Pala Nebiolo in Messina: Forceful Fingerprinting and Lying to Those in Need of Protection

At the end of the seminar “Sicily, crossroads of the Mediterranean: Between open war and (open) borders,” which we attended on January 30th, we went to the Palanebiolo* with representatives of Migralab to monitor the situation there throughout interviews with some of the inhabitants.

We immediately met a group of migrants, mainly people from Somalia and Ethiopia, all of them arrived in Pala Nebiolo a couple of days ago. They were not able to tell us in which port they arrived in Sicily, but they told us that they were brought to a bus immediately and arrived in Messina after a two-hour drive.
They probably belong to the group of 700 migrants who arrived in Augusta on January 27. According to they told us, about 270 of them were brought here but a lot of them disappeared after a couple of days.
Our interlocutors inform us that there has been a protest in the center since this morning: Everyone refused to eat, because “you can’t deal with the situation, it is not a house, it is too cold.” These people only have the clothes they are wearing and a blanket. In addition to the general reasons for the protest, they also took issue with the forcefully executed fingerprinting and they want to know the consequences of this as they were told that afterwards, they are free to go wherever they want to, no matter which country in Europe it is.
When we explain to them how the procedure to apply for protection works and which limitations the Dublin agreement imposes on the freedom of movement of asylum seekers, they are shocked and start asking us many questions.
We notice that several of them are very young and, in fact, three of them confirm that they are minors. They are Somalis and 17 years old, but were registered with an incorrect date of birth. We ask whether there are other minors in the center and they confirm this: Some are still in the center, some were among those who left last night. The three young Somali refuse to tell us their names, which we ask them to notify organizations that take care of minors about their existence and current situation (which apparently has not yet happened). They call themselves stressed and worried because they were treated badly upon arriving, during their rescue as well as in the port. They take issue with being forced to fingerprinting after their arrival in Palanebiolo, and that they were deceived concerning their right to move freely in all of Europe. We explain to them that it is important to publish their stories and we reaffirm that we need them to give us the names of the present minors to notify the responsible organizations, but they tell us that they cannot do that. They are afraid we could be “one of them.”
At this point, to break their comprehensible silence, we give them all our contact information in written form, among them our telephone number and the link to Borderline Sicilia’s blog, so that they are able to confirm our explanations for our visit and understand better what we do. We call on them to tell us their stories again and ask for permission to record them. Only one of them, the oldest, who is quite obviously a point of reference for the group, is able to speak up.
“When we arrived, most of us didn’t want to stay in Italy. The biggest part of the group wanted to go to other European countries. The police forced us to provide them with our fingerprints; they forced us by beating us with electric batons. Some of those who got hit didn’t even know what the police wanted from them. The police took their arms, put them in the car, took their fingerprints and they didn’t even know whether they should give them the fingerprints or not. After that, you realized that you already had given them the fingerprints.”
“How long have you been here?” “I think for five days”
“All of you?” “ No, not all of us. Some of us have been here for a month, others for 20 days.”
“Do you remember the port where you arrived?” “No. They took our photo close to the port and gave us this number. When we arrived at the port, the people treated us in the worst way.”
“You mentioned before that you were even treated badly during the rescue. What did they do?” “They treated us badly and some were hit with a baton.”
“Why?” “We don’t know.”
“Did they maybe do it to control the amount of people to transship?” “The people wanted to change the boat, to go from the small to the big one. They came to help us. When we arrived, some people on board were dirty, beaten up, and dressed shabbily. When we arrived on the ship, they hit people. Yes, they hit us. They only spoke in Italian on the ship and none of us speaks Italian. There were no interpreters, so they talked to us with their batons.”
“Did you meet representatives of organizations who were able to tell you about your rights when you arrived at the port?” “Nobody talked to us about that.”
I now ask the minors to repeat what they had already told me about the registration of their date of birth. The recorder is running but it remains silent. It is again the oldest who breaks the silence. He says: “They are scared.”
“Why are they scared?” I ask. “He is shocked by these people, by those who work in offices, by those of the police force, by those who work at the center. That is why they cannot say their names.” The three teenagers speak to him for a moment, then he starts translating. “When we arrived, before we left the bus, a couple of interpreters came in and told us: Everyone who is under 18 has to write down that he is of age when filling in the forms–they said–because those who are under 18 might need to go home again.”
The minors again talk to him in Somali and he translates their words for us: “He says that they changed his date of birth.”
We ask how that was done, and eventually one of the minors answers directly although very quietly: “ They mainly put us down as 18 or 19. We are not of age though.” We notice how many of them look to the entrance where someone is standing and watching us, they are clearly distressed by this. We explain to them that they are allowed to talk to us and that they are not doing anything illegal. One of them asks us why we don’t go to the center directly and we tell him that we are not allowed to do that. He says: “Do you know why we don’t want to give any information? Because everyone we have met has lied to us and no one speaks the truth.”
“Who has lied to you?” I ask. “Many, many, many: The people from the office. They told us: You give the fingerprins and then you can go wherever you want. They told us we are only going to stay here for two days and then we can go.” Before we go, the teenager asks us for the third time what consequences the fingerprinting without being registered has. He asks me what would happen if he went to another country. The teenager wants to go to his brother who is in a different country, but before our arrival, nobody had ever explained to him the possibility of the family reunification, which would have been much easier if he had been identified as a minor, which he declares to be.
We ask those who return to call for the other minors they know in the center (but only one of them shows up with a picture of his birth certificate on his mobile). In the meantime we continue our conversation with another small group of migrants who, one after the other, come out of the center. There are many different nationalities: Gambia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Mali and Nigeria. Some of them have been here for one and a half months and when we ask them how they are doing the answer is always that they are cold and that there is water dripping in when it rains.
They arrived at various times. One of them has been there for 1,5 months. A teenager of the group that arrived on December 15 tells me to look at the jacket he wears. Someone gave it to him when he saw him walking on the streets on a cold day and only wearing a sweater. In contrast, others, among them the “new arrivals,” tells us that they received clothes (a training suit, a jacket and a pair of shoes), but that it is too cold especially during the night and the clothing is not sufficient to be able to stay in the tents. Tents that are soaked in water if it rains while everything around them turns to mud and it becomes impossible to go from one end of the campsite to the other.
Among those we talked to we noticed a teenager who looked especially bad. His face was swollen and he had an expression of suffering on his face, he also was holding his stomach. He has been in Palanebiolo for two months and is 21. The problems started in Libya, because of the lack of hygiene in the prison he was in for two months. Maybe his face is swollen because of an infection, but he says his real problem is his abdominal pain that has tortured him for a month. The doctor who saw him in Palanebiolo said that he needs to be operated on but he doesn’t know the diagnosis and also doesn’t know whether he will get surgery and if so, when. He didn’t get a scheduled appointment with a specialist and wasn’t sent to the hospital. It is likely that his treatment hasn’t started yet because they wait for him being moved. But he says that he is doing so badly that he accepts the invitation to call him an ambulance to bring him to the hospital. It is not easy to talk the centre’s front-desk operator into bringing him there but in the end we are successful. Afterwards a lot of people tell us about their physical problems: One guy has a stomachache, another toothache, another a headache, problems to walk, and others have severe pain in the back and in the joints. Another one tells us that he is unable to move his legs freely after having been beaten up in Libya. We can only record their names and notify their condition.
It is difficult to have to explain that we cannot do anything as the ambulance can only come in case of an emergency. We recommend going to the doctor in the center. Everybody answers that they had already done that, but that it was in vain, because no one is doing anything for them. They weren’t given any medicine, or if there were given something it was always the same no matter what the problem was.
The ambulance that arrives with howling sirens catches the attention of the police and two employees who come out of the center while the teenager climbs into the ambulance for an initial examination. We ask the mediator how it is possible that we find such a severe situation in the center and we ask whether any humanitarian organizations were here. She tells me that there hasn’t been a representative in the center for the last 1,5 months. A police officer comes up to us and asks us for our documents in such a tone of voice that we have to point out to him that we are, in fact, not doing anything illegal. There is another employee with them who tells us that we wouldn’t know the migrants. “20 of them force 200 to protest and to refuse food. They should be thankful because they are given clothes and food and are treated the way they are used to.” He denies that it is cold, when we tell him that we can feel the cold and it is not even nighttime yet. He responds that if someone is cold they should stay home. In the meantime, the doctor has prepared to bring the teenager to the hospital to diagnose him and the mediator will tag along. The police officers who already transmitted our personal information to the police station tell us of the difficulty to manage the situation and add that our presence is not helpful in keeping the migrants calm. They also suggest several times that we would be here to fire up the protest. Our calling the ambulance also seems over the top to them, but the fact that the teenager was taken to the hospital speaks for itself. They seem worried that the information we provided would increase the protest. As an answer to the many questions we were asked by the migrants, we explained to them the asylum procedures according to Italian law and with this have given them information they should already possess since their arrival in Sicily. Almost at the end of our visit, activists of Circolo Arci** in Messina come with a lawyer and a doctor. We tell them about the teenagers we met and who were registered with wrong data. We also accompanied the teenager who showed us the photo of his birth certificate and two other cases with severe health issues.

On February 4, 117 migrants arrived in Messina’s harbor where representatives of various institutions and organizations were present to participate in providing information and counsel. This is called admission with established protocol. Their experience therefore has to be different from that of the dozens of migrants we met in front of the Palanebiolo. After our visit, we notified the responsible authorities of the county and prefecture of the presence of minors and others in need of protection. We also notified human rights organizations such as UNHCR, OIM*** and Save the Children of possible abuse and harm. Up until today none of the public authorities have tried to confirm our claims whereas the UNHCR has responded to us. They report that they have visited the center in the beginning of February, found it to be inadequate to “host people for a longer period of time and to accommodate people with special needs.” They reported some of our points of critique to the responsible authorities. In addition, they confirmed that many asylum seekers told them about difficulties to apply for asylum; they also confirm that counseling and access to asylum procedures happen to be “deferred” in some cases instead of following the pre-identification phase. Finally, it doesn’t seem to Borderline Sicilia that the necessary precautionary measures were taken that serve to end possible irregularities and to stop the current abuse and harm happening.

Giovanna Vaccaro
Borderline Sicilia Onlus

*Pala Nebiolo – former baseball stadium
**Circolo Arci – Italian society for pastime and culture
***OIM – International Organization for Migration

Translation: Annika Schadewaldt