The Eternal, Motionless Limbo of the Mineo CARA (Hosting Centre for Asylum Seekers)

By Antonio Mazzeo
A year has already passed and emergency has been absorbed into daily life. It is a hotel- prison which has been transformed into a precarious trap; a space where everything is slow; an eternal non- place. Yesterday is today; today- tomorrow. The Hosting Centre for Asylum Seekers in Mineo is still there, on the plain of Catania, a whitened Etna in the distance, surrounded by a desert of oranges and isolation. Five thousand people, five thousand lives, five thousand stories of pain, doubt and hope have spent endless months there waiting for the inscrutable divine justice: “Stay!” “Go away!” “Inside!” “Outside!” One thousand six hundred are still there, many of whom will stay at least until the end of the year. Yes, because, as there is no on-going debate on the rights and reception of asylum seekers, their emergency status has been extended to the 31st December 2012.
But the lobby of businesses surrounding the migrants are greedy and relentless. They are already planning a SuperCARA for 2013 and 2014, and even for 2015. They are the only party, made up of coops and companies from the left and the right, to divide up the multi million pound cake of the care of others: women, men, girls, boys. The cost of the rent alone brings in something like six million euro per year for its owners Pizzarotti Parma. The managers of this big construction company don’t ask as much as they could, but just the, “the market value” estimated by the Tax Revenue Office in Catania. It is certainly less than what the American military from Sigonella paid. Yet at the end of 2010 the marines preferred to leave the structure and rent accommodation closer to their base. Either way, the money is still coming in. Yet without the refugees from the other side of the Mediterranean, the residence would have rapidly gone to ruin. The houses and their furnishings would have found their way into the hands of others, which is exactly what happened to its sister-village in Comiso, built by the very same Pizzarotti company. After the dismantling of cruise missiles and nuclear warheads and the demilitarisation of the area everything was transferred to local companies.
There are also vast amounts of money being poured into the running of the CARA for the food, clothing and the free time of the guests/ semi-detainees. Little less than a month ago, the Province of Catania, the CARA’s governing body by decree, confirmed the entrustment of the structure to the Sicilian Consortium of Social Cooperatives, Sisifo (LegaCoop), the main element of a group also including Sol.Co Calatino- a pool of politically diverse cooperatives with their headquarters in Caltagirone; the Cooperative/ Catering Business, Cascina (Rome); and, Domus Caritas. They will make €29.56 plus VAT for each asylum seeker daily, for a period of ten months (up until today the sum had been €24.69). Additionally, there is also the figure of €30,450 to cover “safety costs”. With the CARA working to full capacity (2,000 guests), they would invoice a grand total of €17,736,000 plus VAT and safety costs. With the 1,600 residents it has today, it brings in a little over €14 million. Then there are the daily maintenance costs, water, electricity, any eventual repair work, travel costs for the Commission who carry out hearings for the right to asylum and the wages of the employees of the Red Cross, responsible for health matters. Furthermore, there are also the wages and benefits for the disproportionate number of guards, police, carabinieri, finance police and the army who are called upon to maintain public order at the “reception camp” in Mineo.
The specifications outlined in the contract are quite strict. Sisifo and partners must provide ovens and fridges of various sizes, all of the necessary equipment to supply 2,000 meals 3 times a day, desks, benches and tables for the canteen. Even more meticulous is the menu, 100- 150 grams of pasta or rice per day (depending on how it is served), a portion of red or white meat- maximum 200 grams, a portion of vegetables, a piece of fruit and a litre of mineral water per day. Additionally, each resident must receive a pair of shoes, a pair of pyjamas, four sets of underwear, two t-shirts, a pair of trousers, a jacket, a blanket, a sheet and a personal hygiene kit. The “general assistance of the people” must also be guaranteed by the Coop. This includes linguistic and cultural mediation, information on Italian immigration norms, social- psychological support, organisation of free time and Italian lessons. The number of employees and educational assistants must also adhere to the parameters outlined by the governing body. In order to deal with the employment and the managing of contracts for all of the above, another cooperative “CARA Mineo” has been set up. It employs 150 people, the majority from Caltagirone, but also from Catania, Acireale and Giarre.
The arrival of the new management finally brought with it the activation of a daily allowance of €3.50 to be spent in the small shop within the CARA which sells cigarettes and phone cards. Obviously, the money is not given in cash, but topped up on a magnetic card which bears the name, surname and identification number of the holder. Purchases are deducted from the card, which is also used to register the residents as they go in and out of the camp and when they eat in the canteen. Since the 11th January, residents have also been able to use this ‘Big-Brother’ card to make purchases (excluding alcohol and food which needs to be cooked) in around 40 supermarkets in Mineo, Caltagirone, Grammichele and Catania. Within the camp, there is still a regulation in force which prohibits residents from preparing their own meals. The reason behind this, is one of “safety”. In order to reduce any temptation, all ovens and gas rings have been dismantled from the houses. Nonetheless, many choose not to join the canteen queues. It is a way of refusing to conform, a means of expressing their own love of food and existence and also a way of protesting against the poor quality of what the canteen offers. One way or another they find a way and impose some resistance.
Going around the CARA is like being in a muffled, aseptic, distant limbo and the people who live there are distant, foreign bodies. There are invisible barriers between you and them, us and the others. “They” are ignored. If you can overcome the hostility and the diffidence of those working there, you’ll be able to recognise the enormous differences for humanity and professionalism which exist among the employees: the good, the bad and the ugly. There is the paternalism and charity of the social- cultural mediators and psychologists, the affability of the manager who knows the dramas of an exodus from Lampedusa, the indifference of many, the racial and racist prejudices more extreme than those of a Kapò.
There has been a lot of rain and there are puddles everywhere. We comment on the poor drainage of the site. “They caused the mud, because they like staying in the mud,” our body guard comments. It’s better to pretend not to hear such comments and also better to pretend not see the armed patrols with the police in riot gear and the latest bullet proof vests, each embossed with the wearer’s personal blood group. They swoop like vultures each time a queue forms- in front of the medical centre, where the hearings for asylum take place, in front of the shop, in front of the canteen, in front of nothing. They come rushing over in their armoured gear even when someone shouts for joy because they have been granted asylum. “They are much less invasive now,” some of the residents tell us. “In the past it used to be far worse. But we asked them to leave us in peace, that if there were any problems we would resolve them amongst ourselves.”
With the arrival of Sisifo & Co, the objective has been to open up the centre as much as possible. “We are going to organise a football tournament with mixed teams made up of all the different nationalities here and with amateur teams from Caltagirone,” announced the management. “At Christmas time we participated in the organisation of the living Nativity Scene in Mineo, many of the clothes were made here. We’ve increased the number of Italian courses and we want to start up cooking and sewing groups, as well as professional work placements in companies to improve chances of finding employment. We are currently taking in CVs to create a database with Italia Lavoro.” The children are finally attending school in Mineo. But it is more than 10kms away from the camp, which is far, very far, as are their houses from those of their new classmates. They are far away and impossible to make nearer. They are there, we are here. It is better not to make illusions, ever, because they are different. Because in Catania, in Rome or in Brussels, a decision has been made that they will be different. “Italy has never looked favourably upon the CARA,” explains the director of Sisifo, Ianni Maccarrone. “Since we’ve been here we’ve had no visits from national or local political representatives, there have been no councillors or employees from the Region. It was us who requested a meeting with the politicians from Caltagirone at the end of December to let them know what we are doing and discuss possible plans for the future.” Everyone claims to want full political autonomy. But the heart of the Mineo CARA is wisely bipartisan: Sisifo’s beats for the multicoloured representation of the Sicilian PD (Democratic Party); while, those of Sol.Co Calatino for the men of the PDL (Popolo della Libertà). It is a machine of votes, favours and profit. A step higher up is the figure of Giuseppe Castiglione, a type of political trinity: President of the Province of Catania; designated head of the Mineo CARA; Sicilian spokesperson for the PDL. The 1st March 2012 was National Mobilisation for Migrants’ Rights in Italy and it was Castiglione who gave a talk on the megaCARA at a conference on Multiethnicity and Social Integration, held with great pomp and circumstance at the Ciminiere (Catania) by the PDL and the Association for the Development and Entrepreneurship of Female Immigrants (ASIFI). The project was run by his father-in-law, the senator Giuseppe Firrarello.
The management are particularly proud of the fact they have introduced recycling bins at the camp. “We have reduced the costs of recycling by more than 40% and many have already benefitted financially from the recycled materials.” The greenery around the camp leaves a lot to be desired however. Many of the palm trees have been irreparably sawn off. We ask if it had been due to the parasite which has attacked many of the palm trees in the area. “No, they were cut back a while ago for safety reasons, the police requested it.” Maybe the fences between the villas were also taken down so that anyone, anywhere could be spied upon. But, nonetheless, the camp remains in stagnant plots, divided and divisive. They are the “blacks” (even if not all of them are black). They do nothing, they can’t do anything, they mustn’t do anything. Everything gets done by the others, “the whites” (even if there aren’t actually many whites): the police, carabinieri, military, doctors, gardeners, psychologists, sociologists, translators, lawyers, judges, caretakers, cooks, servants, environmental employees. “We do are best to make their lives better.” Yes, of course, better than someone who has been unfortunate enough to end up in the jaws of some pseudo- entrepreneur who transformed an abandoned apartment into a hosting centre and in return receives a healthy sum from the State in the name of the migrant emergency. Such situations exist in the very small CARAs hidden in the depths of the countryside or on the outskirts of towns, another example of the shame of an Italian system of waste and exclusion, over which public officials and mayors exert no type of control. In Mineo on paper at least, there are some rules and also some advantages. For this reason, there are those who have asked to leave the apartment ghettos and been granted permission to be transferred to the Mineo ghost village. Furthermore, it is the reason why 400 or 500 people who have received their permit of stay, have, nonetheless, chosen to not leave Mineo. They have been able to take advantage of the ministerial amendment of the 4th October 2011 which extended the emergency situation until the end of 2012 and authorised those responsible and the management to allow anyone to stay in the centres until the end of the year. This amendment holds added costs for the tax- payer, but also has added benefits for the usual consortium. This in turn has the effect of doubling even tripling the number of employees required to run the centre, which we can bet, creates in turn even more jobs. The business multiplies, as do the appetites of those surrounding it.
Once again being kept out of the Mineo affairs is the other grand Sicilian Consortium of migrant- detainees, Connecting People (Castelvetrano, Trapani). When bidding for the management contract on the 3rd February, they made the offer of €19.99 plus VAT per day per asylum seeker, which was a 41.21% undercutting of the base value fixed in the stipulations. It was, however, not enough to beat Sisifo with their technical offer which, under aggravating circumstances, was allowed to be kept “abnormally low” by the awarding body. Connecting People, however, didn’t give up and threatened to press charges, as it had done with Tar (Catania) last October after its first unsuccessful attempt to win the CARA’s management contract. On that occasion, the Trapani Consortium reported the “illegitimacy” of the measures adopted by the Province of Catania because they were, “gravely detrimental” to their rights and interests. In particular, they drew attention to the fact that, “after over a month had passed since they had put forward their nomination”, it wasn’t until the 12th August 2011 that the governing body actually invited the Consortium to participate, when the deadline for submitting proposals was at midday on the 17th August. “The Consortium only had Saturday 13th, Sunday 14th, Monday 15th (a public holiday in Italy) and Tuesday 16th available. It was such a short a period of time, which was completely unjustifiable and without reason,” explains a representative from Connecting People. Furthermore, the governing body (nominated on the 28th June) was allowed to call a regular procedure in front of the public and not to initiate an emergency procedure (the Red Cross had been allowed to manage the CARA until the following 30th September). During its appeal against Tar, Connecting People also complained about the unfairness of the treatment and the “violation of equal conditions” between those competing for the contract. “While we were invited to participate in the bidding only on the 12th, the company which was awarded the contract, was informed on the 9th August. Thereby having at their disposition almost double the amount of time we had.” In short, “despite the fact that Sisifo was awarded points higher than 4/5 for both their financial and technical proposals, which is the maximum points that can be given according to the lex specialis, the Commission didn’t consider the offer anomalous.” Whereas, Connecting People’s proposal was considered anomalous.
“There is nothing to indicate that the future bodes well for the Mineo asylum seekers,” comments Alfonso Di Stefano from the Catania Anti-Racist Network, “For months now the situation has been languishing in the uncertainty of the period of time required for the application for asylum. The Commission, which didn’t start operating until the camp had been open for over two months, examines a few dozen cases a week. To speed up the process, a sub-Commission was allocated to work alongside the one from Syracuse, but since last autumn they have gone back to just one, halving the number of cases heard each week. And so there are some applicants who have been waiting for over a year to have their cases considered. At the same time, there continues to be large numbers of complaints about the very bad service provided by the translators, who are financed by the Minister of the Interior, and the number of reports made to the police against interpreters attempting to bribe the asylum seekers by asking for money in return for softening up the Commission, have been on the increase. In short, up until last summer it was possible to receive a permit of stay in around 20 days, now the minimum time required is two months. It is a long time now that we have been denouncing the inhumane decision to segregate thousands of asylum seekers in the open countryside, interrupting their social integration which has already got underway in previous CARAs in more central locations. Unfortunately, however, too many associations of the so-called third sector don’t want to miss a business opportunity, be it in the reception sector or the detention sector, regardless of the fact that these people have the right to an urgent solution in order to help them build their future.”
The Anti-Racist Network supported the national campaign “The Right to Choice” because it recognised the humanitarian right to a permit of stay for asylum seekers from Lybia. “We cannot allow our cities to once again become places which encourage the shadow of irregular migration and condemn thousands of women and men to lives of exploitation,” explains Di Stefano. “It is a sacred question of dignity, democracy and justice.”