When we arrive in front of the CARA (Hosting Centre for Asylum Seekers) in Salinagrande, shortly after 1pm, the gates are closed and everything around the Centre seems deserted. Nonetheless, we are able to see the movements of the employees and police forces inside the Centre. There are very few migrants in the yard, they are probably still in the canteen. We only have to wait a few minutes, though, and we attract the attention of some of them. Two young Tunisians ask the guards if they can go out. They want to know if we have come looking for workers. "Work? Work?" they ask us. We reply that we are from an association in Palermo and that we are in Trapani to collect some statements on the conditions of life inside the CARA. Straightaway, if a little anxiously, they begin to tell their stories. But as we are having trouble communicating in French, two of them go back inside and get a friend who speaks Italian well to act as interpreter for us.
Our translator has a special one- year permit of international protection and has also been able to find work, although he has no contract. He doesn't have a place to live, so he is staying in an abandoned building in the countryside not far from the Centre, with twenty or so other asylum seekers. He says that there is very little space there and those who arrive late have to make do. He has stayed in various CIEs in Vulpitta, Chinisia and Milo and is in Italy for the second time. The life he has led up until now has been difficult, but despite everything that he has been through, he still feels as if he is one of the lucky ones because he has survived. He tells us about his time in the CIEs. He describes Vulpitta as a very old, rundown building: the bathrooms were in a terrible state; it was very cold and often there was no running water. He lived in a very small, crowded room, but generally the personnel treated him humanely. The Chinisia camp was far worse. He stayed there for a short time but describes the conditions as harsh: asphyxiating heat inside the tents, very little water, no information and no one who listened to the migrants. But the worst experience of all was at Milo. There the conditions were terrible: the police were violent and aggressive, they threatened and assaulted the migrants, often without reason. The migrants were terrified and left in a state of subjection.
A young Tunisian intervenes, he turned eighteen a few months ago. He has been in Italy a year. He arrived when he was a minor after a terrible five day crossing. Ten hours into the journey the boat had engine failure and drifted for several days without any rescue ships ever coming to its aid. After arriving in Lampedusa, he stayed in a family house, an experience he speaks well of. He now has a temporary permit of stay (one year), but he is afraid. For the time being he is staying in the CARA with a group of other young Tunisians. He would like to study, work and remain in Italy, but fears that once his permit of stay runs out he will be sent to the CIE in Milo. We are told that many of those who he arrived with were sent to Milo and then repatriated. People from the group add that those who have stayed there have terrible stories to tell: dire living conditions and repeated beatings and that those who had since gone back to their own country had no desire whatsoever to return to Italy. Our country had traumatised them, despite the fact they had fled the dictatorship of Ben Ali. The young Tunisian remembers thinking that he wouldn't make it during the crossing, that he would never arrive. Yet his experience compared with those who have been to Milo seem less dramatic. The idea that he may be sent to the CIE fills him with fear.
When the conversation turns to Milo, everyone seems uncomfortable. These young people's desire to talk about what has happened to them is tangible. Another of them who is following the conversation asks the interpreter to tell us his story. He had also been in Milo, which he defined as hell. The only way to manage to get a few hours of peace was by attempting suicide. Like that, he would be taken to the medical room and be allowed to speak to a psychologist. It was a strategy used by many. All of those we speak to confirm this as true.
One of the three women in the group comes over. As she only speaks Arabic the interpreter continues to translate for us. She is seven months pregnant and is staying in the CARA. She complains about the food, which she describes as off and the fact that she has no suitable clothing. She suffers from the cold and from the heat, depending on the weather and fears for the health of her unborn baby. Furthermore, she sometimes has pains yet states that she has seen no one from the medical profession, let alone had any scans. She arrived with her husband almost a year ago. They wanted their child to be born in Italy and become Italian. We explain to her that it is not that simple as Italian law is now based on ius sanguinis (nationality is determined by the blood you have not by the territory where you are born). Yet she hopefully expresses the conviction that things will change. She would like to return to Tunisia for a few a days to see her parents, but has no money to do so.
People continue to join our group. Two lively meetings are underway: everyone wants to speak to us. One young man is particularly insistent. His friends warn us that he is not very well. He doesn't speak that much, but is able to get his point across with the help of his friends. He arrived a year ago and applied for asylum in Italy. He then went to Germany in search of work, but was unable to find anything. Getting back to Italy proved problematic, as he had no money, and it took him a long time. He had to stop twice to do casual work in order to have enough money. When he finally made it back to Italy, he found out that he had missed the date of his hearing with the Commission. He was able to see a lawyer to request another date, but this time he was refused and now, like the others, he is afraid he will end up in Milo. We can tell he is not well, but he says there is a lack of psychological support in the Centre. It is a problem that doesn't concern only him.
A young Tunisian intervenes. He doesn't live in the CARA, but sleeps in the same abandoned building in the countryside which the other Tunisians had spoken about, doing the best he can to find food and wash. He also says he is not well, that he suffers from very bad headaches. We ask him if the problem is connected to the glasses he wears. He answers that they are not his, a friend found them and gave them to him. His eyesight is poor but he has no money to buy glasses. But this is not the main reason he is not well. He wants to explain to us but gets confused and begins speaking in Arabic. A friend of his explains to us that he suffers from mental health problems and should be taking medicine. "Everyone in Milo knows this- that is where he came from," they tell us. There they simply let him go and pointed him in the direction of the CARA, "but no one actually helped him."
A young man from Togo cycling by stops out of curiosity. He doesn't live at the CARA but is staying at the Cooperative Badia Nuova in Trapani, with another three migrants. It is the same organisation that operates the Salinagrande CARA and the Milo CIE. He says everything is more or less okay there and that for him the biggest problem is trying to find work. Despite the fact he is seeking asylum and could have his application rejected by the Commission, he nonetheless has a work permit. He speaks very little Italian and communicates in English. We ask what type of work he used to do in his own country. He says he repaired the body work of cars and adds that he has been in Italy for nine months. He fled Togo due to the fighting between Christians and Muslims. As an Imam's assistant, he was considered a target. Like many others he found work in Lybia and stayed there for eight months, but had to leave when the war broke out and the persecution of people from sub-Sahara spread.
We had an appointment in front of the Centre with a Pakistani who we had met the week before. An asylum seeker, who like many others was unable to find a place inside the CARA, he has been living for the past four months in the open air, without any basic assistance or support whatsoever. He stays in a small structure belonging to ANAS (the national company for motorway and road maintenance) with three or four others. It is near a railway track and he only manages to get to eat something thanks to a friend who is staying at the Centre, who shares his meals with him. He had been to hospital, on our suggestion, after complaining to us about pain and mentioned he had already had problems with his kidneys. Yet he had absolutely no idea that he had the right to have access to the public health service. He showed us the results the doctor had given him plus his prescription. These, obviously, were written in Italian and so we translated them for him as no one else had done so. He had been diagnosed with kidney stones with some additional complications, the recommendations for which is to drink a lot of water -something, which for him, is not easy so to do. Similarly, he did not have the money to buy the medication that he had been prescribed. We directed him to the local Caritas centre or also the organisation Emergency.
He had brought two Afghans with him who sometimes slept in the same miniscule building near the railway line. They were also asylum seekers who were not able to stay in the CARA and were therefore deprived of any kind of assistance. They told us they had arrived in Bari, Italy, about four months previously. They have their hearing with the Commission for their permit of stay in May. In the meantime, the only help or support they get is through other Afghans who are staying in the CARA who are willing to share what little food they receive. They applied for asylum in Trapani, but the first time they went to the police headquarters, they were taken to the Milo CIE, which they describe as a prison. They stayed there for three days before being released and told to go to the Salinagrande CARA. There were, in reality, left to their own devices.
There were another two Afghans with them, who were staying in the Centre. One of them told us he arrived in Bari last autumn, like the others, but had travelled alone- stowed in a container on a ship which set sail from Patria, Greece. He paid a Greek man four hundred euro to travel fourteen hours in the dark, without food or water. He explained that it is necessary to pay twice to arrive in Europe from Afghanistan, once to enter into Europe and once to get out of Afghanistan. He will have his hearing with the Commission in July, because for the time being no interpreters are available who speak his language, Pashto. Both Afghans complain about the food (there is only pasta, no halal meat) and a lack of medical assistance. There is only cold water. A Tunisian explained to us that in order to try and heat up the water they put it containers which they then leave in the direct sunlight. In the yard we can see a father playing with three young children. The water will be cold also for them.
Others come over to us, they want to speak too but we have to go. We make an appointment for the next time. They say they are happy to have seen us, even if we weren't granted access to the Centre. They speak about the oppressive atmosphere and not only within the Centre, but also when they are outside carrying out their daily lives. They feel controlled, but not by the police, as we assume, rather by the locals to whom they apply the term mafiosi. The others nod in agreement, "mafia through and through," add two of them.
Before leaving, we quickly drive by the front of the structure where the asylum seekers are staying: it is dilapidated- its asbestos roof clearly damaged.
Giorgia Listì e Valentina Caviglia