By Antonio Mazzeo
In Lampedusa, the rundown “emergency and assistance” centre for migrants has been empty since 28th September 2011, when the remaining detainees were deported back to Tunisia or moved on to larger CIE (Centro di identificazione ed espulsione: Immigration Detention Centre(s)) in Italy by military force. It is a shameful model of reception, consisting of the daily deprivation of identity and subjectivity on an overwhelming and scientific scale. Yet now the PD (Democratic Party) want to relaunch the Centre, reopening the ghetto- like structure under the same management team as before, and so it will remain the pride and joy of the Lega Coop Sicilia.
With a parliamentary inquiry addressed to the Minister of the Interior, seven Sicilian members of the Democratic Party (the first to sign up was the Honourable Angelo Capodicasa, the ex-President of the Region and ex- deputy Minister of Infrastructure under the last Prodi government), claim that the closure of the centre could “cause international problems considering that the arrival of further boats is likely to arise on the Pelagie Islands.” “It is a fact that Lampedusa” added the seven, “has become a point of first reception ready to take in tens of thousands of displaced people crossing the Strait of Sicily. The abnegation and the sensitivity of the islanders who take on board the social consequences and who do not display indifference further highlights the island’s status.” To deal with the situation, a First Reception Centre (CSPA) was set up which was run “pretty well” and uninterruptedly from June 2007 by LampedusAccoglienza, a society which is part of “Sisifo” the consortium of Sicilian cooperatives.
The inquiry lists several serious acts of intimidation which recently occurred in Lampedusa involving damage to the centre itself and to the management company. “On 20th September 2011, when tension had already been building up for some time due to delays in transferring the immigrants, one of the CSPA buildings was set on fire while there were over 1,500 refugees inside. In spite of the destruction caused, the running of the centre was able to continue even though the places were limited to just 440 and work began to make the area safe. However, unexplainably the work was interrupted which put those remaining 440 places in jeopardy. Three days later the car of Cono Galipò, the managing director of LampedusAccoglienza, was set alight. Between the 11th and 13th November a van and a coach, both belonging to LampedusAccoglienza were set on fire. While on 2nd December, a 500m² warehouse was destroyed, which contained LampedusAccoglienza’s “clothing and kitchen equipment with an estimated value of over €300,000”. And finally on 18th December, the head of the centre’s car was damaged. “The situation regarding public order in Lampedusa is serious,” wrote Members of Parliament, invoking government intervention to “guarantee a safe working environment for those who perform their duties with the utmost dedication, in sometimes treacherous conditions, in the exclusive interests of the Italian population.”
These racially- motivated attacks, comparable to a manhunt or social cleansing, which began with the compliance of xenophobic businessmen and politicians, have however been used by the Sicilian Pd to praise the running of the refugee centre, which has been branded by many for its inhumanity, its repressive characteristics and its unsustainable human and financial cost. “There is, however, no mention in the inquiry of the mayor De Rubeis’s public responsibility. He should be prosecuted for instigating racial hatred attacks on migrants,” comments Alfonso Di Stefano from Rete antirazzista siciliana (the Anti-Racist Sicilian Network). “Even more serious is the responsibility of ex- Minister Maroni, who intentionally constructed the emergency situation in Lampedusa last February. Alarm was raised among public opinion over the invasion of 1.5 million migrants, when in 6 months 50,000 arrived. If a government inquiry had to be carried out, it should have been to revoke the ridiculous choice of the previous government to declare the island’s port unsafe and to denounce the shameful conditions of segregation that the asylum seekers are subjected to at the enormous CARA (Hosting Centre for Asylum Seekers) in Mineo, which happens to be run by the same consortium of cooperatives which manages the centre in Lampedusa.” “The main role of the CPSA was to assist the new arrivals and ensure their transfer to mainland Italy within 48 hours,” state the volunteers of ARCI (Italian Recreational and Creative Association), who were only given access to the centre in Lampedusa after June 2011. “In reality it was a structure of reclusion, where it was not consented for those inside to come and go as they pleased. The migrants could not move freely. They were confined in residential sections, closed in behind iron bars, gates and barbed wire. The police, who in moments of tension would wear riot gear, patrolled inside. Transfer to other centres was a slow process. The time spent in Lampedusa varied: on averages adults remained from 2 weeks to a month; while minors remained for longer periods, anything up to a month or a month and a half.”
The deprivation of personal freedom to which the migrants were subjected, in that the centre was to all intents and purposes one of identification and deportation, had not been made legitimate by appropriate jurisdictional measures. Neither had the status as a situation of emergency been justified. “Those who were detained and sent back to Tunisia, from 6th April 2011, as can be seen from numerous witness statements and press releases, had never been given the opportunity to communicate with a lawyer or judge, let alone with a member of the commission for the recognition of refugee status. Neither had they received any type of written communication detailing the reasons for their treatment or how long it would last. They had been given neither the possibility of a defence nor the possibility to exercise their rights,” denounced Professor Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo from the ASGI (Association for the Judicial Studies on Immigration).
“In Lampedusa, the government violated Article 13 of the Italian Constitution and Article 5 of the European Convention of Human Rights,” urged the lawyer Carmen Cordaro, representative of CIE and spokesperson for ARCI, “We are dealing with macroscopic violations of fundamental rights of personal freedom. In practice, the right to receive legal assistance and the right to a defence (Art. 24 of the Constitution) were not exercised.” It is a report by three voluntary legal experts from the association: Francesca Cancellaro, Luca Masera and Stefano Zirulia, which describes the inhumane living conditions within the centre at Imbriacola. “Behind the bars where the adult migrants are held the temperatures are extremely high. The rooms are filled with bunk beds with foam mattresses. The air is unbreathable throughout the day as a result of over- crowding and due to the type of building and the absence of any air- conditioning. The psychological stress levels of the “guests” are extremely high. Scores of young men between twenty and thirty years old are forced to pass long and torrid days without moving, confined to small stretches of shade,” continues the report. “The migrants are prevented from performing the simplest of activities and the only sources of entertainment are football and the occasional game of cards. Radio and television are not allowed. Telephone calls are restricted. Each individual is given a phone card every ten days, the duration of which is just six minutes. Paper is also forbidden. Therefore no books or newspapers are permitted, as they are potential fire hazards. Pens are also not allowed as they could be used to self-harm.” Yet despite such measures, at Lampedusa anything and everything has occurred, “People have eaten parts of neon lights or razor blades. They’ve injured themselves by cutting their arms. Others have threatened to throw themselves down the stairs or off the roof. Others have tried to hang themselves.” Hygiene and sanitation were at dangerous levels. The insufficient bathrooms were filthy and rubbish was left lying around and not collected on a regular basis. “Many migrants with health problems were denied access to medical services,” said the volunteers from ARCI. “The medical ward had very few places and there was no service that passed around the rooms. It was only possible to help those who were brought to the medical room. There was a systematic lack of medical supplies and equipment. One migrant had his armed bandaged with a piece of cardboard used as a splint.”
The food was of very low quality. “Usually lunch consisted of pasta and dinner of rice served with tinned food. As a second course, meatballs or fried cutlets of various nature were provided, sometimes a boiled egg. This would be accompanied with potatoes or pulses. We never saw fresh vegetables or those in season. Fruit was nearly always an apple or alternatively a fruit juice. The food was precooked or tinned. And even though the majority of people were Muslims, the meat provided was not Halal.”
The conditions in which children and teenagers were held is even more dramatic (at the end of August, there were 225 being held in Lampedusa, 111 in the CPSA in Imbriacola, 114 at Loran the ex-American coastguard base). “Their stay on the island has been a living nightmare,” declared the social assistant Maria Billè. “The minors were abandoned for months without being able to leave the structure and the only visits they could receive were those by NGOs authorised by the government or the chief officer. None of them was assigned a welfare officer, an obligation under Italian law, and no type of care was made available. There is no evidence to suggest that any procedures were initiated to assign the welfare of the children to a judge or to the Public Child Protection Offices for the quick adoption of measures to provide the necessary care and assistance for the children. These young people had been through traumatic experiences in order to arrive in Lampedusa and showed signs of suffering and psychological distress.”
“I can certify the poor and indecent hygiene and sanitation conditions at the Loran Centre, where the unaccompanied minors were held,” says Giuseppina Cassarà (INMP: National Institution for the Promotion of Health among the Migrant Popultion), a medical internist in Lampedusa from 22nd to 28th August 2011. “The building was rundown, completely inappropriate to ensure a dignified reception for children which should conform to social- sanitary and juridical standards,” added Doctor Cassarà. “In the rooms on the ground floor, where the children stayed, filthy, battered foam mattresses were thrown on the floor. The only type of mattress covers or sheets available were made of paper, which were changed every so often, not on a daily basis.” There was insufficient running water and no telephone boxes available. The children, “could only have access to a phone by queuing at length to use those supplied by LampedusAccoglienza.”
In the overcrowded Centre at Imbriacola, children had to share living space with adults, an illegal practice against standard regulations. “During their stay, minors were exposed, on a daily basis, to the violence brought about by the exasperation of over 500 people being locked up and constantly awaiting news of their transfer,” denounced Federica Giannotta, Head of the FARO project of Terre des Hommes, which provided legal assistance for the minors in Lampedusa. “We repeatedly brought to the attention of the authorities responsible, the dangerous situations to which the young people and other vulnerable categories such as families with children, the disabled, the sick and the asylum seekers were exposed. These situations were often present in the closed zones of the centres where humanitarian workers were denied access. This is where the migrants found themselves instead of being given access to special areas dedicated to their needs.”
The dreadful suffering the young migrants were subjected to was at the centre of a government inquiry presented on 14th July 2011 by Anna Maria Serafini and 38 other Pd senators. “The psychological and emotional conditions of the minors held in the two centres has decidedly worsened,” wrote the Members of Parliament. “The prolonged and incomprehensible detention; the impossibility to communicate with the outside world; the lack of space and the opportunity to participate in recreational activities; the stress that they have been through without psychological or medical support is causing the children to show strong signs of exasperation and depression. It is this emotional impact that has led to the recent manifestations and protests and to cases of self harm in both Centres.” “When new boats arrive, whole groups of children have to give up the rooms which have been allocated to them to make way for new arrivals. They then have to sleep on the floor, in the cold, amongst vespas and mosquitoes,” added the senators. “Even more worrying are the awful and unacceptable hygiene conditions: dirty and inaccessible bathrooms; dark, dirty, windowless rooms with beds which have plastic sheets covering dirty mattresses with holes in them. The food tastes and smells bad and the children refuse to eat it.” The Centres are labelled as “inadequate” for first reception and consequently the report asks Berlusconi and Maroni to “guarantee the shortest stay possible on the island, limiting it only to the first phase of intervention, and ensuring the safe passage of the children to other centres in Italy within 48 hours.” Today, the cousins of those Pd politicians think differently. The Centres in Lampedusa were a paradise and should be reopened. The keys should be given back to the same organisation which ran them previously -the “left- wing” Coop of the migrant business.”
By Antonio Mazzeo