Donnerstag, 8. September 2016

Fool's Gold: A Night-Time Landing in Palermo, Migrants Left Out in the Rain

The disembarking of 1,003 people was scheduled originally for 2pm on Tuesday, but the night before postponed to 8pm. When we arrived at that hour, the Coast Guard vessel Diciotti was already docked, with many of the migrants standing on the open deck next to the landing steps. The food, clothes and shoes – provided by private entities as usual, but distributed by volunteers – were late, and it was only shortly before 9pm that the disembarking began. The migrants have come originally from many different countries, including Bangladesh, Benin, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Senegal.

The atmosphere combined disorganisation, which often leads to hurried decisions and an unnecessary haste at times, and a relaxation on controls and checks of personnel in the vicinity. The few journalists who turned up for what must now seem already like old news, were unguarded, free to roam around, even chatting with some of the migrants on board before they touched ground. Police of all kinds milled across the quay, more as if they had just returned from an exercise than actually being on duty.

The relaxed atmosphere was surreally confirmed by the very first group to descend from the vessel, which comprised of three Arab-speaking people, seemingly a man, wife and teenage daughter, who were incongruously dressed like tourists, and waived through by the police escorting them past the various staffed tables which had barely been set up. They were briefly followed by a tall West African man, physically escorted by a group of police officers who were holding his arms, dragging his dusty, bare feet along the ground. We later learned that the Arabic family were taken away by the specialist police unit, adding to our suspicion that they were witnesses accusing the fourth figure of being the boat driver, though this remains unconfirmed.

The migrants were descended in groups of 100 or so at a time, an operation lasting around an hour and a half, at which point the landing was paused. All activity was indefinitely suspended while police and other officials strutted up and down the quayside, deciding whether to let another 100 disembark before pausing the operation all together. The reason for the stoppage was the time necessary to take all the landed migrants to the police station at San Lorenzo for fingerprinting and identification. By 11pm, the staff from the police station had packed up and were making their way back to their headquarters for the next, long part of the identification work, which we heard would take them till 4am. The disembarking at the port was scheduled to recommence at 7am the following morning.

The first to descend had been women too weak to walk, mainly Nigerians, who were brought in wheel chairs. However, once the decision to pause for the night was made, checks were seemingly undertaken as to whether there were further people to be landed urgently. Cue another series of starving women in wheelchairs being rolled along the quayside, almost 3 hours after the Coast Guard had docked into the port. They were joined by a group of minors, only for them to be told to reboard the vessel after half an hour of sitting on the benches of the Red Cross tent. As we left for the night, their was confusion about a weak woman in a wheelchair, too feeble to board one of the buses headed to the police station for the full identification procedures. It seems that, while one of the first to be disembarked, she had been left to one side in this condition in the hope that she would recover. Only at the point of alighting onto the buses did someone realise that in fact she should be taken to hospital. The buses, after the procedures at the police station, were headed to Venice, Umbria, Campania, Lazio and Abruzzo, as well as six buses to the Hotspot at Milo, Trapani.

The 400 or so migrants left on board to be disembarked in the morning (the official figure of 370 seemed an understimate) were shouted at to “sit in a line” and “don't stand up” by the Coast Guard, no doubt tired and stretched to their limits. Boxes of food were handed up, along with the by now famous golden anti-hypothermia blankets. The gold foil, glistening in the darkness of the port's night closure, and the crumpling of the migrants' adjusting and readjusting of their meagre presents (despite the orders from their hosts) provides, however, only a fool's gold. The blankets will have provided only the minimum of shelter against the rain pouring down across Palermo, lightening flashing up above Belmonte.

The disembarking recommenced at just after 7am the following morning, with the rain still continuing, even if the storm had eased off. During the night, the 300 migrants had been made to sit down in the open air, under the rain and wind, on the deck of the Coast Guard ship, with nothing but their old clothes and the gold sheets for cover. How can it be, that years into the reception of migrants at the port of Palermo, hundreds of people can be left out in the cold like this? As they descended, it became clear that the previous evening's checks had been in vain: young women, around 30 minors and men with leg injuries counted among those who had been abandoned overnight. One young Nigerian woman seemed traumatised to the point of utter silence and confusion, unaware of what was occurring around her, unable to take hold of the clothes and food she was offered; thankfully there were some competent and caring volunteers to assist her. Over the following three hours, the new arrivals, after the horrors of Libya, the sea journey, the rescue operation and the night in the rain, were pointlessly made to talk 20m barefoot across the puddles and tarmac to receive new clothes and temporary shoes.

The spectacular nature of the landing operations could not be better illustrated. At 11pm, the mayor of Palermo could be seen on the quayside talking to Dutch television about the right to free movement. A few metres away from this, a young West African teenager was being asked questions by three workers from Save the Children. But a few hours later the television cameras will have left, and the young men remaining on board stuck on a vessel in the pouring rain. The minor, on the other hand, will no doubt face the same fate as many who were disembarked a few days earlier, and be deposited in the emergency centre at Via Monfenera. If one walks round the Palermo train station, one can already see 14 and 15 year old Eritrean migrants, without a Euro in their pockets, still wearing the ill-fitting plastic clogs handed to them at the landings, trying to find out how to make their way to Milan. Like the noisy golden blankets, the spectacle at which the mayor and countless organisations (UNHCR, OIM, Save the Children, all forms of police) are present is a fool's gold, which provides no good substitute for the results which could be brought by a well planned disembarking and subsequent insertion into a functioning reception system which protects and, at the very least, provides for people's immediate needs.

Richard Braude
Forum Antirazzista