Unaccompanied minors at Pozzallo: for weeks inside the hotspot

The last disembarking at the harbour of Pozzallo dates back to February 24th with the arrival of 313 migrants on board of the ship Diciotti belonging to the Coast Guard. Amongst these there were 33 unaccompanied minors who added up to a lot of others arriving in the previous days, in a week that has seen a sequence of numerous arrivals.

Our meeting with a couple of adult migrants “hosted” inside the hotspot has taken place more than ten days ago, while they were walking in the centre of Pozzallo, authorised to leave the facility in the morning and afternoon.
By talking to them (they claimed to be inside the facility, some since 9, others since even 14 days) we obtained information about the fact that there were also a large number of unaccompanied minors and women, in promiscuous circumstances in which they had to share the same dormitory with men and adults. We want to recall that by law the migrants should remain inside the hotspot for a maximum of 72 hours and vulnerable persons and unaccompanied minors in particular should be transferred to appropriate facilities as quickly as possible.

Worried about this received news we contact the organisations charged in various ways and with diverse mandates inside the hotspot to ask information about the presence of unaccompanied minors. UNHCR*, Terre des Hommes and Save the Children confirm the presence of an increased number of unaccompanied minors, circling around a hundred, and declare to have submitted the necessary notifications for their immediate transfer that should occur any day now. In the meantime we are given the opportunity to talk with some of the operators of various CPSA’s* (Primary care and initial reception centres) of the region who confirm to us the increased presence of children inside the hotspot and a general climate of great suffering due to the prolonged stay of the unaccompanied minors and mostly caused by the impossibility to leave not only the gates of the facility but even the fenced off courtyard that surrounds it!

This is alarming yet unfortunately not surprising since it is a practice that we have been able to verify different times in the ex-CPSA of Pozzallo. A very grave and unjustified restriction of personal liberty, at the expense of unaccompanied minors who by law have the right to enhanced protection, that we keep encountering and that continues to be repeated in an unacceptable manner.

To just cite a few precedents, we go back to September 2014 when around forty unaccompanied minors of Egyptian nationality and other remained in the ex-CPSA for almost 15 days and to whom it indeed was not even permitted to leave the courtyard of the facility. In that case it involved actually children who had been staying in the region for months, sent back to the CPSA after having spent weeks in a small-town gym set up as an “emergency” centre for first accommodation, to enable them to reside in a place separated from the adults. Once the gym had been reopened to function as a gym again the unaccompanied minors were brought back to the hangar and from here they could do nothing else but watch who passed by from behind the glass doors of the facility. They were forbidden to leave the courtyard, which then as it is now was closed off by a gate and monitored by the security forces, for safety reasons. The justification given by the institutions seems surreal and truly inacceptable when they explain this approach as a presumed safeguarding while in fact it concerns a blatant violation of their right. More so when they do not even permit some “yard time” to persons who have not committed any crime but who have had the “bad luck” to have been born and now arrived in the wrong place.

Situations of this sort have also come to our attention throughout the entire year of 2015 via several unaccompanied minors that we have gotten to know in the accommodation facilities dispersed over the Sicilian territory. When they talk about their arrival at Pozzallo they say en masse: “the worst thing was to not be even able to leave the courtyard. We “children” always had to stay inside the centre, also when we were in many and when there was no place to move. They let us play with a ball but always inside the centre, there really was a lack of air.” Or even: “When I arrived at Pozzallo they told me that I would be transferred immediately. In the meantime I could not even set foot outside the door and when you are closed in time passes even more slowly. I have thought it better not to count on anyone in Italy either.”

We could sum up a dozen of similar cases in which the institutions have always found the justification for the “emergency” of the case as well as for the impossibility to carry out the transfers in a proper time span due to the shortage of available places on the territory. The latter is very difficult to verify since we are talking about the entire Italian territory, but this definitely does not justify a violation of the rights of vulnerable subjects such as these unaccompanied minors, which is something that keeps happening for years! And something that leads to forced and barely tolerable circumstances of living together, and potentially even explosive. How many alternative solutions could have been found in the meantime?

Meanwhile the days pass and we go back to ask about the situation of the children inside the hotspots, hoping that the promise to transfer them has been kept. The team of Terre des Hommes, that we know is also operating inside the hotspot, states that they are not authorised to leave us any information; Save the Children tells us that there still are around sixty unaccompanied minors in the centre and that they have continued to press for their transfer that probably will take place in a couple of days, something that is confirmed by UNHCR, that also informs us about the probability that in these days the minors will be left out on the courtyard in small groups. So nothing new, if not the continuation of violations and restrictions of freedom.

From one side detained, from the other rejected: in the region of Agrigento and in Messina however a lot of children who clearly are minors are continuously registered as adults who we then indeed find rejected. A phenomenon coincidentally on the increase since the major part of the accommodation centres that should host them is full. The safeguarding of wellbeing and respecting the law do not seem a priority in Italy then, not even for the vulnerable ones. A lot of children and young men who have risked their lives to arrive here will surely not remember the photo’s that many people have taken of them to show their own abilities of good hosting or to sway public opinion for a fundraising, but they will not easily forget the long waiting periods believing to turn crazy yet another time without being able to feel the wind kiss their skin and thinking oneself finally free.
Oh yes, I almost forgot: the unaccompanied minors that were closed in Pozzallo for weeks have been transferred today. To us it is no coincidence that the reinstatement of legality coincides with the arrival of almost 900 persons in East Sicily that are to be transited through the hotspot of Pozzallo! The need for available places or protection in the best interests of the unaccompanied minors?

Lucia Borghi
Borderline Sicilia

*UNHCR – UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UN-refugee agency
*CPSA – Centro di Soccorso e prima Accoglienza

Translation: Marieke Ruytenburg