The Reception System for Minors is Called HELL

In Sicily we have a constant feeling of total despair in relation to the practices of institutional actors, those who are meant to protect people, particularly minors, in line with national and international regulations.

Moments of the protest by minors at Salemi – Photo: Alberto Biondo

Not a single day passes in which we don’t receive a dozen calls for help by teenagers who have found themselves abandoned and frequently treated badly, above all on a psychological level. Thanks to the conditions into which these minors – victims to a total indifference – have been “welcomed”, they end up considering themselves unworthy of help or attention, living out a kind of degradation and under-valuing which quite easily accompanies them all the way into the hands of further exploiters.

The intolerable Italian system of reception continues to be affected by the chronic lack of legal guardians, as well as of cultural-linguistic mediators, of the psychological support which could alleviate the minors’ suffering during the interminable waiting period for obtaining the leave to remain set by the bureaucratic process, and above all the lack of activities organised within supporting projects and courses which might make their presence more acceptable within these complexes (whether of first or second level, both housing communities and SPRAR centres*) for month after month. All too frequently we have heard about the “hell” without end when told about the long stays within the various centres.

Recently we returned to the province of Trapani in response to messages from the residents. In Salemi we visited the communities managed by the Esopo cooperative, who have been taking in young migrants for some time now. The cooperative has been managing one community, Il Gabbiano (The Seagull) since 2013, to which it has now added another two, Il Faro (The Lighthouse) and L’Albatros (The Albatross), all embroiled in complicated situations, especially the first of these. At Il Faro, the situation seems to have entirely got out of the administration’s control. The complex’s residents have protested with great energy, and took over the building for 4 days, up until Borderline Sicilia was called to mediate (authorised by the managers) with the teenagers, managing to get things back to an apparent normality.

Photo: Alberto Biondo

The complaints are always the same, to which can be added those of particularly unlucky minors such as M, for example, who complained of abuses by the court in Marsala, which undertook an unusual procedure which actually left him without a legal guardian. The consequences are always paid for by the migrants themselves, who remain without legal guardians right up to the threshold of 18 years of age, with the resultant risk of being left in the street on the day they become adults, neither having been placed in any integrated work scheme for their benefit, nor into a structure for adults. M protests fervently and no longer trusts any of the workers, who he sees as his enemies.

But unfortunately the stories of the unfortunates are all too many: J and S have come from the well-know emergency centre in Palermo, located on Via Monfenera, defined by everyone (by both the residents and the workers, who remain there only for a few weeks at a time) as a hell, in which there are currently more than 270 minors. The building consists of six floors of a former hotel, in which a single worker – without any experience, and in the absence of the means of communication, i.e. mediators – takes responsibility for each floor. Here, might makes right. There is no bedside table to place your belongings, so everything has to be carefully and systematically conserved, otherwise the pervasive theft “will turn on you too.” The centre, even though brought to the attention of Save the Children, is the scene of continuous “psychological maltreatment”. And when, after months have been spent surviving at Via Monfenera, you are taken to a much smaller centre in which you have to wait many more months for the assigning of a legal guardian, the reaction is often violent, or the depression sets in and a closing into oneself. In both cases, some psychological support would be not just useful but necessary, but far too often there is not even this.

This is still not even to speak of the fact that the workers themselves also have need of support, given that frequently it is difficult to accept that, despite their efforts, the residents turn against them. Frustration and hard work on one side, desperation and anger on the other: thus there is a sense of abandonment both on one side (the workers say they are victims of a state which abandons administrators) and the other (the residents are victims of a system which makes them into slaves and invisible people).

Photo: Alberto Biondo

At Salemi, as in so many other centre, those who have recently turned 18 ought be transferred to centres for adults, but neither the Prefecture nor the Central Service (for SPRAR*) respond to the requests from the managing body, which thus finds itself in an uncomfortable position: it has to show the 18-year-olds the door, even after years in the community, since the state will no longer send financial contributions for the new adults, even after a prolonged stay. But the managing body at Salemi has decided to continue to host the new adults (in absence of any alternative solution), relying on its own funds, excluding the possibility of leaving them on the street as so many other Sicilian centres do (the majority, in fact), though withdrawing the provision of pocket money. Even in this instance it is difficult for the 18-year-olds to understand the situation, given how complicated it is to explain to them that after all this time the state has still not provided any response for this stagnant situation.

But the story continues with the 23 teenagers hosted by the community for minors in Palermo (in Via Marinuzzi and Via Juvara), managed by the Porta Felice coop, who
were shown the door (or rather, shown the Council’s door) after the centre was forced to close due to economic difficulties given delays in daily payments of over a year. In turn, the Council, not having any solutions, took the minors to the centre/container of Via Monfenera, with the distressing result that the 23 teenagers were handed the nasty surprise of being “sent back to hell.”

The only escape from these horror stories is to run away.
Two days ago there was a mass walk out from the emergency centre for
initial reception at Monreale, where the Prefecture – given that Palermo
city council has no places available
due to the absence of appropriate structures – decided to send 70
minors, in a structure managed by Caritas. Almost all of them were
Eritreans, entrusted to the care of the Red Cross who, notwithstanding
their good intentions, seem not to have had the necessary capacities and
skills. All 70 minors have disappeared between Palermo central train
station and the surrounding streets so as to make their way to other
destinations, in the hope that some of them will be intercepted by
traffickers. Eight Nigerian
girls have been at the same structure for more than a month: despite
their particular condition of vulnerability, they are in a situation of
complete institutional abandonment.

Finally we can flag up the running away of 8 Somalian minors from another emergency structure in Palermo managed by Caritas, within which there has been an 8 year old child for some time now, who should not set foot in a centre like that for even a day.

This is a system which makes a game for whoever wants to make business out of people and children, which leaves minors alone and abandoned, easy prey for those who would exploit them. It is for this reason that from Palermo to Trapani, Agrigento to Catania, the train stations and parks of Sicilian cities are full of unaccompanied minors who we continue to maltreat and ignore. And for this reason it is a HELL.

Alberto Biondo
Borderline Sicilia Onlus

Project “OpenEurope” – Oxfam Italia, Diaconia Valdese, Borderline Sicilia Onlus

* SPRAR = Sistema di protezione per richiedenti asilo e rifugiati (System for the protection of asylum seekers and refugees)

Translation: Richard Braude