The suspension of existence at the Mineo ‘Camp’

by Antonio Mazzeo
‘Five-star hell; the golden prison; a luxury concentration camp; a non-place where identities are wiped out, hope obliterated and where dependence and suffering perpetuate’, this is how human rights activists and journalists have described the centre at Mineo. This March, the centre for those seeking asylum, a neo-racist and segregationist product of the Berlusconi- Maroni government, will have been open for over a year. More than five thousand people, five thousand faces, five thousand bodies, five thousand lives of women, men, girls and boys have entered its gates. Their rights have been denied. Their rights have been violated. For them, the CARA (Hosting Centre for Asylum Seekers) is a camp; a breeding ground for instability and the suspension of their existence. The worst example of a refugee centre in all Italian history.
In their recent article, ‘Suspended Existence and Resistance at the CARA, Mineo’, the researchers Glenda Garelli and Martina Tazzioli choose to use the term ‘prison yard’. Their article is published on Storie Migranti, a site dedicated to immigration, run by Federica Sossi, teacher of Aesthetics at the University of Bergamo. “Mineo has created a regime where the existence of the refugees is suspended, yet simultaneously it is fixed to a place,” write Garelli and Tazzioli. “The centre carries out institutional and administrative work, yet the lives of the people are blocked from the rest of society, in a process of waiting and isolation: it takes an eternity for the Commission to evaluate applications for international protection; the centre is geographically isolated; there is a lack of contact with local people; there is an absence of services and facilities and social integration. These are just some of the elements that have resulted in the suspension of the lives of the people who have passed through or who are still living there.”

The two researchers behind Storie Migranti, recognise and justify the ‘strategies of resistance’ against this regime of the suspension of existence, which have been put in place from within the Sicilian camp. “Those who live in the CARA,” they write, “have improvised support networks and small business-like operations to contest the organisation of their lives head on: road blocks against the inertia of the police and the territorial commissions, improvised internet cafes to communicate with the outside world, the reselling and trading of products passed onto them from the CARA management, a regulated system for the distribution of clothes etc.” The inhabitants’ daily routine revolves around identification and registration processes. “At least seven times a day, the migrants have to show their identity card (for each of the three meals; to go in and out of the Centre; to receive credit; to buy something from the bazar; and, once a month to receive clothes and a personal hygiene kit which also contains household cleaning products). It is a mix where the functions of being provided for, a monetary system and control, subtly blend together, each reinforcing the other.” Storie Migranti recalls that from the opening of the CARA until October 2011, the asylum seekers were denied the possibility to “be in control of small, personal purchases”, which the Civil Protection states as an obligation in the National Programme for the running of the so-called, “emergenza umanitaria Nord Africa” (North African Humanitarian Emergency). It wasn’t until the arrival of the new management (a temporary association made up of a consortium of cooperatives, more like a Ltd company- the main organisation is “Sisifo”, part of LegaCoop) that a daily allowance of €3.50 was introduced. But they are eager to highlight that, “the sum wasn’t given as cash but as credit put onto identity cards.” The virtual money can only be spent inside the CARA bazar, which is next to the canteen and the main office. It is a type of shop open just three hours a day: from 10:00 to 11:30 am for women and from 3:00 to 5:30pm for men. Only those in possession of a “family card” are entitled to access in both sets of the opening hours.In reality, very little can actually be purchased in the bazar: “Marlboro” cigarettes which cost €4.90 a packet; a “Telecom Welcome” phone card for calls abroad for €5; and, revenue stamps for documents. “The system of topping up identity cards with credit creates a very informal monetary system,” explain the researchers. “Cigarettes and phone cards get resold in and outside of the Centre in order to generate real cash. But the consequences of this is that their daily allowance becomes devalued. “Marlboros” get sold on for between €2.50 and €3; which means a loss of €2.40 to €1.90 per packet. The phone cards are never sold on for more than €2. But what really generates frustration amongst the asylum seekers is the fact the majority of them have contracts with the telephone company “Wind”, while the “Telecom Welcome” cards only work with the company “Tim”, landlines or phone boxes (there are four public phone boxes for the 1,600 CARA residents). A further factor contributing to the dramatic psychological wearing down of the asylum seekers is that they also have to deal with the segregation and isolation of the Centre. It is 40km from the urban centre of Catania and 11km from the small hilltop town of Mineo. The free bus service which ran between the Centre and Mineo, just once a day, was suspended for the Christmas period and hasn’t yet started running again. The only thing that is left for the residents is a “landscape which immobilises and empties existence”, “a prison of orange groves surrounds the centre and to a certain extent reinforces the distance from all other places,” write Garelli and Tazzioli. “Oranges, oranges and still more oranges- you feel as if you are in a prison of oranges,” say the anxiety- ridden voices of some of the women interviewed. According to the asylum seekers, meals provided by the centre continue to be of very poor quality. “There are many stories of food poisoning (requiring hospital treatment) or of problems in the digestive tract due to the type of diet, the ingredients or the precarious way in which food is stored. Meals are provided three times a day: breakfast from 7 to 9am; lunch from 12 to 2pm; dinner from 6 to 8 pm. Under the management of the Red Cross, the asylum seekers were given pasta every day and a chicken based dish was served just once weekly. Now chicken is provided on Wednesdays and Sundays and rice is also offered in addition to pasta. However, there continues to be definite lack of fruit and fresh vegetables.” In order to survive the unending queues in the canteen and the quality of the food provided, many people have bought small electric rings and cook for themselves within the houses. “However much it is against centre regulations, it’s not difficult to bring in perishable foodstuffs or even wine,” the researchers write. “The asylum seekers also denounce the poor quality of the hygiene products available to them. Women complain about the inadequate supply of sanitary towels (one pack of 12 per month)- a problem made worse by the fact that many women interviewed spoke of having prolonged menstruation cycles of between 6 and 8 days. Meanwhile, men highlight the fact that one disposable Bic razor per month is insufficient- shaving foam has also been requested”, but to no avail. The Storie Migranti report confirms what has already been denounced by the lawyers and legal practitioners of anti-racist and voluntary associations: the extreme length taken by the Commissions responsible for evaluating the asylum requests. Delays which, last summer and autumn, led to the refugees carrying out protests to block the major roads around the CARA centre. “The majority of the people we spoke to have been to hearings to request international protection where the commission consisted of just one person and a translator. There were so many interruptions during the hearings- for cigarette breaks, to take phone calls or to go to the bathroom- that the asylum seekers felt unable to articulate their cases,” write the researchers. “The lack of attention given to each individual case acts as a trigger effect on the regime of rejection put in place by the commission. The result of not paying attention to the stories and to the people who lived through war, is that the Commission’s decision is based on an analysis of the claimant’s country of birth- a discriminatory principle of the concession of international protection.”The asylum seekers complain about the “lack of professionalism on the commission” and the fact that they “do not conform to the standards” of competency required by people in that role. “They ask the wrong questions,” they repeatedly tell us. The commissioners insist only on the reasons for which the asylum seekers left their country of origin. Not only ignoring the phenomenon of intra- African migration, but also explicitly refusing to listen to the reasons for which those who found themselves working in Lybia had had to leave the country. “”The attention of the commission tends to focus on dates and neglects the content of the story,” add Garelli and Tazzioli. “Copying errors are made (especially the correct spelling of people’s names) which are indisputable. When the asylum seekers try to correct the spelling of their name they are not listened to. There was even one case where the application for asylum was denied because the name written on the documents differed from that registered at the terminal.”Asylum seekers and human rights defenders seriously question the professionalism of some of the translators. The general impression is that “only the bare minimum is translated into Italian and that some translators are prejudiced and re-interpret facts they are told. Furthermore, there are comprehension problems in English and French (there is a lack of translators for the native languages). The interviewees feel that the high number of rejections is due to the fact that their stories are not adequately translated and/or carefully listened to.” And so it is that thousands of women and men continue to be detained in the prison of oranges, oranges, only oranges.
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