From the Sea to the Countryside, Passing Through Our Cities

What do a young Ghanaian woman, a
middle-aged Nigerian man and a Senegalese teenager have in common? Beyond the
colour of their skin, without a shadow of a doubt, they share an experience of
violence and exploitation, and the fact that they have been killed by our laws.
This system has decided to sacrifice migrants so as to stay on its feet, has
decided to outlaw anyone who wants to rise from the ashes we have left in the
countries from which they arrive, young men and women who live daily with death
on their doostep, which frequently gains the upper hand.

[Image: Landing at Palermo. Photo – Alberto Biondo]

We do not know the names of the most recent
corpses who have arrived on our coast, at least six last week between Trapani
and Augusta; we do not know the name of the Nigerian man found dead on the
street in Palermo, among the indifference of institutions and society at large;
we do not know the name of the young Senegalese man who, just over 6 months
ago, lost his life in the Italian countryside overcome by the exhaustion of
work without end. No, we do not know them, and we don’t want to see them. They
are the invisible people who arrive by sea only to be exploited in our cities
and countryside.

From the sea, 842 migrants arrived in
Palermo last Monday, in a near endless landing operation that lasted more than
36 hours; the landing began at 8am on September 12th and finished at
noon on Tuesday September 13th. But the official identification of the
last to disembark ended only on Tuesday evening. On the basis of directions
from the Ministry of the Interior, the identification of all migrants who are
landed at Palermo has to take place at the Palermo police station before they
are transferred North. In practice, the police station is thus transformed into
and functions as a Hotspot, in which officers have to bend over backwards to
take the fingerprints of all the migrants who arrive, without adequate
structures and, in the process, blocking all normal operations for three days,
with the consequence of elongating the waiting times for migrants in Palermo
going through their own processes.

[Image: Landing at Palermo. Photo: Alberto Biondo]

Notices of rejection are distributed and/or
repatriations dependent on nationality (in general, North Africans). Those who
escape this selection process can continue the long voyage towards other
locations in central and northern Italy. Before these new approaches, Palermo
was more or less a welcoming port: the landings were fairly quick and the
coaches full of people who had only been ‘pre-identified’, who were then
escorted to their final destination.

It seems that the new directives have been
granted due to purely economic reasons: the funds for the escorts on the
coaches, and to pay the officers, are lacking. The result? The migrants have to
undergo more than 30 hours on the deck of the ship, a quay or on the coaches.
It is entirely undignified, and – through clenched teeth – even the agents
present at the port criticise this new system, but the brave soldiers
obediently follow orders. Beyond this, it seems the Frontex agents ensure the
functioning of the Palermo police team’s investigative work: right at the end
they brought down the presumed boat-drivers/people smugglers, after having been
identified by the soldiers on board the rescue ship, who handed over a file of
photographs to the police team, to be shown to migrants during the disembarking
process and aid with the identifications.

[Image: Landing at Palermo. Photo – Alberto Biondo]

[Image: Landing at Palermo. Photo – Alberto Biondo]

In our opinion, it is serious enough to use
the file of photos on the quay, among those awaiting pre-identification, in the
search for the presumed boat-drivers; in fact, some migrants who were used as
witnesses were carried through the people waiting on the quayside, so as to
make a final identification at the port, without any distinction between
witnesses and accused, with the witnesses pointing out their travelling companions
at a distance of only a few metres, embarrassing both parties, but the
necessity of finding ever more boat-drivers comes before best practice.

There were 60 minors at this landing
operation, of whom 46 (given that the council is no longer charged with housing
them) were sent by the Prefecture to a new structure of ‘first reception’ (CPA
for minors) in Partinico (province of Palermo), which used to be a CAS for
adults, and is still managed by the same coop, ‘Sviluppo Solidale’ (Development
in Solidarity), which is part of the ‘Sol.Co.’ consortium.

Another arrival by sea came in last Friday,
this time at Trapani on a windy day in which the British navy vessel
Enterprise, which landed 316 people at the Ronciglio dock, among whom were 202
men, 94 women and one body, a Ghanaian woman. The landing was very different
from that at Palermo: the migrants alighted from the ship and, after a quick
health check (the work of the Healthcare of Trapani, who works without
mediators at two different workstations, one for the more serious situations,
and one for the easier cases), were all transferred to the Hotspot at Milo.
Almost all of them were Nigerian, and all of them worse for wear, having been
detained and ‘bound’ for the entire time in Libya before departure. Signs of
violence and torture are more or less evident on all the bodies which walked
down the landing steps of the ship, including in the difficulty of walking in
itself. The British Royal Navy did not seem particularly friendly, with their
cannons and machines guns levelled at the port of Trapani. No one was allowed
to board the ship, not even the doctors for the standard first checks. The crew
seemed annoyed that they had to bring people to Italy, just as Boris Johnson announced some days ago: they would have preferred to take them back to Libya.

[Image: Landing at Trapani. Photo: Alberto Biondo]

The migrants transferred to Milo join the
150 people already present within the complex from the landing a week ago,
bringing the total to around 500 people, who seem to be all held in different
sections according to whether or not they have been identified, and
unfortunately with ever more frequency news arrives that the migrants
transferred to Milo who refuse to give their fingerprints have been subjected
to violence.

What can’t be denied is the failure of the
national system for the reception and management of asylum seekers. Only a week
ago, the managers of the SPRAR* centres in Palermo declared in a comunique that
the system is collapsing due to the lack of funds meant to be transferred
through the city council, denouncing the serious political and administrative
shirking of responsibilities, the reason for the serious problems in the
management of the communities. This position has been taken following the recurrence
of protests from the communities for minors, which are increasingly in a
situation of crisis. The streets are refilling themselves with invisible
people, to the joy of those managing bodies who are fed up of the black sheep,
or the “animals” (as protesting migrants are often called), and to the joy of
the many agents of exploitation who work undisturbed between city and

In Alcamo we met some of those being
exploited, housed in the old gym managed by the Red Cross (together with 5
other associations, all connected in one way or another to the Red Cross
itself), which hosts the migrants employed in the grape harvest. This is one of
the first stages in the migrants’ agricultural route, which passes through
Marsala, Campobello di Mazara and then moves on to other parts of Sicily or
Apuly. These migrants frequently have leave to remain as asylum seekers, who
receive a meal and a roof over their head on payment of €2/day. Seventy
migrants regularly sleep in the gym, on mats and reused mattresses. The local
council has granted €9,000 to the managing associations, who also bring in the
migrants’ daily €2 for having a place on the ground in the gym. The
non-regularised migrants can also eat, who use sleep under the gates to one of
Alcamo’s squares, as those without leave to remain are not allowed into the
gym. Food is distributed for free by Caritas to all migrants, with or without
documents. Many people complain because last year there was a catering service,
whereas this year there is only dry pasta with an uncooked tomato sauce. This
is the situation for labour in the countryside that, as the residents of Alcamo
recall, has been going on for 20 years, and which is still handled like an
emergency. Despite the utilisation of public funds, there is still no provision
of a dignified reception.

All the migrants here, regular or
otherwise, gather in the square at 5am to look for work, and whoever doesn’t
manage to find it wanders the streets of the small town, waiting for the gym to
reopen the gates at 6pm. The migrants earn between €40/day (only some of them
have work contracts) and €20/day.

Violence and exploitation are the common
denominators in this historical period, one in which a rich and overwhelming
West decides who is worthy of having rights, and who ought be exploited and instrumentalised
even for electoral campaigns, when they are not killed by the airplanes of the
UN or NATO coalitions through “collateral damage”, “friendly fire” or even
while they shelter in hospitals.

Alberto Biondo

Borderline Sicilia

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

*SPRAR – Sistema di protezione
per richiedenti asilo e rifugiati (System for the protection of asylum seekers
and refugees)

Translation: Richard Braude