A visit to Augusta’s centre for minors

Two police vans are parked in front of the entrance to Augusta’s first reception centre for unaccompanied minors. At least six men sit by the gate, keeping watch.
We can breathe an air of disorder and confusion already at the entrance of the building (previously, a school in Via Dessiè). A television is blasting commercial music; a few young boys and girls are sitting on school chairs, watching it absent-mindedly, without paying attention to the people around them. There are members from the Civil Protection, a social assistant, members from the Emergency team, and a lot of children running by, resting, laughing.
A corridor departs from the entrance, lined by a lot of camp beds, which are stuck together in a row.
The members of the Civil Protection work here as “operators”, because the structure is directly managed by the Augusta municipality: they work until 10 p.m., after which the minors are left alone, unattended.
At the time of writing, between 150 and 200 minors are hosted here. Some arrived only two days ago, others have been waiting for several months to be transferred to a more adequate structure. A member of the Civil Protection offers to show me around the centre. Rooms and corridors are filled to the brim with camp beds placed messily; many Egyptian children lounge in their own rooms, chatting, playing, smoking. Most do not look older than 14. Everywhere is a mess: clothes, trash, duvets, waste paper… The operator accompanying me tries to convince them to tidy up: “or I will send you all back to Portopalo”, he adds.
He then explains that a few of those children had been transferred from Augusta to Portopalo, but, once they were there, they had begged the local operators of being sent back to Augusta. He does not know the reason why either, but, from what he gathered, no one liked Portopalo’s atmosphere. “Maybe people there are colder and less friendly”, he says, “in Augusta people are extremely kind towards the kids. They cook for them, bring them outside, come visit them. People here are used to diversity, because we are a big port city, so we have always seen foreigners walking around town”.
Children do confirm the helpfulness and warmth showed by the community.
The relationship with their attendants seems excellent too: the members of the Civil Protection joke and laugh with them. “We love them as if they were our brothers”, they tell me, “we got so attached that, when they are transferred, we often feel sad”.
The value of a friendly and positive relationship with its personnel notwithstanding, this centre has been created as an emergency centre, and it lacks in those figures and services which ought to be mandatory in all reception structures for unaccompanied minors.
Members from Emergency, appointed doctors with cultural mediators, and even voluntary teachers of Italian (who seem to be doing a great job) do work here; yet for most of the time minors are left alone, or without qualified mediators and operators.
Moreover, a very small number of them has already started applying for the appropriate papers.
All things considered, it is not surprising that many of the guests have spontaneously left the centre, to try for luck on their own… Many are tired of waiting, and do not know how to pass the time: they are not used to just lazing around in the summer heat, doing nothing. “I’m tired of sleeping” jokes a Nigerian boy, with whom I stop to have a chat in the corridor.
Others do feel lucky for having a roof over their heads and food in their bellies, yet they argue that the conditions in the centre are below decency: there are not enough products for personal hygiene, their diet is completely inadequate, and they cannot access phone cards to call home. Close to the city centre, I meet two children who are on their way to beg for money outside a supermarket. “It’s the only thing we can do in order to buy some food or a phone card. Others are trying to make enough money to be able to leave.”
They got here two months ago, and they are yet to be allowed the possibility of phoning back home. They look sad and dejected, yet, once again, they can do nothing but wait.

Irene Leonardelli
Borderline Sicilia

Translation: Angela Paradiso