Donnerstag, 15. Dezember 2011

I thought I'd find a place where I could live in Italy

by Giacomo Sfelazzo, Askavusa (Lampedusa)
" [...] I thought I'd find a place where I could live in Italy, a breath of civilisation, a welcome that would enable me to live in peace and to cultivate the dream of a tomorrow without barriers or prejudice. But I have been let down. In this country, black skin is a limit to a civil integration. Racism also exists here: it's made up of arrogance, abuse of power, daily violence against those who ask only for solidarity and respect. Those of us who arrive from the third world are contributing to your country, but this seems to carry no weight. Sooner or later, one of us will be murdered and only then you will realise that we exist." (Jerry Essan Masslo).
The murder of Jerry Masslo (24/08/1989) was one of the main events which led to the passing of the Decree of 30th December 1990 n.416 in record time. It was an urgent ruling brought in to address the condition of foreigners, which was later converted into Law n. 39 1990: the Martelli Law. It was an event which mobilized thousands of people to open an honest and serious debate on the rights of foreigners in Italy. Since then, some things have changed, but in the past few years the situation concerning racism and violence against those from different backgrounds has considerably worsened. Some high profile cases, which have been brought to the forefront are the massacre of Castelvolturno on 18th September 2008 and Rosarno in January 2010. Groups of migrants who were being exploited and underpaid were injured by air rifles. Their protests triggered a "black manhunt". During those days, the then Minister of the Interior, Roberto Maroni, declared, "In the last few years, illegal immigration which has led to an increase in crime and generated a situation of extreme degradation has been tolerated."  Thereby, as usual, identifying the problem with those who have been subjected to years of exploitation and maltreatment, whilst ignoring the widespread lawlessness in the region and the absence of government intervention in some areas of Italy. In 2008, Rosarno was a town undone by mafia infiltration, which had very few squares or communal places for the residents to meet. These cases seem to have resurfaced in the violence between a group of Lampedusans and a group of migrants in September 2011, which we will come back to later. They can also be seen in the recent events in Turin and Florence, and many others. And, such cases, seem to be on the increase. A further common feature they share is the inadequate response from the public institutions, which means it is often left to the good of the people and the anti-racist groups to deal with the situation alone. They often face extreme conditions, as in the above- mentioned cases, where communities are silent and subjected to criminal powers.

Let's return to Lampedusa, the island where we (Askavusa) live and where we have seen the good and the bad up front. I'm not only speaking about the arrival of the refugees (which wasn't always possible to witness) but also in the contrast with the form of racism that we have seen emerge in part of the local population. Lampedusa I believe is, now more than ever, the pulse of Italy. From here, an observer can see the bad things and the good things which occur throughout the boot of Italy, concentrated into 25 square kilometres. Immigration is a central theme that Italy and Europe have to face up to, and Lampedusa is one of the main focal points. The doorway to Europe, the island where the Madonna di Porto Salvo is worshipped, which has such an ancient history and which is indissolubly linked to the Mediterranean; today it is a "unsafe port". How did this happen?
I will try to be brief because the answer is complex.
For 20 years, migrants had been passing through Lampedusa, never staying more than a few days. The situation was referred to as the 'Lampedusa Model', even though there was room for improvement. Then in 2009, the Minister of the Interior, Maroni, with the Berlusconi government, decided to make Lampedusa a detention centre. As a solution to the 'immigration problem', they flaunted the agreements that had been made with the dictators Ghaddafi and Ben Alì: those seeking asylum would be rejected to the tune of millions of euro. It was a practice that Europe had condemned and which in those days led to the same people who had been involved in assaults on the Tunisian migrants, greeting the news with joy. Then in 2011, the situation reached extreme levels with thousands of Tunisians on the streets of Lampedusa without any assistance. The only presence of  the State was repressive, so it was left up to the Lampedusans themselves to cope with the situation. And on that occasion many demonstrated the extraordinary character and sense of virtue that people of the sea carry inside themselves. Through generosity and love, an unsustainable situation was sustained for three long months. Yet also on this occasion, those who had welcomed the policy of rejection, said the people helping the Tunisians had got it all wrong, that "kind-heartedness was next to stupidity". Their voices echoed the "malice" which Maroni had initiated in his choice of words "invasion" and "exodus".
Data from the IOM (International Organisation for Migration) put the number of migrants who passed through Lampedusa up until the 14th September 2011 at approximately 70 thousand. (Yet post- revolutionary Tunisia received approximately 300 thousand, all without too much alarmism. Egypt received 220,000, Nigeria 80,000 and Chad 50,000.) Not only having survived those three months, but actually demonstrating a tremendous capacity to accomplish incredible things and an unmeasured solidarity, along came Berlusconi with a wave of his magic wand and made all the migrants disappear.  On that occasion, those who had previously welcomed the rejections, those who had echoed the malice, used violence, in the presence of the armed forces, to prevent a group of people who wanted to carry out a peaceful protest to show their disapproval of the president's arrival on the island. After this, the summer months saw the Imbriacola Centre become a concentration camp. Many under 18s were placed in inhumane conditions in another centre to the west (ex- base Loran) without being able to go out and without being able to receive visitors. When we reported the situation, nobody wanted to listen, it was not allowed to be discussed. The most important thing was that the migrants could not be seen on the streets- as is still the situation. And so, in September, when a group of Tunisians inside the centre began a hunger strike, began to self-harm, to protest, everyone knew- but nobody, nobody did anything. This continued up until the day after the ex- minister La Russa's visit to Imbriacola on 18th September, when she declared, "The immigrants in Lampedusa are all doing well". There were doing so well, that to celebrate they burnt down one of the buildings of the centre.
Some of the Tunisians went out onto the streets. There were near a petrol station. Nearby there were two gas cylinders, outside a restaurant, none of the armed forces having had the good sense to remove the cylinders out of reach or out of sight of the migrants. Two of the Tunisians took one of the cylinders and threatened to blow it up in front of the petrol station. A group of Lampedusans armed with bats and stones (a fact that had provoked no police intervention), who had been watching the whole scene, then threw themselves at the Tunisians. And together with the armed forces proceeded to beat the living daylights out of the migrants. From that moment on, Lampedusa was declared an unsafe port and ironically enough, many of the Lampedusans involved in the incident, those in favour of the rejections and of the CIE etc, went on to celebrate the "Madonna di Porto Salvo" on 22nd September, carrying the statue in the annual procession. In the last month, two vehicles belonging to the management company running the centre have been set on fire. After the visit of a European Parliamentary Delegation, which declared that Lampedusa should return to its former role, one of the warehouses in the Refugee Centre was also burnt down.
I'm asking the authorities to reflect on these facts, if they have a conscience. The only solution to the situation which has been put in place is violence. It is a violence which is not punished or condemned. On the contrary, it is actually rewarded. If the public institutions in place in Lampedusa had treated the situation with greater respect; if there had been some support network to help the local community and guarantee their rights and duties; if dialogue had been used as a method to manage the situation instead of the acts of force imposed by the government and replicated as a model of behaviour by some of the Lampedusans; if lawlessness had not become widespread and if the abuse had been stopped and not adopted as a "national" model of behaviour, Lampedusa would not be classified as an unsafe port, but as a point of arrival for the refugees and a ground for integration. When I say Lampedusa is the pulse of Italy, I am also stating that what is accepted here becomes the norm throughout the vast majority of the country. It is obvious that we would prefer the people to be able to move about with freedom, with scheduled flights and ferry crossings, but for the moment this seems an impossibility. The violence has to be condemned outright. But how can this happen in a country which produces weapons, which is one of the main producers of antipersonnel mines, which goes to war, which has parts of the State that collude with criminality? How can a country allow this to happen and still be credible?
Democratic methods have to be re-established. Dialogue has to be used as a means of mediation. Yet without the example and the support of the public institutions it will very difficult. The good of the people can be a great stimulus and plays an extremely important role. I believe that we must, and that it is possible to, start with Lampedusa. Its role as one of emergency intervention and as a refugee centre must be re-established, but this time guaranteeing in a definitive manner, a maximum stay of 3 days for the migrants who pass through the island. It is also necessary to have a centre for the Lampedusan community, where they can create an honest human relationship with the migrants. In order to do this, the violence which has occurred and is still occurring must be resolutely condemned. A new wave of dialogue and integration must be adopted, one which manifests non- violence as one of the cardinal principles of our society. Additionally, there is also a need to carry out preventative measures in schools and public places and in the behaviour and statements of those who politically represent the voters of this country.
We hope that as the death of Masslo did, that the deaths of our Senegalese brothers will at least serve to open the eyes of many people and bring about cultural and legal change.
We hope that all of the Lampedusans are able to reflect on the important role that Lampedusa has had and can continue to have as a Refugee Centre which is against any form of racism. We hope that our community can return to its position of dialogue and understanding. I still believe it is possible to change, that men and women can improve their own condition. In the same way that violence will be condemned, dialogue with everyone, especially those with different experiences from our own, will be promoted. 
To the Roma in Turin, the Senegalese in Florence, the migrants in Naples and the workers in Nardò and to all who live and work in a minority without community or State intervention; to all those who are maltreated, we give you our support and our affection.