A Reception System Which Only Benefits the Few: A Visit to the Centre of First Reception for Minors at Castiglione di Sicilia

of emergency”, “exceptional” and “extraordinary” measures:
those words so frequently associated with illegal practices carried
out without any check and controls, but which seem to be the only
method used for years to run the so-called “welcoming”
system in Italy. The Extraordinary Reception Centres (CAS*) are but
one example of this, another being the First Reception Centres (CPA*)
which for years now have become part of the “ordinary” character
of the migrant reception system. For ever more people, the
possibility of having professional figures throughout the procedure
for getting documents, and during insertion into a host community,
has simply disappeared.

months a host of prefectures, following the umpteenth legislative
intervention declared in the name of emergency, have authorised the
opening of Extraordinary and First Reception Centres, including for
unaccompanied minors. This has allowed for yet another method of
blocking the ability to guarantee increased protection for these
subjects, instead implementing a “mass reception” system. This
has been a moment of enjoyable gluttony for those managing bodies who
act without scruples across Sicily and who, as everywhere else, are
finding fertile ground to further their own interests. From the end
of June we have seen a multiplying of these kinds of centres in every
province, and there is already a problem of overcrowding in the
structures. People are meant to stay there only for the time
necessary for the identification process and the commencement of the
document procedure, and the promised services are those of minimum
basic assistance for very
numbers. However, these centres are frequently functioning as
substitutes for ‘Second Reception’, with their very basic character
thus deeply compromising migrants’ future lives in Italy. One of
these is “La
casa del migrante

(‘The House of Migrants’), a First Reception Centre for minors in the
ward of Verzella, some 7km from Castiglione di Sicilia, a small town
of just over 3,000 inhabitants, surrounded by the forests set between
Etna and Alcantara, a location which is extremely difficult to reach
without your own means of transport.

We became aware of the existence of the structure while speaking with
some migrants passing through Catania: “A friend of mine was
transferred to a place very far away, where it’s really cold. Maybe
he’s not even in Sicily anymore.” He put us in touch with the young
man, who immediately complained about the lack of shoes and clothes,
and the isolation in which he had been forced to live: “I got here
two weeks ago, and I’ve still only got plastic shoes. We’re really
far away from everything, even a shop.” The young man told us that
he lived with about forty other male migrants and three Nigerian
women who remained after three other Nigerian women had run away.
“Everyone wants to run away from here, but we’re so isolated we
can’t even do that.”

stay in touch with him, and after a few weeks manage to make our way
to the structure, after having spoken with the manager of one of the
two cooperatives, which we find out are Azione
already engaged with various other Emergency Reception Centres in the
province of Ragusa (as well as being the manager of the Pozzallo
hotspot since the end of July 2016),
and the Ippocrate
cooperative based in Enna. There are in fact two buildings, one much
larger and another smaller one, which comprise a complex which was
previously used for older persons recovering from hospital. Some
traces of the former structure can be seen in the furniture inside,
and the post box at the entrance. We immediately presented ourselves
to the two workers on shift, who gave us a snapshot of the situation.
The centre opened in September, first hosting 6 young Nigerian women,
but hosting only men after this. Three of the women immediately left,
so by now there are 57 male minors present, as well as the three
women, with the final dozen young men having arrived from the port of
Catania the day before our visit. In the past months the migrants
have been brought to the centre straight from the landings, save for
a minor transferred from another centre for reasons which they did
not manage to explain to us, who is the only resident who has a tutor
at this point. The residents are from a range of countries: Nigeria,
The Gambia, Mali, Ghana, Guinea Conakry, Ivory Coast, Eritrea and

Some of the Eritreans and Somalians have been placed in a “special”
program, about which it was impossible to understand anything except
the fact that they had been transferred to Palermo. No one seems to
have left of their own accord for a while now however. The staff are
composed of around ten workers, including a psychologist, the night
watchmen and a mediator. There have been various external
collaborations with a social worker and a legal assistant. They
explained to us that on arrival everyone is given a hygiene kit, a
change of clothes, a pair of slippers, and a pair of shoes “from
those which are there”, an issue which we were able to discuss and
verify throughout our visit. Pocket money is given once a month, as
well as telephone cards. Reading and writing lessons have been
proposed every now and again, and recently they have made contact
with a local school to provide Italian lessons. The workers said that
the residents had no particular health problems, and in small groups
have been taken for medical screenings to a clinic in Catania, an
opportunity which some have taken to run away, especially a few
months ago.

request to have a legal guardian has been sent off for everyone, even
if the workers confided in us from the start that they have found the
procedure very difficult to understand, because they were not attuned
to the important and substantial differences between the tasks
necessary for adults and for minors. This is a extremely serious
fact, in relation to which we advised them to immediately consult
their legal advisor, after having flagged up the urgency of the issue
for an adequate execution of duties. We also asked for an explanation
for the presence of women in the structure, and the management of
their situation within the centre. It seems that months ago the
workers from an organisation – identified, on our suggestion, as
the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – met with the
women and spoke to them about placing them in special protection
programmes. Up to today, the women have still not been provided with
any special protection – aside from the workers arbitrarily
the number of
telephone calls which
the women can receive
from certain phone numbers, when the calls are very frequent, on a
mobile which the centre makes available to the residents. We talk
about the potential risks arising from this situation, and suggest
the immediate adoption of adequate measures, even though we are
continually told that the women, who arrived back in September, are
only in a transitory phase at the centre. From what the workers said,
no other organisation appears to have visited the centre since it was

We leave the office to go and visit the other spaces in the complex,
while a group of young men insistently call for the workers’
attention: throughout our meeting we repeatedly proposed that we
pause it in order to give attention to the minors, but this moment
was continuously postponed. The young men, who were for the most part
in plastic shoes or flipflops, included a few who said they had
arrived the previous night, and had still not received anything, but
even they were made to wait, despite our emphasising the urgency of
the situation. We visited the bedrooms very quickly, which are
situated at the centre of the building: each has four or five
hospital beds and a bathroom. There were lots of guys lying in bed,
some wandering the drenched corridors, angry about the lack of
cleanliness. There is a sitting room with a TV, a canteen and a large
terrace, while the young women live in a small building set apart. It
was very cold everywhere.

finally met up with the minors who had been waiting in front of the
office for around an hour, requesting slippers and clothes. There
were around twenty of them, speaking French, for which reason we
found ourselves mediating and translating – as much as we could –
the requests they were making of the workers, who did not understand
their language but seemed to have already understood the problem well
enough. They informed us that the young men were asking for shoes,
but that when these are handed out to everyone, many of them refuse
the shoes because they do not match their exact size, or “they
don’t like them.” The same for
jumpers and trousers as well. From their side, the minors claimed
that in fact not everyone had received footwear, and that many of
them had waited for weeks, bounced from one promise to another.
“After two weeks they gave
shoes to some, but not everyone. I’m still in flipflops, and it’s
cold.” “There isn’t anything in this place: shoes, clothes,
school. They tell us one thing but then never do it. Yesterday they
promised us that today everyone would have shoes, but yet again
there’s nothing. If we don’t complain, it will always be like this.”

found out that, two days before, the police had been called to talk
to the manager following a protest by the residents. Today yet again,
three police cars drove through the gates after half an hour, which
had been called by the workers during the midst of a discussion. Some
other workers also arrived with them, including a woman with whom the
young residents seemed to have a relationship of trust. None of them
spoke French, English or any other language to ease communication,
aside from a few words. We thus found ourselves in the office
assisting with the hurried handing out of some of the remaining
shoes, while the majority continued to protest outside along with the
recent arrivals, who were left to wait in a corner for even longer.
On the request of the Marshall of the Carabinieri, we reported the
information we had gathered while talking with the workers and the
residents over the last few weeks. It was at this point that we were
met by a man, presumably a worker, who suggested that the Marshall
take away 4 or 5 of the more worked up young men for a few nights in
a cell to teach them a lesson which would also discourage the others.
We quickly reminded him of the different roles and tasks of the
centre’s staff and those of the Carabinieri, and noted how the
proposal relied on the logic of “punish one, teach a hundred”, a
principle which runs against every ethical, educational, supportive
and legal practice, all of which the centre’s workers are held to.
The idea faded away for the moment, but our understanding of the
centre’s modus
which follows this logic and which would likely be adopted by the
workers in our absence, did not. They then showed us the signature
which the residents apparently gave on accepting the distributed
items, other than the hygiene kit – on dates which were
nevertheless frequently some time after the day of their entrance to
the centre, and which in any case provided no assurance of any real
understanding on the minors’ part, given the clear linguistic barrier
between them and the staff. In the end they were promised the
distribution of everything by the end of the day, with which tensions
eased and the Carabinieri left the centre.

We stay and talk with some of the residents who had not participated
in the previous discussion, predominantly English speakers, walking
far away from the centre. Unlike their French speaking housemates,
who noisily demonstrated their exasperation, the English speakers
seemed exhausted, retreating into their concerns. We spoke about
their days spent in the repetitive daily boredom and limited spaces
of the centre, days passed between bedroom, television and sending
phone messages, as well as some football games with other residents.
The sensation was on of total stagnancy, where their real interests
and aspirations are never listened to by anyone with any patience. “I
don’t know what’s waiting for me, when I will have my documents, how
long I will have to stay here.” “The workers all speak Italian,
but we can’t understand them, and can’t learn on our own either.”
“I haven’t been able to sleep recently, and often I think that I’m
not even in Italy.” “Talking is pointless, they only realise
we’re even here when we pause to take our meals.”

No one made any reference to the earlier discussion until one of the
locals stopped us to give a jacket to one of the guys, saying that he
had always seen him pass by in only a jumper. “Even the water is
cold in the centre, and frequently it’s only turned on in the
mornings. They gave us money, but there isn’t anywhere where we can
buy clothes or food, everything is too far away. When we ask
something, the only answer is that they will transfer us soon,
without any other explanation.” “I want to go to school and play
football” – says ‘L’, who is clearly very young but speaks very
good English and livens up the discussion a bit – “I’m 16, but in
Gambia I had already learnt three languages, I hope I don’t forget
them.” We remain in silence, completely alone in the middle of the
only deserted road which takes to the other houses dispersed among
the forest, until a thunderstorm sends each of us down our own path.

Today we got a message from one of the young men: “Yesterday I
finally got some shoes. I can’t wait to use them to take me far away
from this place.”

Lucia Borghi

Borderline Sicilia

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

CPA = Centro di Prima Accoglienza (First
Reception Centre

CAS = Centro di Accoglienza Straordinaria (Extraordinary
Reception Centre

by Richard Braude