Fool’s Gold: A Night-Time Landing in Palermo, Migrants Left Out in the Rain

disembarking of 1,003 people was scheduled originally for 2pm on
Tuesday, but the night before postponed to 8pm. When we arrived at
that hour, the Coast Guard vessel Diciotti was already docked, with
many of the migrants standing on the open deck next to the landing
steps. The food, clothes and shoes – provided by private entities
as usual, but distributed by volunteers – were late, and it was
only shortly before 9pm that the disembarking began. The migrants
have come originally from many different countries, including
Bangladesh, Benin, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Senegal.

atmosphere combined disorganisation, which often leads to hurried
decisions and an unnecessary haste at times, and a relaxation on
controls and checks of personnel in the vicinity. The few journalists
who turned up for what must now seem already like old news, were
unguarded, free to roam around, even chatting with some of the
migrants on board before they touched ground. Police of all kinds
milled across the quay, more as if they had just returned from an
exercise than actually being on duty.

relaxed atmosphere was surreally confirmed by the very first group to
descend from the vessel, which comprised of three Arab-speaking
people, seemingly a man, wife and teenage daughter, who were
incongruously dressed like tourists, and waived through by the police
escorting them past the various staffed tables which had barely been
set up. They were briefly followed by a tall West African man,
physically escorted by a group of police officers who were holding
his arms, dragging his dusty, bare feet along the ground. We later
learned that the Arabic family were taken away by the specialist
police unit,
adding to our suspicion that they were witnesses accusing the fourth
figure of being the boat driver, though this remains unconfirmed.

migrants were descended in groups of 100 or so at a time, an
operation lasting around an hour and a half, at which point the
landing was paused. All activity was indefinitely suspended while
police and other officials strutted up and down the quayside,
deciding whether to let another 100 disembark before pausing the
operation all together. The reason for the stoppage was the time
necessary to take all the landed migrants to the police station at
San Lorenzo for fingerprinting and identification. By 11pm, the staff
from the police station had packed up and were making their way back
to their headquarters for the next, long part of the identification
work, which we heard would take them till 4am. The disembarking at
the port was scheduled to recommence at 7am the following morning.

first to descend had been women too weak to walk, mainly Nigerians,
who were brought in wheel chairs. However, once the decision to pause
for the night was made, checks were seemingly undertaken as to
whether there were further people to be landed urgently. Cue another
series of starving women in wheelchairs being rolled along the
quayside, almost 3 hours after the Coast Guard had docked into the
port. They were joined by a group of minors, only for them to be told
to reboard the vessel after half an hour of sitting on the benches of
the Red Cross tent. As we left for the night, their was confusion
about a weak woman in a wheelchair, too feeble to board one of the
buses headed to the police station for the full identification
procedures. It seems that, while one of the first to be disembarked,
she had been left to one side in this condition in the hope that she
would recover. Only at the point of alighting onto the buses did
someone realise that in fact she should be taken to hospital. The
buses, after the procedures at the police station, were headed to
Venice, Umbria, Campania, Lazio
and Abruzzo, as well as six buses to the Hotspot at Milo, Trapani.

400 or so
migrants left on board to be disembarked in the morning (the
official figure of 370 seemed an understimate)
were shouted at to “sit in a line” and “don’t stand up” by
the Coast Guard, no doubt tired and stretched to their limits. Boxes
of food were handed up, along with the by now famous golden
anti-hypothermia blankets. The gold foil, glistening in the darkness
of the port’s night closure, and the crumpling of the migrants’
adjusting and readjusting of their meagre presents (despite the
orders from their hosts) provides, however, only a fool’s gold. The
blankets will have provided only the minimum of shelter against the
rain pouring down across Palermo, lightening flashing up above

disembarking recommenced at just after 7am the following morning,
with the rain still continuing, even if the storm had eased off.
During the night, the 300 migrants had been made to sit down in the
open air, under the rain and wind, on the deck of the Coast Guard
ship, with nothing but their old clothes and the gold sheets for
cover. How can it be, that years into the reception of migrants at
the port of Palermo, hundreds of people can be left out in the cold
like this? As they descended, it became clear that the previous
evening’s checks had been in vain: young women, around 30 minors and
men with leg injuries counted among those who had been abandoned
overnight. One young Nigerian woman seemed traumatised to the point
of utter silence and confusion, unaware of what was occurring around
her, unable to take hold of the clothes and food she was offered;
thankfully there were some competent and caring volunteers to assist
her. Over the following three hours, the new arrivals, after the
horrors of Libya, the sea journey, the rescue operation and the night
in the rain, were pointlessly made to talk 20m barefoot across the
puddles and tarmac to receive new clothes and temporary shoes.

spectacular nature of the landing operations could not be better
illustrated. At 11pm, the mayor of Palermo could be seen on the
quayside talking to Dutch television about the right to free
movement. A few metres away from this, a young West African teenager
was being asked questions by three workers from Save the Children.
But a few hours later the television cameras will have left, and the
young men remaining on board stuck on a vessel in the pouring rain.
The minor, on the other hand, will no doubt face the same fate as
many who were disembarked a few days earlier, and be deposited in the
emergency centre at Via Monfenera. If one walks round the Palermo
train station, one can already see 14 and 15 year old Eritrean
migrants, without a Euro in their pockets, still wearing the
ill-fitting plastic clogs handed to them at the landings, trying to
find out how to make their way to Milan. Like the noisy golden
blankets, the spectacle at which the mayor and countless
organisations (UNHCR, OIM, Save the Children, all forms of police)
are present is a fool’s gold, which provides no good substitute for
the results which could be brought by a well planned disembarking and
subsequent insertion into a functioning reception system which
protects and, at the very least, provides for people’s immediate