On January 25th, with prior approval, we visited the hotspot of Pozzallo guided by a representative of the prefecture of Ragusa. Once entered through the gate of the facility, we stopped at the mobile police station situated at the entrance for ID control and the notification regarding the requirements for visitors. The Minutes specify that the non-identification of single persons has to be guaranteed and the “eventual interviews of adult residents or employees of the facility management have to be conducted with prior information sharing regarding the goal of said interviews, and the persons need to give their free and informed consent “.
We started our visit entering the offices of the facility, which has the structure of a hangar and is surrounded by vehicles of the army and police. Last Tuesday this place was officially declared a “hotspot”. However, we hear that while waiting that the Ministry elaborates a specific decree for reception procedures, the guidelines foreseen for the former CPSA* are still in place. What is sure is the full activity of the police forces and of the European agencies as foreseen by the agreements entailed in the Road Map – a political document that Italy compiled on September 28th. Indeed, surpassing the first room at the entrance we find ourselves in a small corridor with many offices of the Italian police, of EASO, and Frontex, which is present with as much as 21 permanent employees. We are told that they are in the process of preparing two further mobile units which will be situated at the sides of the building in order to host more police offices. From here, we can already see where the migrants will be located and where toilets and medical offices are, separated from us through two closed doors made of glass. We hear that after the landing on Friday, January 22nd, about 280 migrants have been transferred to the centre, although its capacity is of 180 persons with a maximum of 220 persons. Today they tell us that there are 140 migrants, all adults, since some minors and other asylum seekers have been transferred to Messina and other centres in the province of Ragusa. Others from Morocco were transferred because they got rejected since they declared to be economic migrants. Among the latest arrivals, the relocation of an Eritrean migrant to the Hub of Villa Sikania has been decided, and of a Syrian family still present on the territory because their children are in hospital. In this regard, the representative of the prefecture underlines the difficulties pertaining to issues of relocation, since the province is still missing a Hub. We understand in this a further sign of how the conception and opening of new hotspots meets the precise decisions of politics and of control, rather than the objective of protecting refugees, as well as a failure of the politics of relocation. Also, they highlight the chronic difficulties pertaining to the transfer of asylum seekers – particularly of families and minors – which result from the lack of suitable facilities nearby. A situation that we know has been in place for years, and which seems to be blocked by a series of obstacles that impede timely interventions in order to adopt better solutions. This happens in a system which names itself for reception, in which various actors present themselves with diverse roles and responsibilities, and in which migrants continue to suffer the consequences often becoming numbers if not even commodities.
Indeed, we point out that the timing of residency permits foreseen by law – and according to which the reception standards of the facility have been developed – vary between 48 and 72 hours. However, in the past, cases of prolonged overcrowding were registered quite frequently at the former CPSA* lasting much more than three days and even with minors remaining at the centre for various weeks. Furthermore, we receive the confirmation that migrants can leave the centre only after their photo-identification has been carried out and also today, the guests are not permitted to leave the facility because transfers are taking place. This constraint is visibly resulting in distress among the guests and can already be perceived outside the facility, where we encountered many youngsters literally leaned against the windows of the emergency exit staring outside.
We ask the representative of the prefecture to show us the procedures foreseen for migrants who arrive at the centre, including the “selection” between economic and non-economic migrants. Hence, we are told that once the landing operations are concluded, the refugees are transferred via bus to the centre about one hundred meters away and enter the building through a side entrance directly from the port. Here a first medical screening takes place immediately followed by a pre-identification procedure including the completion of a questionnaire (“foglio notizie”) that investigates the reasons for fleeing. At their arrival, every person receives a kit with items necessary for personal hygiene, clean clothes, paper blankets, slippers, and a phone card. We repeatedly ask for more details regarding the possibilities of IOM and UNHRC, together with Save The Children, to inform the migrants regarding the legal notice before they undergo the pre-identification process. We are informed that these organizations can intercept migrants and give them legal information already during the landing and their transfer to the centre, while also continuing these information activities after the pre-identification process. Considering that it is almost impossible to interact with migrants during their landing because of their immediate transfer from the pier to the bus, we understand that the only useful moments are the few minutes of the bus ride. What is certainly clear, is that the information activities as foreseen by law and by national and international norms, take place in a subsequent moment after the completion of the “foglio notizie”. Consequently, the problem of guaranteeing individual protection to many people of different nationalities who are often confused after the journey at sea remains unsolved, as is the problem of the short time at disposal to interact with them in an in-depth and effective way.
From the prefecture we know that this week migrants hosted at the hotspot who did not initially claim international protection were granted a second interview, this time after receiving the legal notice from IOM and UNHCR. It appears that in this occasion some of the migrants finally decided to apply for international protection, while others confirmed that they came to Italy looking for work, hence becoming candidates for certain rejection.
We continue our visit passing by the medical offices in front of which many persons are waiting their turn. Today also two members of Msf and doctors of the Italian public health service are present at the centre. There are queues also outside the toilets – which we will be able to see at a later stage of our tour – still keeping in mind that at the moment the number of migrants present today is less than the maximum capacity of the facility.
We reach the most spacious area of the centre, a rectangular room that has been divided by some room divider between a first area and a sleeping zone. The impact we have is considerable, as there are about ten youngsters playing football in the open space, while others are watching from the surrounding benches. Behind them and separated by the room dividers that are not more than 3meters in height, we find two blocks of loft beds separated by some empty space, where in case of overcrowding mattresses are put in order to allow people to sleep. The few fast movements of those who play football highlight the narrowness of the available place and the presence of three law enforcement members in some kind of a workspace/office/lodge on one end of the place underline the sensation of on-going control.
From here we rapidly pass through the female dorm situated in an extra room behind the medical offices. We find it empty and we are told that the few present women, about five, are in the process of transfer as almost all other guests of the facility. Empty is also the room for the most vulnerable and the new reconstruction and extension works foresee the arrival of a further mobile structure that can be used as a deposit or storehouse. Walking along an external corridor we re-enter the office from where we started our visit and where we meet some of the employees of the centre. The management institution is still the Cooperativa Azione Sociale as long as the call for application for the next three years is agreed upon. The employees present at the moment are about fifteen including the cultural mediators. Their numbers, though, vary greatly with regard to the number of guests at the centre. Here we also have the opportunity to meet one of the social workers, who emphasizes the networking work that has been accomplished with the hospitals in order to guarantee immediate assistance in severe cases and allow in a separate moment their direct transfers to suitable facilities.
We move to the common room and try to speak with some migrants – a difficult task considering most of them speak Arabic and a significant number of youngsters from Pakistan do not speak English. A cultural mediator helps us to exchange a few words with some Moroccan women and then we are able to intercept also some English and French speaking guests. We introduce ourselves and briefly explain the reason of our visit. Everybody is keen to underline that the situation here is calm, that they are fine and do not have any problems. A man of about forty years tells us: “Here everything is fine, also because I know that soon I will be transferred. The first persons with whom I spoke were some police officers who asked me whether I knew who was leading my boat, but I travelled in the freight space and did not even know that there were some women with us. I noticed only when the rescuers arrived. When I had to give my fingerprints no one forced me to, they just told me that I had to do it and I did not pose resistance. I agreed and they explained me only afterwards what that means.” We ask him whether he received any information from members of UNHCR, who today are present at the centre with four members in order to distribute the legal notice. “Yes, everything is fine” he continues to repeat as do all others around him. UNHCR’s members declare that they carried out legal information sharing with all persons currently at the centre from the day of their arrival until today, informing those requesting international protection and those who did not.
In the meantime, we move to the bathrooms where the passing by has not stopped. We count 12 toilettes and showers for men and women. We know that thanks to the reconstruction works the showers have new curtains, but we are able to see only a few. Considering the high number of persons we have difficulties in checking the functioning of the bathrooms. Migrants tell us that for those who wished for, it was possible to take a shower, but the water was freezing. Several guests notice our presence and start asking for cigarettes or information on how to make a phone call. At least five of them state that they did not receive the telephone card when they arrived, but that the police agreed to let them make a phone call directly calling for them.
We approach a small group of four men leaned against the fire exit who, though, do not really look at us continuing to stare outside. In this moment we notice that a police van is located in front of the entrance clearly obstructing the exit. Less than an hour ago lunch has been distributed, which most of the guest quickly ate while sitting on the loft beds. We notice that on the walls there are some drawings depicting scenes of violence and horrors, while others show names and colours. However, people around seem to be quite unimpressed of their surroundings and withdrawn in themselves, anxiously waiting for the moment to go out.
Bidding farewell to the few persons we got to know, we hope that the vital boost that made them flee looking for a better life will not be suffocated by mechanisms of surveillance and control which Europe continuously develops. Leaving the centre we notice that the area in front of the fire exit still has not been cleared.
Borderline Sicilia Onlus
*CPSA – Centro di Soccorso e prima Accoglienza: Primary care and initial reception centre
Translation: Chiara Guccione