receive even the most basic of services, but unacceptable that an Italian might be subjected, even momentarily, to similar conditions. With Coronavirus, we discover what it means not to be able to cross borders, and to be judged solely by one’s nationality.

The collective psychosis surrounding the virus is also demonstrated by the way in which the recent arrivals from the Ocean Viking in Pozzallo and from Sea Watch 3 in Messina have been treated.

First, the Minister of the Interior orders the quarantine of the 276 migrants in the Pozzallo hotspot and the members of the Ocean Viking crew on board the ship. Meanwhile, the district president, Musumeci, requests that no one disembark from the ship given the lack of security controls – this despite the ongoing arrivals of tourists and Sicilians returning from the north by sea and air, for whom such controls are likewise nonexistent even if they would be justified by the onset of the virus in the northern regions of Italy.

As a final act, the mayor of Messina, De Luca, by a communal ordinance, imposes a quarantine within the hotspot on the 194 migrants from the Sea Watch 3 ship, not to protect them from the virus circulating through Italy, but for being considered possible carriers of the disease, even providing for the possibility of adopting additional national protection protocols, “to avoid any contamination from interference with the operators in charge of assistance within the center.”

This concerns – in Pozzallo as well as in Messina – acts and practices limiting personal freedom and devoid of any scientific foundation or justification. In addition, it is the district president himself who underscored the fact that the former Gasparro barracks would not be suitable for quarantine “as there were significant hygiene and health problems regarding the reception of new migrants”.

Antonio Mazzeo, a freelance journalist who has long been committed to the issues of the militarization of Sicily and migration, remarks that this is a “xenophobe kidnapping ordained by the mayor of Messina, Cateno De Luca, to the detriment of the 194 migrants who landed with the Sea Watch 3 ship”, leading to his being shamefully attacked by a self-styled public official who urged him to “eliminate himself”.

The crew within the ship is also under quarantine, which likely won’t be permitted to remain docked at the Norimberga pier of the port at Messina, forcing the 14 crew members to isolate themselves a few miles from the Sicilian coast.

What is happening in these challenging times unfortunately only confirms the fact that in this country there is a persistent disconnect from reality that makes it vulnerable and easy prey to any thought today involving ignorance, racism, and nationalism, the ramifications of which have a devastating scope.

Giuseppe Platania
Borderline Sicilia

Translation from Italian by Olivia Taibi

*CARA: Centro di accoglienza per richiedenti asilo – Reception center for asylum seekers
*CAS: Centro di accoglienza straordinaria – Extraordinary reception center
*CIE: Centro di identificazione ed espulsione – Detention and repatriation center (now called CPR: Centri di permanenza per il rimpatrio – Detention and repatriation center)