The protests on Monday, 18th August at the CAS (extraordinary refugee transition centre) Hotel Acos in Marsala have attracted the attention of journalists, the UNHCR, the IOM (International Organisation for Migration) and the NGO Borderline Sicily. Rather than clarifying the situation, the visit on the 21st of this month raised new questions. Almost from the moment I arrived in the parking lot, the young men are extremely eager to direct their complaints also to people who have nothing to do with the facility. Contrary to what usually is being told, the bureaucratic time frame is not the most urgent problem this time. The living conditions are perceived as the greatest injustice. The immigrants are willing to wait but not at the Hotel Acos. The protest on the 18th actually consisted of demanding relocation for which the migrants had turned to the local police.
The following reasons have been given to me for their desire to leave:
- when they feel sick, they are taken to the hospital; there, only their data will be recorded before they are brought back to CAS. The migrants cannot explain how their own statements may be sufficient to diagnose their illness. They do not rely on the statements provided by the mediators, for example, if a wound is only treated with ointment.
- dinner is prepared in the afternoon and kept outside the refrigerator for hours so that some of them are so disgusted that they do not touch the food.
- the pocket money is given to them with one month delay or more. A young man protested and has been threatened by the workers; they told him they would destroy his documents for international protection and then send him back to Nigeria.
- the air conditioning, running at the beginning, has been switched off. The immigrants complain that the room, with the windows open, is filled with mosquitoes without mosquito repellent.
- when representatives of UNHCR and IOM came the day before our visit, the workers told the migrants that if they stayed calm and quiet, they would give them their documents.
- they had to pay the passport photos, handed out to the police, out of their own pocket.
- they do not get any clothes; they are allowed only one change after a month stay at the facility. The rest of the main items of clothing which they own, have been given to them by private individuals who have personally brought them second-hand clothes.
As we speak, I see some of them arriving on bikes which seems unusual to me. Therefore, I ask the Nigerian young men how they come into their possession. After some hesitation and improbable stories (people who have given it to them), one of them admits: “Oh, you know, sometimes someone comes and asks us if we can do small jobs, things like sweeping the sidewalk or clean up a yard and in return, they give us 5 € “. Another joins: “Or some of us go to the countryside to work for one day”. I let them be more specific and find out about the fact that sometimes (the young men emphasize that this does not happen often, maybe a couple times a month) Italian men come to the petrol station in front of the CAS and ask if they want to work in the fields. None of those present admit to have gone there. They are not interested in the subject and with a random excuse they keep talking of the relocation. They talk about the experience of their friends who have been relocated (after just four months) to centres in other regions of Italy. Whereas, the men here waited two months just for their fingerprints to be taken and they still wait for their relocation. After one and a half hours of stories and constant demands for aid to be relocated, I encounter a cultural mediator as I am just about to go. It seems clear that there is not much time available but he is ready for a quick chat before he has to go. Another mediator is joining.
Both tell me that the situation is really difficult. In their opinion, Nigerians are the best prepared; they arrive to some extend informed and have high standards. They were so rebellious that, during the visit of UNHCR and IOM, they hid the pillowcases of the pillows to demonstrate the degrading living conditions in the hope of getting relocated to other areas. The mediators then explain to me the example of the air conditioner from their point of view. At the beginning, the immigrants let them run day and night and then they complained about having colds, headaches and other pain. So the air condition had to be switched off permanently because of the improper use by the migrants. Then the disputes between groups of different nationalities and religions are emphasized. They explained that, like the tiring wait (the young men had to wait two months for identification only), every mundane opportunity gives occasion to dissatisfaction and verbal clashes … According to the mediators, the demands of the immigrants are distorted: They demanded, apart from air conditioning, also Nike shoes, more fashionable clothes. The mediators are also approached the issue of the bikes. Between and within national groups, there is the widespread phenomenon of bullying behaviour towards the weak and the competition. Some collected money and clothes from others. Thanks to this internal exploitation, the privileged are able to buy bicycles and other things of value. Overall, the tension is very high and the air filled with complete distrust makes communication between the workers and guests impossible. It is such a stressful situation so that one of the two mediators admits that he is glad when some immigrants work every now and then. This way, they are busy all day and tired at least so that they cannot think about bureaucracy and living conditions.
After visiting Hotel Acos, the different versions regarding the everyday life leave many questions unanswered. The procedures of the prosecutor’s office and the Commission are extremely slow and the asylum seekers are convinced that the workers in the CAS are responsible for the long waiting period. Therefore, there is a constant suspicion in the relationship between the mediators and the immigrants. The only fact where both stories agree on is that the refugees work. The problem is not the work of asylum seekers per se but that they are deprived entirely of the rules and protection. The law denies asylum seekers the opportunity to work in the first six months of stay in Italy and as long as they await the Commission’s decision. This prohibition requires a prolonged and humiliating inactivity but sometimes it also leads to work against ridiculous pay and under conditions that are outside the norm. This phenomenon leads to a risk for the immigrants and to an unbeatable competition to regular work force. If the law would allow and regulate work for asylum seekers, an end would be put to exploitation and the damaging effects on the labour market.
Translated by Aylin Satmaz