In only a few days 4,500 people have been rescued and brought to the main Sicilian ports: Pozzallo, Augusta, Catania, Messina, Porto Empedocle and Palermo. The arrival of such a high number of migrants paradoxically corresponds to refugees’ extraordinary invisibility and the lack of protection for them. As always happens when there are various landings on the same day, NGO workers are forced to divide themselves among the different ports, leaving somewhere uncovered.
Thus before we even speak of the chance of guaranteeing adequate assistance to migrants, it is important to emphasise the clearly structural difficulties faced by such organisations. For us, the only justification for not being able to perform the tasks taken on by these institutions would be a reduction in staff, and we have asked ourselves why, after years, the heads of UNHCR*, IOM* and Save the Children (to name only a few) continually claim their availability to work in the field without providing themselves with the necessary human resources for the protection of those present. It is simply another sign of how this system for managing the phenomenon of migrations is failing, and how the energies applied are channelled into projects at a remove from protecting migrants.
There is, however, always time for the investigations into the “presumed people smugglers”, carried out on various ships, which really bring to mind a desperate manhunt which kicks off at the moment of arrival, as if this were some kind of standard practice with a precise timing to be kept to – which is exactly how it has come to be though of. Yesterday 490 people were landed at Pozzallo, made to disembark according to an order which seemed quite unclear, given that some children, women and men who were visibly suffering touched earth only after an hour or two after the start of the operation, and not among the first arrivals as would have made sense. But yesterday above all, as in previous landings, after four presumed smugglers were taken away in a police car, we heard someone say: “we’ve taken four, we’re fine now.” We also noted an easing in the tensions during the searches carried out, nonetheless, still only by male officials and complete with a metal detector.
There were many women among the new arrivals, some of whom were very young, for the most part originally from Nigeria. There were also many other minors, of whom at least 16 were recorded as being unaccompanied, as well as 393 adult men. Their countries of origin are Bangladesh, Somalia, Ivory Coast, Senegal and other Sub-Saharan African countries, all of them having departed from Libya and saved in five different operations, alighting on the Driade. The rescuers say that the conditions up to the point of rescue were already extremely precarious and critical from a sanitary point of view: everyone who arrives today has ever more evident signs of suffering, but this does not seem to bring with it any greater attention. There were workers from the Red Cross, IOM*, Emergency, MEDU* and Terres des Hommes present, who tried as much as they could to provide basic assistance in the few minutes in which the migrants pass across the quay, through a police check and to the queue for the forensic photograph. This is an extremely limited moment, almost nothing, and we do not know how much it is extended once everyone is taken to the Hotspot, where there were already 150 migrants present.
How can one guarantee protection for potential victims of trafficking and for vulnerable subjects in the midst of investigations by police and Frontex, in an overcrowded location and highly stressful conditions? How can one protect the integrity of nuclear families, of unaccompanied minors and identify the specific needs of the weaker subjects? The possibility of doing any of this seems truly minimal, and frequently we find ourselves talking with those who manage to get out of the Hotspot. We recall that among the migrants present in the complex yesterday there were still around a hundred unaccompanied minors! These minors are forced to remain in the Hotspot alongside adults and vulnerable subjects; even if we can mention a hundred or so transfers which have taken place recently, we also know that these will have been of new arrivals and almost certainly not the young teenagers, who remain imprisoned in the hangar, regardless of every law and convention.
The situation is no better at the port of Augusta, where another 1,148 people arrived yesterday aboard the Diciotti. The migrants have arrived from a range of countries, including Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Bangladesh, the Horn of Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, but above all there were more than 100 unaccompanied minors, forced to stay indefinitely in the tent-city set up at the port. The conditions inside the tent structures are inhuman, to say the least: two large, structurally inadequate tents with a capacity of 200 people each have been functioning as a first reception centre for hundreds of refugees for more than one month, ever since the closure of the Umberto I centre in Syracuse. Hundreds of people have been here for weeks, among whom there are, again, even unaccompanied minors, crammed into large tents in scorching temperatures during the day; at night time there appears to be no medical assistance at all, and during the day the majority of the refugees are completely abandoned to themselves.
Yesterday’s landing was preceded by around 50 migrants arriving in the morning independently on a small vessel on the coast of Vendicari, raising still further the number of people forced into a desperate wait, and reducing the possibility of individual protection for those present, in a country in which having one’s rights safeguarded is a matter of luck and accident. As such, it has taken the form of another “out of control” camp, ready to become an open-air prison from which many prefer simply to run away, ending up in the hands of people who are willing to exploit them without any scruples. As for the young teenagers in the Hotspot at Pozzallo, even for them the first arrival in Sicily has necessarily become yet another step in the journey, in their dangerous voyage in search of a place where their rights can be respected and protected, for a kind of humanity and protection which, in the Hotspots and tent-cities, they will never receive.
*UNHCR: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
*IOM: International Organization for Migration
*MEDU – Medici per i diritti umani: Doctors for Human Rights
Translation: Richard Braude