From Paestum to Syracuse: the struggle for a dignified reception continues

“Just because rules exist does not mean that they are being respected. That’s what I’ve learned during my time in Italy,” says S. from Afghanistan who is an asylum seeker. When he came to us about four months ago, he had to learn the so-called reception system from one of its worst sides. A few weeks after S. went aboard in Italy, he was transferred to a reception centre in Paestum. There he was exposed to the harassment and threats of the partially armed employees for months. Together with other migrants, he had the courage to report the behaviour. La Repubblica

For security reasons, S. was then brought to the protection centre for asylum seekers and refugees in Belvedere, near Syracuse, which is guided by the cooperative Luoghi Comuni. Together with three other migrants with whom he has been living with in the centre of Paestum for two months now. I meet S. and one of his friends in Belvedere. Tiredness and anxiety are both written in their faces and our first verbal exchange made me understand that they are exposed to such a high stress level and great fear. The difficulties of being in another place and the deep distrust towards the Italian protection system due to recent experiences, let them look at the changes and uncertainty they have encountered here with great nervousness. Their papers concern them the most. To better understand the facts, I decide to analyse with them every single step since their arrival in Syracuse. We begin with the contract they have signed at their arrival. S. reports signing a contract in Italian. It was translated to him orally into English by a mediator as there is currently no written version in English. To agree to the protection project, and thus to the reception, he had to rely on the oral translation blindly. This fact has put him immediately on alert.

While we are talking about the agreement, Mr Pino arrives, the person in charge of the establishment, who I have informed of my presence. Mr Pino invites us to discuss the problems of S. in his office and to resolve the matter with the legal adviser of the centre. I am happy to accept the invitation and translate the conversation for S.

At the very beginning of our conversation, the person responsible is claiming that S. “started off on the wrong foot” when coming to the centre. From the beginning, he complained about the unavailability of WiFi and polemicized his papers. I suggest to put aside the problem of the absence of internet connection for now which is not stated in the contract, as I confirmed S., but is within the scope of discretion of the structure. Nevertheless, an internet connection is an important resource for the migrants as it is often the only way to communicate with relatives abroad.

I ask, however, for an explanation for the lack of an English version of the house rules and underline, thereby, the dangerous dynamics an oral translation can cause: a word against the other. In this case, it is the word of an asylum seeker against that of an employee. Furthermore, clear house rules translated into the major languages, can be positive for all people in the structure, for the residents and for the employees. The person in charge counteracts that the central regulations would not oblige him to do so, and he added that each contract would also be signed by the mediator who is to account responsible for any non-fulfilment. The fears of S. are understandably not set aside by these words. Not even with respect to the repeated and general requests of employees “to be calm and reassured” that S. has heard in recent days as he entrusted to me.

When we addressed the most important question – the question of its documents – the management tells us again “to be reassured.” S. stated that he was informed that he could pick up his residence permit for the request for international protection three weeks ago at the police headquarters in Salerno. Now in Belvedere, he learned from the employees that the centre cannot give the needed money for the drive. In addition, he must contact the police headquarters in Syracuse as prescribed, again leave his fingerprints and start the whole procedure of the asylum request again because the province of Syracuse is now his new residence. This procedure is not only legally incorrect but also causes great practical inconveniences such as long delays in the asylum procedure. Both the manager and the legal adviser tell me that they had been recommended, on the part of the police headquarters of Syracuse, to go through the asylum procedure in this province again. First, since the residence permit issued in Salerno was for a short period of time and secondly, because otherwise the new bureau would have to change the name of the residence. The advice is, therefore, primarily to facilitate the work of the authorities. Furthermore, it seems like it has been thought that some additional months do not play a role because of the long waiting times until the hearing before the Commission. In this sense, S. was suggested to forget his trip to Salerno when both Mr Pino and the legal adviser deny to ever have denied funding him the travel. But even in this case, it is one word against another. The conversation proves to be difficult, the anxious and frustrated S. defends his inviolable right to his long-awaited residence permit and does not tolerate the idea of having waited three months of his life in vain and being in the worst circumstances. “I wonder why the laws do not have to be respected. I already have valid papers and your job is to help me to get them as quickly as possible and not to lose them again,“ says S. The manager replied: “I do not understand why he (S.) has not yet been gone to Salerno to pick up the residence permit within these three weeks when he knew that the papers have already been issued.” The claim of the person responsible makes me sad when I think of what recently happened to S. in Paestum. But obviously no one is interested here and it also fails to address the central problem: The need for S. to pick up his already issued documents of which he is legally entitled to without any deviation.
Our conversation gets stuck at this point until the legal adviser finally confirmed to ask for an appointment in the Bureau of Salerno and to enable S. to go there so that he can pick up his residence permit. Who pays for travel expenses? Here again, I want certainty to forward S. clear information. The person in charge of the institution asks us once again to be reassured regarding this matter. He explained the expenses could be paid back gradually from the monthly pocket money of S. until the government refunds the money.

He then asks S. to turn to the employees and the mediator of the centre if there are again any misunderstandings. To avoid further misinformation and grueling talks, he also should not rely blindly on the conversations and advice circulating in the centre but he should contact, given the centre management in the light of their great willingness. The prospect of finally getting his papers seems to trigger relief with S. On the other hand, he is aware that on his long journey he will expect many of these daily struggles: to understand, to be understood, to assert his rights and to autonomously go through a system in which one can easily become a number after the initial reception – characterized by threats and intimidation. “I thought in Italy my rights were granted. But in fact, the truth is that, as a foreigner and like everyone else, I have responsibilities and also rights and am entitled to protection, which I have to defend again and again.”

Lucia Borghi
Borderline Sicilia

Translation: Aylin Satmaz