Dienstag, 16. Februar 2016

Visit to the extraordinary reception centre run by the “Arc en Ciel” cooperative in Acate

February 8th took us to the extraordinary reception centre (CAS) situated in Acate (Ragusa), managed by the cooperative “Arc en Ciel”, which already manages other CAS in Giarratana, Ragusa and Modica. Our visit was authorised by the Prefecture and through a spoken agreement with the employees of the managing body.

The building is situated along the motorway at the town's exit, and marks itself out from the surround buildings only through the clothes hung up around it. From the outside the building resembles in every way one of the many warehouses which are dotted among the greenhouses in the area, and it would be difficult to pick it out as a reception centre for asylum seekers. A stretch of concrete separates the open gates from the rectangular structure, which folds out on one floor around a courtyard; inside there is nothing at all except the clothes hung up along the fence or over some overhanging wires, as well as some large rubbish bins and a few seats close to the open entrance.

The worker is not around when we arrive, so we begin to introduce ourselves and speak to some of the residents. The response to our presence is almost unanimous: “We have seen so many people who say that they are concerned about migrants' rights. Everyone asks lots of questions, but then no one comes back, or almost no one, and in the meanwhile nothing has changed for us here at all!” An understandable outburst that, nonetheless, did not take up much time because the migrants really seem to have many things to tell. We thus begin to know from the start the personal stories of some of those who have been residents there for some time; indeed, as the worker confirmed later, many of the 21 young men at this CAS have been there for more than two years!

'X', in Italy since February 2013, describes to us in a spontaneous and calm manner his entire journey of arrival in our country: a voyage of flight from persecution and torture which has not, however, allowed him the recognition of protection by the Commission. As with many others, for him too the only possibility remaining is an appeal against the rejection he has received, via one of the centre's lawyers. We asked him if he had spoken with anyone before his hearing at the Commission and what relation he has now with his lawyer: “No, when I arrived no one had explained well to me what the Commission was. I met the lawyer only when I had received the negative, but only a few times. He doesn't speak English but only Italian, so I can't really speak with him much.” At least another five young men confirmed that it is only possible to speak with their defence sporadically and through others. Whoever has arrived has, therefore, not been able to find adequate information and assistance with the procedures for international protection which have been set in motion.

“As for the rest, you can see for yourselves where we are and what there is to do: nothing! This has been my situation for two years now, and not only mine.” We are in a small room, on the walls of which are attached sheets of paper with phrases, verbs and words in Italian, but everyone speaks other languages: English and French, if not local dialects and languages. “The Italian lessons are meant to take place two afternoons a week. The teacher is the worker who will arrive in a bit. In reality there aren't always even these two lessons, depending on whether the teacher has more urgent things to do”, X continues. I ask if anyone happens to go to the Italian school in the towns nearby, as is the case for other residents in various CAS in the province, but the response was no. By this point a lot of the residents have approached us, each with something to tell, a few with their headphones in their ears which they put back in immediately a little late, isolating themselves in the desolate space which surrounds the building and retreating back into themselves.

“We don't speak Italian because we don't know many Italians, there are only a few people who work here and they spend little time in the building: beyond the teacher who comes twice a week there is a worker who comes now, in the morning. There's a cleaning lady for a couple of hours, but since Saturday we haven't seen her, for example. Every now and again a guy comes with the shopping.” We ask if they have a phone number to contact in the case of an emergency and confirm that they have it “but usually it's useless. When they respond it's taken as a favour, and probably for them it is.. Each of us has different needs but that won't be given much importance. A few words in Italian and that's it.” Others select different episodes in which it seems the workers are not particularly fast to respond to the calls. “We're left here. They do the shopping, they give us clothes and pocket money of €36 every 15 days, nothing more.” Others name workers from other humanitarian organisations, or doctors; speaking to the teacher we learn that these are workers from MEDU* and MSF*, who provide psychological assistance in the centre. I ask if they know the surrounding area a little, and the question is taken almost as a provocation: “The only town we know aside from Acate, which we can get to by bike or by foot, is Ragusa, because they take us there for our documents. You can see where we are, how can we get away from here? Even if we go for a walk in the town, its better perhaps that no one sees us rather than get insulted.”

'Y' takes up the question of money, saying that one of the biggest problems for him is work: “The pocket money isn't enough and just can't be for years, if you're someone who has to build a life in Italy and above all support your family.” He too, as with many migrants we have met, confirmed that he has changed his phone number many times over, so as not to be perennially assailed by relatives asking him for his contribution from Europe. “Without knowing how to speak or have contact with the rest of the local society, the only thing is to go and work in the camps in a system of exploitation, for eight hours a day, taking home €25! Lots of them do it, I don't anymore. But then I have to live with a greater problem.” With these words the worker joins us, who has only recently arrived at the centre, already being responsible for the CAS in Modica, in the Frigintini zone. We go into a small office set to the right hand side of the entrance, and she begins to sketch out the situation at the centre for me, explaining to me immediately that the situation here is much more complex than at others. There are 21 residents, originally from Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Ivory Coast.

With the exception of five people who arrived only a few weeks ago, the others have all been at the centre a long time, some for almost two years as already mentioned. The majority have received denials of international protection from the Territorial Commission, and are making appeals through the centre's lawyers. According to the worker, that is the critical situation which is generating the residents' suffering. Telling her about the desolate appearance of the building, she acknowledges our observations and responds that the interior of the premises has been recently fixed up after the transferral from a building in the centre of Acate, around a year ago. A boiler has been installed in every room, which doubles up as an air condition in the summer, has been installed in every room, along with other improvements which were not further specified. Consequently we immediately proceed to see the building: beyond the small room for the Italian lessons that we had already seen, the side opposite the entrance opens up into a small sitting room which leads into the kitchen and the bathrooms/showers. The pavement is completely wet, with some water also in the adjacent laundry room. There are three toilets and three showers for all 21 residents; as for cleaning, the worker confirms that there is a cleaning lady every morning, and when we note that the residents claim not to have seen her for two days she tells me that she cannot be sure, referring us for such specific questions to the centre's manager. Following the corridor, we pass by five bedrooms, four beds in each one, all with at least one window. The rooms seem spacious enough, with some minimal furniture and a boiler. On leaving, a young man will tell us that the heating only works for three months, but it does work. As for the meals, the worker explains to us that the residents cook independently, respecting the kitchen's opening hours, using the shopping that the workers bring every day. Among those present we have not heard complaints or any particular observations about the food.

Returning to the office, there are at least two young men who have arrived with different kinds of pain, one in his stomach and the other his teeth: the worker tells that that here, as in other centres, it has not been possible for everyone to receive a medical card, and that they are entrusted to a provided doctor instead. She then proceeded to tell us that many of the aches are symptoms of quite different kinds of unwellness, something which we were obviously not able to verify during our brief visit. We thus came to questions regarding the personnel employed at the building: we are told that, beyond the worker who is also the Italian teacher twice a week, there is another worker present at the centre the whole morning who is also contactable by telephone, together with a cooking and cleaning lady, whose hours are not very clear, and another occasional worker engaged mainly with logistical matters. We are told of other contact persons, whose importance was emphasised: these were named as social workers and psychological assistants, who in necessary cases refer to colleagues in Ragusa, while also working well with the collaboration of MEDU and MSF, as regards psychological support and the final certification for the benefit of use for the appeals in the Commission. In relation to this, we ask if there has been information from legal assistants or anyone else for the hearings, and are told that from the beginning everyone has the situation explained to them a little, but that the lawyer intervenes only for the appeals. We explain the residents' complaint that it is impossible to speak directly with the lawyers and the first response is that in this centre “everyone understands Italian by now.” We note that this information, even though for us yet to be verified, does not in any way derogate everyone's right to receive and understand information regarding their own status in the language most comprehensible to them. We leave the worker to the Italian lessons while other young men join us at the door, who emphasise for us again that “there are many things that don't work here. We'll tell you the truth, then you can do what you want.” Without any fear but instead with the security of who is simply providing given facts. “We know that our words don't have the same weight as others'. But for now it's the only thing we can do.” One young man tells me with exasperation about his difficulties in having his documents made clear to him. “For three months the worker has told me to wait, that there are problems in the Prefecture and that this is why my permit still isn't ready. But I know that in the other centres the residents get their documents much more quickly and in the same situation as me. You tell me why?” We respond that unfortunately making comparisons with other centres does not work, as every situation is different and influenced by a combination of factors. In many different situations and places other migrants have put the same question to us, and we know that the bureaucratic time is exhausting in the extreme. What fails to convince him, he says, is the lack of a clear response from the workers: “If it were just like that, why do they refuse to take me to the Prefecture so I can also see what's going on and believe it?” To this question, we have no response, as with so many other similar ones, which make evident the lack of individual assistance, of someone who can explain to each person the reasons for years of waiting, something which truly is difficult to comprehend, and the presence of so few workers in the complex does not work in the cooperative's favour.

The same discussion revolves around the health cards: two residents showed me their health cards which expired five months ago, with a residence permit which has already been renewed. “Why can't I have a new card? I don't understand! When we show the worker the prescriptions from the doctor, they don't give us drugs from the pharmacy but only the generic ones they keep here. We want the medicine from the doctors!” Asking the worker who has assisted in some of these conversations, she tells us that all the medical prescriptions are respects and the wide-spread and deep-rooted intolerance is the underlying basis to many of these complaints. “Of course we know that two years is too long. For this reason whoever is here for a long time needs to find another solution by himself, outside of the centres. Those complaining are the least patient” she adds. The phrase reminds us of the total absurdity of the situation where, within a system which in fact does not have as its objective the well-being and protection of migrants, and in which every day its inadequacy and violence is shown, one can arrive at hypothetical solutions of this kind. The young men continue to explain their stories, even if after the arrival of the teacher there is only a small group who continue to talk; both them and the operator recommend me to clarify matters with the manager of the cooperative, who we contact in the following days.

We speak on the phone, and one of the first things that he picks out for us is that he knows well which of the young men with whom we had had a chance to speak. According to him these are migrants who have been in the CAS for a long time and for this reason are particularly “difficult” and impatient. The manager admits the existence of serious difficulties in communication and a gradual deterioration in the relations between the workers and the residents – for which reason, he tells us, next month there will be various changes. First among these will be the replacement of some of the workers and the addition of a service of providing legal advice before the Commission hearings; the building is then to be enlarged with a new sitting room/dining room, and a space dedicated to educational activities, which will also host Italian teachers holding lessons for other migrants in the area. We select different problems which the residents explained to us, among which was that of clear legal communication; the manager confirms for us that during the process of obtaining the residence permit and other documents, everyone has had the translation service provided for them in the site of application formally activated, but that without having been present at the different meetings between lawyers and the migrants he could not provide us with any certainty beyond this. He then tells us that as regards the renewal of the health cards, every person has had the problem of the long waiting periods of the Italian system explained to them, which is the same for those who are citizens and otherwise, while admitting that the cooperative distributes in the end only the generic drugs corresponding to the prescriptions, which themselves are only provided again with great effort. Ultimately this is the practice adopted by the health district of Vittoria, of which Acate is a part, who do not recognise the exemption of those who have received negatives – even when with regular residence permits – with the excuse that the men are allowed to work. We take serious note of this practice which is undertaken against regulations, and invite the manager to make a strong official complaint.  Nonetheless, that which was emphasised with greatest frequency by the manager was the distorted vision which we might have from the residents with whom we spoke, always identified as a homogenous group, due to their exasperation with the waiting times. The solution as he sees it – beyond the urgent and necessary reorganisation of the reception system, with possible and effective transfers of migrants from the CAS to the SPRAR* within the designated time – resides also with the arriving refugees trying to build an independent future, leaving the centres as soon as possible. By what means? With some basic language skills, the possibility to move within a decisively enclosed society, without any intermediation, with the undeniable presence of racism, including institutional racism, which a while ago led to a petition to stop the opening of any more reception centres. In a situation of this kind, the proposed solution would be removed even from the hands of those who have the determination of good will to do something, a factor which is not to be overlooked. That which remains is therefore still only the word “waiting”, or perhaps not only this, as we remember one young man saying as he saw us off at the end of our brief visit: “now I look to the sunset. For many months I though that here there would be only this. Now every now and again I think that I can also talk, so things are getting a little better.”

Lucia Borghi
Borderline Sicilia

*MEDU: Medici per I Diritti Umani – Doctors for Human Rights
*MSF: Médecins sans frontières – Doctors without Borders
*SPRAR – Sistema di protezione per rifugiati e richiedenti asilo: protection facilities for asylum seekers and refugees

Translation: Richard Braude