Landings at Agrigento and Palermo: “Where is my husband? Please help me!”

Last Saturday (June 25th), the Coast Guard ship “Diciotti” disembarked 886 people at Palermo, including around 150 women, many of them very young, and 96 minors. These Nigerians, Ivorians, Guineans and Senegalese set foot in the Sicilian capital only for a few hours. Around 13 Eritreans were present, including 3 young women who were taken for adults, despite the specific information provided by workers from the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The “Diciotti” – Ph. Alberto Biondo

It was a landing marked by the confusion caused by the desperate attempt to track down the scapegoat: the presumed people smuggler. In the end three migrants were identified, to the full satisfaction of the Palermo police squad present, who were working in synergy with the Coast Guard and Frontex, providing a new contribution to the ministerial statistics to be shown off to Europe. Alarmingly, these statistics show that those arrested for being presumed smugglers and increasingly minors, in an upward trend. A new record has been set in Palermo, one which should bring little pride: the arrest of the youngest presumed smuggler, only just turned 16, a Senegalese man who, along with his two presumed accomplices, is currently in prison, while other suspects, awaiting final proof, are being taken to reception centres. The multiplicity of suspects gives proof to the fact that the interviews conducted by Frontex, in collaboration with mediators and the police, do not in the end provide any clarity on the concept of the “scafista”*. Who would he be? A trafficker? A passenger who enjoyed a discount trip? A paying passenger physically forced to command the vessel aboard which he could himself die? Or the only person able to take care of the vessel after its command has been abandoned by the traffickers? There are no certainties here, and far too often the lines between being a culprit or victim of the system is too subtle. The fact remains that for this landing there are five presumed smugglers among whom the guilty (or presumed guilty) subject can be found. And perhaps the other four will be transformed, as has happened many times, into witnesses.

The landing at Palermo – Photo: Alberto Biondo

The adults have been transferred to Lombardy, Tuscany, Piedmont and Campania, but first, due to a mad logic and a lack of organisation (there are still no officials who travel with the buses), those destined for Piedmont and Campania were taken from the Questura* where they have been identified, leaving in the middle of the night. After having been identified, the minors – as well as some people who had passed though the hospital for ascertainment of their age – were transferred in the late evening, and taken to those reception centres in the province of Palermo which are already at breaking point, in continuous economic crisis, and from which minors continue to run away, or continue to be taken to the emergency centres run by Caritas (36 men in Palermo and 16 young women in Monreale).

At Palermo we have been able to observe a new phenomenon of late: the presence of unaccompanied minors on the street or near to the train stations, who have arrived from other cities where they were probably in reception centres but from which they have now run away (for the most disparate of reasons). Again, in this case the city council has not managed to create the conditions for supporting and accompanying them, and it is usually volunteers who intervene, taking it upon themselves to ensure that these teenagers do not end up in the hands of further traffickers.

Another serious situation at the landing was the breaking up of nuclear families (parents and children, spouses, brothers). The story that we can recount to you is that of Lilian (NB: all names have been changed), who arrived with a child only a few months old, and who was separated from her husband at the landing. Lilian was disembarked first due to health problems, and immediately after having been checked up by the doctors was taken to the Hotspot at Milo (Trapani), against her will, continually asking to wait for her husband. At the end of the landing, Osman continued insistently to ask for news of his wife, but no one was ready to listen to him and he was taken to Tuscany. Borderline Sicily has already taken steps to reporting the situation and has forwarded a request to the Italian Red Cross to prepare for reuniting the family.

The same fate turned on two Senegalese brothers who, probably, found each other again at Milo through pure accident. The Trapani Hotspot, after the transferral of 500 migrants, is again overcrowded, contributing to showing the first cracks which are also due to the lack of transferrals to ‘secondary’ reception centres, and of staff (the Prefecture has employed only two people to deal with immigration, who are faced with 3,000 migrants currently hosted in the province).

From the witnesses accounts given by migrants we met in recent days in Palermo and Trapani, who have escaped from the Hotspot at Milo, before being identified, more than 100 migrants arrived at the last landing, aboard a Dutch Frontex ship, after having protested because they claim the Dutch military confiscated all their belonging, without returning them. The migrants have asked with a collective voice and with determined explanations something that the managers of Milo were not able to provide, and the escalating protest ended in a mass break out.

The landing at Agrigento – Photo: Alberto Biondo

One hundred and fifty people were transferred from the Dutch military vessel that landed at Porto Empedocle, which was not able to dock at the port, with patrol boats from the Coast Guard, who shuttled them from the ship to the quay. The migrants were then gathered into the large tent where they were given refreshments and then transferred to the Questura* for identification.

At Palermo (where the presence of Frontex at the port is always more imposing and important), as with the remainder at Agrigento, we note the selection of “economic” migrants no longer carried out on the basis of declarations given by the migrants themselves at the moment of their completion of a the paper form, but directly on the basis of nationality. It seems in fact that if you are Senegalese, Nigerian or Malian, the reason for migration given on the paper form is “work” or “poverty”, even if many have declared the desire to request international protection.

The question “Where is my husband?” is still echoing in my ears, and Lilian’s anguish-ridden face is still fresh in my memory. We hope, and work towards the possibility, that her and Osman can be reunited despite all the bureaucratic obstacles, which create nothing but victims.

Alberto Biondo

Borderline Sicily

*“Scafista” – The boat driver, arrested on the grounds of, supposedly, also being a people smuggler

*Questura – Special police task and at the same time Aliens Department

Translation: Richard Braude