Will There Ever Be A Dignified Welcoming For Migrants at the Port of Augusta?

By the Catania Antiracist Network

Dozens of migrants, the majority of them unaccompanied minors, crowded for weeks into tent structures in a closed-off, militarised port, in undignified sanitary conditions, left without any prospect of being housed properly, and without even the most elementary legal safeguarding of their human rights.

This is what is going on in Augusta, in the province of Syracuse, where for months the disembarkings and the identification/deportation/expulsion activities of the Frontex system have been unfolding far from the indiscreet eyes of “non-accredited” journalists, as well as away from anti-racist and solidarity groups, who have been denied access and the possibility of monitoring the situation around the migrants’ landing area. Whatever is happening at Augusta, therefore, is known only from the direct accounts of migrants who have passed through that limbo and can be met at the train station in Catania. Some teenagers tell of having been able to escape after many days spent detained in the tent city, suffering from the heat and guarded by police officers, without any cultural mediation nor receiving any information regarding the ability to claim asylum and humanitarian protection. Indeed, others say they were forced to give their finger prints through being beaten with an electric truncheon; still others, after identification, tell of being simply abandoned on the street, and making their way on foot to reach Catania – some 40km of asphalt away.

The situation at Augusta represents only one piece of a complex institutional system of failed reception and a nightmare of abuse, violence, rights denied and exploitation which touches the lives of thousands of men, women and children. However, this is a particularly strange part of the story, if one considers the importance of the area in relation to economic-industrial and military interests. In relation to this, the recent scandals unveiled by Petrolio (an Italian investigative TV programme) have offered us a glimpse (and certainly not a complete view) of the twisted interweaving between industrial lobbyists, port authorities and the higher echelons of the Italian navy. It is in this context that there was a general outcry – from political parties including the Movimento Cinque Stelle to the Fratelli d’Italia, from the local Movimento Cinque Stelle administration to the former Extraordinary Port Commissioner, Alberto Cozzo, who is currently being investigated by the magistracy of Basilicata – against the opening of a Hotspot at the commercial port.

In particular, the local administration’s opposition to the Hotspot – along with the ‘No’ provided by other political and institutional actors – did not take aim at the bad effects of this approach for the migrants themselves, but instead entirely on handing over a part of the commercial port for the landing operations. Not a word, in fact, was given over to denouncing the violation of human rights and illegality committed, under the cover an internal, European law, by the Hotspot system, which still has no juridical foundation. The police are given complete discretion over the identification procedures. Not a single word even about the abuses and violent practices – documented, for example, in Oxfam’s recent report ‘Hotspot: A Right Denied’, and by numerous reports by Borderline Sicilia – to which migrants within the ports of arrival are subjected, including at Augusta.

The use of the port for the reception of migrants “debases its economic ambitions […] not only of the city but also the region” according to Cettina Di Pietro, Mayor of Augusta, who has continued to make appeals to the government for over a year – including, most recently, the declaration of a hunger strike – asking that Augusta should not remain “the immigrants’ port” (an actual textual quote), so as “not to kill off the development plans” for commercial haulage. And again, it is always the Mayor who, like the worst of propaganda from the Lega Nord, raises up the bugbear of “the danger to citizen’s security”, equating migration with the risk of terrorist attacks. This is a banal equivalence which is clearly the result of disinformation, but still dangerous for the xenophobic message which ends up being transferred into public opinion. If you then add this to the populism of the “€45 for young migrants and nothing for Italian children” – a line from the Mayor himself when interviewed for channel La7 – we find the dramatic degradation in public discourse and the nourishment of the worst reactionary and racist sentiments.

Confronted with the hell of non-welcoming handed down by institutions from above, local councils like Augusta could do much to aid the path of solidarity, disobeying the politics of unfreedom enacted by central governments. There is certainly fertile ground: the local population, with the experience of the ‘Scuola Verde’ reception centre two years ago, have shown humanity and welcoming for two years. On that occasion, many of the children were trusted to families, while associations, parishes and numerous volunteers set up solidarity initiatives. That experience, after a few months, was unfortunately cut short – along with the human bonds which were being forged – with the deportation of the children to the Città Giardino centre, managed by Buzzi, the very same of the ‘Mafia Capitale’ investigations.

Today, we ought to go back to the route of those limited bonds, returning to involve the community of Augusta in regards to a phenomenon which relates to them directly, despite their being quite deliberately kept distant from it. One move in this direction is quite clear: welcoming and solidarity are not a ‘problem’ to be managed, and even less is it a business for tendering, but rather a human and cultural resource, a social practice which every forward thinking community ought try to actively further. Excellent examples such as that of Riace and its mayor, Mimmo Lucano, are there to demonstrate the possible horizons: a small town of only 1,800 people which has been able to welcome up to 550 migrant citizens into its social, cultural and economic fabric, using solidarity as a historical moment of community rebirth.

It would be good, therefore, if the mayor of Augusta were to seriously engage with the issue, and grasp the better positions, abandoning the populist arguments and choosing to truly stand up for migrants and their rights. This would also include the reaction to the CARA at Melilli, which would be simply the latest internment camp in Sicily, which Di Pietro, again, is in favour of and which he seems to be encouraging.

In the end, we return to the port: there is no “plan for commercial development” – even if “development” were still the paradigm to follow – which could replace the interests of people, their lives and their destinies. Otherwise it is simply better to abandon the plans: they would be poisonous for the community and serve only to enrich the lobbyists, the Mafia and the speculators. That is nothing other than the same hymn which has been sung by the Syracusan petrochemical industry for more than 60 years.

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

Translation: Richard Braude