A War on Migrants: The Palermo Landing

On August 31st, 1169 people were landed at the the port of Palermo.

Those rescued by the Garibaldi, a ship which is usually tasked with the mission of defending our coastlines, our country, our security, were dealt with in a “military” manner, inasmuch – in referring to the presence of migrants on board – one of the crew expressed his feelings by speaking of the “invasion on their ship”. This says a lot about the atmosphere which one could breathe aboard the Garibaldi, and the view that some hold for those who had been saved.

The Garibaldi in the port of Palermo. Photo: Alberto Biondo

We assisted with a crazed disembarking, with a level of institutional and operational disorganisation thanks to the Ministry of the Interior and whoever has put such a strain on the agents of the Prefecture and police station who, on other occasions have worked in a diametrically opposite manner by making the first landings far less stressful. Now one hears speak that “the winds have changed!”

At the port the air hangs heavy with oppression, with the feeling that the arrivals are a burden, that the number of them is annoying, ruining the holidays, an interruption, despite the money which pays so many who profit from migrants, and the resource they provide for electoral campaigns.

The new arrivals were taken to the police station for the identification operations after having, as usual, signed their papers – pre-filled in by the shift workers (or by the police mediators) with an X on all the boxes save that for “asylum” – and submitted to the photo-identification at the port itself. This was a landing replete with hostile attitudes and force, in which the police did not limit themselves to finding the usual scapegoats (the presumed boat drivers/people smugglers), but stopped the non-Italian volunteers from Caritas (who laboured for hours in distributing the food), for having taken some photos, despite their being in a place where police officers and workers from the Red Cross and other organisations regularly take selfies which are spread across the social networks! Thanks to the mediation of the manager of Caritas it was clarified that the volunteer, like all the other volunteers, merely wanted to document the moment they were experiencing. A different officer followed up with an apology, perhaps being more aware that aggression and abuses of power get nowhere.

The military vessel Garibaldi. Photo: Alberto Biondo

The landing was extremely slow, starting later than scheduled due to misunderstandings between the various authorities. Five hundred migrants were disembarked first, who were escorted for relocation in the emergency centres (CAS) in other regions (Lombardy, Abruzzo, Puglia, Molise, The Marches, Calabria, Piemont, Tuscany, Emilia Romagna, Latium) and then the unaccompanied minors alighted, almost all of them Eritrean and North African, numbering 152 and 29 respectively. These young men and women had diverse end destinations: a first group of minors was taken to the police station for the standard identifications and spent the night in the hallway of the Immigration Office so as to be taken yesterday afternoon (having spent more than 24 hours sat on the ground) to the now infamous hostel/holding centre at Via Monfenera, which at the end of the day hosted 250 young men, after the inclusion of all 92 of the young Eritrean men who had just arrived. Meanwhile, the remaning young women and a small number of others remained waiting to be taken to the police station. Likewise the North Africans, who quite likely will be rejected and abandoned in the street without any assistance, in accordance with the practices which have, by now, been consolidated by all the police stations.

Notwithstanding the presence of the Prefecture and the city council, still today no one has found a solution for the dignified housing of minors. The council has a huge responsibility and cannot wash its hands of it, especially when it repeats the catchphrase that Palermo is the most welcoming city in Europe. When the television cameras are switched off, the everyday facts of the matter give the lie to these words inexorably. In a welcoming city, by definition, the minors would not sleep on the quayside, as came to pass two nights ago for those who were disembarked from the navy vessel in a second phase. A city council which defines itself as ‘welcoming’ prepares itself for following landings in an appropriate manner, and does not utilise minors in the battle (even if it’s just one) over the responsibilities of other regions and councils towards the hosting of such minors.

Unaccompanied minors waiting for the pre-identification. Photo: Alberto Biondo

The Ministry of the Interior continues to give instructions which run contrary to international conventions, and despite the officers’ complaints regarding the difficulty in accepting the situation they are “military” enough to obey, even confronted with abominable situations such as that which saw 400 migrants spending the night in the hold of a navy vessel, awaiting the recommencement of the disembarking operation which was paused at 2am. Through clenched teeth, even the soldiers admitted that staying in the hold was hardly comfortable, and in whispers supporting the view that the dock itself would have been a better solution.

The soldiers marked some of the migrants with a felt tip, writing a number on their t-shirts so as to identify those who had telephones or other confiscated belongings, sending them back to the quay after the Frontex agents and the Italian police had checked that all the instruments held no threat to the security of the European Union. People “codified” in this manner provided an ugly image, bringing us back to a different past.

The hypocrisy of this lethal system is shown every day because, for example, one can now find on the streets of Palermo the migrants who were rejected from Trapani last week. For those who are refused by the system, who have neither contacts nor money, the street is the only place where they can live, and thus it is impossible to say that these restrictive measures are the results of security policies, because we can deny this simply with the facts themselves. In the past few nights, the North Africans rejected at the Palermo landing haven been thrown into the street and will join those from Trapani, or the 30 Eritreans who, yesterday afternoon, ran away from the regional Hub at Villa Sikania. These are people who, tired of waiting an indefinite period of time for official relocation, have decided to do it independently and make their way to the Agrigento train station so as to reach other destinations.

The war on migrants continues, but the results which we continue to reap, if we do not change our perspective, can only destroy lives and families, while hoping that the winds will change, bringing “cleaner” air.

Alberto Biondo
Borderline Sicilia

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

Translation: Richard Braude