The fiction of despair: “Mummy, don’t worry, I am alive and finally free”

I come upon Alpha and Omega (not their real names) at the bus station of Agrigento, two poorly dressed boys, with very dirty slippers and trousers, torn t-shirts and jackets, with in their hands a bag presumably filled with food. They immediately draw my attention and I observe them for a while.

Both of the same nationality, they walk amongst the local people, at first sight without a determined goal. When they meet other African migrants they stop to talk with them for a moment and then continue their stroll until they meet a group of four well-dressed migrants, who take off the jackets and sunglasses they wear to give them to Alpha and Omega. The two strike a pose and let themselves be photographed from close-up, individually, smiling and cheerful. When they have had their pictures taken with the mobile phone and have returned the jackets and sunglasses, Alpha and Omega hug their acquaintances and leave. I, ignited with curiosity after this happening, cannot but follow them. After a few meters, far from indiscrete eyes, Alpha and Omega go sit down on the border of a sidewalk and burst out in an uninterruptable crying, holding each other’s hands as if they want to console each other. This sad scene makes me approach the two boys who, after getting over their embarrassment, explain to me that they have been rejected, that they have been wandering between the train and the bus station for two days and given that the mother of one of them urges them to give some news, they had to invent a story different than the real one, saying that the situation in which they find themselves is good and that there is another life for them now!

The pictures taken rigorously from close-up, with new jackets, sunglasses and splendid smiles hide the atrocious truth of Alpha and Omega, and of a lot of other migrants who do not want their families to know that in Europe they are invisible too, that they are rejected from Italy, that they are children from a lesser god.
I leave Alpha and Omega with my heart in my mouth and greatly worried after I’ve given them some information about places to eat and sleep. I say goodbye to them with the hope that at least their mothers are happy.

Alpha and Omega are the representation of the unliveable day-to-day life that the migrants, whom we “host” as we persist to say, have to endure. People closed off in an unstoppable purgatory, between inattentive and often unprepared solicitors, clearly racist operators, police officials who adopt administrative procedures that are not always in line with the directions of the home office, or too much in line…
Last week in Agrigento and Trapani we have assembled the stories of some young migrants transferred from one facility to another, as a result of the closing of the SPRAR* centre in which they were housed. The facility, closed a month ago, was managed by the cooperative Omnia Academy, a facility operator accounted to be known for other cases of extreme conditions, which at the end of last year had to close the extraordinary reception centres (CAS) in the region of Agrigento because the prefecture of the county seat had annulled the agreement with the recidivous cooperative.
This time the umpteenth irregularity is much worse since it involves a SPRAR* facility. The centre was closed by the mayor of the seat of the facility, Palma di Montechiaro, by cause of scarce hygiene and sanitary conditions, lack of hot water, fridges and even absence of water filters in the facility.
The question that arises is how the cooperative has been able to continue to manage a SPRAR project when it has been ordained by a judiciary investigation to falsehood and fraud against the state. And therefore the prefecture of Agrigento had correctly retained it not capable of managing the extraordinary reception centres of the region. Why has the Central Service of the SPRAR-projects not intervened promptly to verify the manner in which the project was carried out? Also this time the centre wasn’t closed until the provincial health authority intervened detecting hygiene problems, while attention to the quality of the accommodation, and thus attention to the migrants, takes a back seat.
Yet once again the lack of communication between institutions and the bureaucratic aberrations have facilitated the continuation of the accommodation as business, a cancer that is getting more and more difficult to eradicate.
But the problems of Agrigento arrive from Lampedusa. The working of this hotspot as a factory of invisibles, where the migrants after their transfer with a ferry to Porto Empedocle are left on the territory with a decree of refoulement in their pockets. The umpteenth violation of rights is perpetrated by the police office of Agrigento that continues to abandon the rejected migrants in areas that are increasingly far away from the inhabited city centre, making the journey to arrive at the first ‘useful’ station more exhausting and dangerous. Some migrants that we met at the station of Agrigento told us that they were left between Campofranco and Casteltermini, which means more than 40 kilometres from Agrigento. Migrants that had to take a non-stop walk and suffering from bad weather and hunger arrived at Agrigento, after three or sometimes even five days. Some, as often happens, have dispersed over the territory voluntarily (through contact with local residents from their own country) or involuntarily (lured by a prowler or trafficker on call). These facts, which by now repeat themselves with dramatic regularity and which on their own are already terrible, seem abhorrent faced with the fact that amongst these rejected also minors are frequently tracked down, registered with the age of majority at the hotspot of Lampedusa, and who only thanks to the prompt intervention of good solicitors succeed in finding protection.
And it is precisely the hotspot of Lampedusa that should be the subject of a closer control from the institutions, because, amongst other things, what currently has been registered is the presence of individuals who are staying there already since November 2015. A detainment in all respects without a juridical/legal base. In addition to arrivals of last week (lastly 242 persons at Lampedusa, coming from Gambia, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Togo, Mali and Guinea), there are 444 persons present at the centre of Contrada Imbriacola, including 16 women, 89 minors and a good 9 Sudanese!
The nine Sudanese that are staying at Lampedusa since November are kept in forced detention for four months because they refuse to leave digital fingerprints. But also a considerate amount of migrants that have been legally identified are staying at the inside of the hotspot illegally for over a month, without a comprehensible motivation for their non-transfer in a reasonable time span. But however with the satisfaction of the managing entity, the Misercordie, to which higher numbers equal more money. The 89 minors, for more than a month in Lampedusa, would not be transferred because of the difficulty to find places in assigned centres. In the region of Agrigento there is the highest number of communities for minors, of which the managing entities are in grave economic hardship owing to the increasingly smaller budget from the municipality and many of them risk closure because of the lacking of reimbursement of outstanding expenses for over a year.
Another concern relates to the methods of receiving legal information. The dozens of migrants intercepted by Borderline Sicilia explain that they do not know what that paper is (the foglio notizie – a brief questionnaire handed out by police) that they are obligated to sign inside the hotspot of Lampedusa. The people that disembark on the island do in fact receive legal information collectively by operators of UNHCR and IOM* when they just arrive, the smell of the sea and death still on their bodies, but at the moment in which they have to fill in the news sheet – which will decide their destiny – they are alone with police officials and representatives of Frontex.
The result is that at Lampedusa, as well as in the region of Agrigento, there is a continuance of refoulements, illegal detainments, lost access to international protection and abandon on the territory. All of these are illegal practices that create invisibles, people that escape from death but that receive only psychological violence in return, indifference and rejection. A lot of miserable faces, suffering people that pass each other in the streets of Agrigento, and elsewhere.
Also in Trapani you can see young people on the streets that are waiting for a long time for a residence permit that will never come, or for a convocation of the Regional Commission, or still to formalize the asylum request, for which one has to wait sometimes five months. These are bureaucratic delays that destroy the lives of people and that create an unbridgeable distance between the migrants and the operators of the CAS, intolerant of the daily lamentations of those who live in a limbo. Miscomprehensions and deficiency in communication often lead to protests, generated mostly by the unpreparedness of the operators, as well as by the pursuit of profits of the most part of the managing authorities, rather than pursuing the wellbeing of the residents. Protests that repeat themselves in the centre of high specialisation for minors of Alcamo, in Via Foscolo. This time, in difference to the last blatant protest, the minors have not taken to the streets but have placed tables and chairs on the footpath next to the facility. Reasons for the protest were the lack of transfers, the absence of an activity program for the residents, the incapacity of interacting with the district: basically a parking space for unaccompanied minors instead of high specialisation!
Also in other CAS protests keep going because the many operators (who do not know the meaning of the acronym CAS and to whom the working places are like prisons for the migrants) are not in the least prepared but have a lot of prejudices. The staff would not communicate with the residents because, according to them, they stink and are real carriers of diseases! These paradoxical situations result, in extreme cases, in violent reactions from some migrants, who get punished with transfer and in some cases with the revocation of the accommodation. And it seems that this last blackmail instrument is used by some managing authorities to intimidate the residents not to protest or complain. They are punished by the request for law enforcement to intervene. The revocation of the accommodation requires a formal recall in the first place, a written recall and then on the basis of a denunciation the revocation measure. A lot of migrants in Trapani end up on the streets after this procedure, find shelter in a small cottage or abandoned farmhouse, before falling into the hands of smugglers who go about in Sicily in search of “material” to transport to North Italy and beyond.
Even though we have detected illegal practices in both the regions of Agrigento and Trapani, it is possible to point out a substantial difference. In the hotspot of Milo more than 2000 migrants arriving in Sicily (Trapani or other harbours like Pozzallo and Augusta) have been identified so far. The mechanism works rather well: in maximum 72 hours the migrants are being relocated, after which to all is given an actual possibility to apply for asylum. So much so that at Trapani there have only been denied 4 migrants since 28 December 2015 (the day on which Milo has been converted from a CIE* into a hotspot), who have refused to apply for asylum, whilst 79 migrants have been transferred to Villa Sikania (in Agrigento), momentarily the only hub in Sicily, in order to provide their relocation in Europe.
The police headquarters of Trapani continue to be the ones with closest attention in regards to the procedures and the law in the whole of Sicily, in line with the last ministerial newsletter signed by the prefect Morcone, which orders all the institutions to give all the migrants the possibility to access the application procedure for international protection. Not all have had the possibility to pass by Trapani and be considered potential asylum seekers. Who has been transited from other places, other hotspots, like Lampedusa and Pozzallo, have had a different fate: nothingness and a refoulement in their hands, like Alpha and Omega who had to fake happiness to be able to say to their family: “Mummy, don’t worry, don’t cry, I am fine, be happy because thanks to you I am a free man now, one day I will come to get you and we will be together once again”.

Alberto Biondo
Borderline Sicilia Onlus

*SPRAR: Sistema di Protezione per Rifugiati e Richiedenti asilo, protection system for asylum seekers and refugees, communal intake system on voluntarily basis (no obligation from the state).
*CAS: Centro di Accoglienza Straordinaria
*OIM: International Organization for Migration
*CIE: Centro di Identificazione ed Espulsione, detention centre

Translation: Marieke Ruytenburg