Freitag, 2. September 2016

Those Who Die, Those Who Arrive and Those Who Remain: The Overcrowded Hotspots at Pozzallo

What Europe just doesn't understand is that for migrants arriving in Libya it's less risky to try and escape across the sea that to try and go back to their home countries”, says A., a young Senegalese man who arrived in Italy two years ago. Like many of his countrymen, he's following the rescue operations on the TV, shot through with a sense of momentary relief between the powerlessness and rage. “Anyone who hasn't been in Libya cannot imagine what it means to live there. Every European has a mobile, in the same way every Libyan, however old, walks around with a gun in his hand. But no one in Italy wants to hear about this.”

The merchant vessel OOC Jaguar at the port of Pozzallo. Photo: Lucia Borghi
In the past few days the media has reported the news of the huge rescue operations and arrivals: more than 13,000 migrants landed in a few days on the coasts of Sicily, Calabria, Sardinia and Apuly, along with the corpses of those who did not manage to finish the journey. Very few words have been spent in asking why there has been such a huge upturn in arrivals; there have, perhaps, been too many photos and videos and a constant search for the most sensationalist news which can be spread so as to record these dramatic moments, without any appropriate respect for the privacy and suffering of others. In general, the spotlights are switched off even before the migrants have set foot on dry ground, to be switched on again with the next instance of violence which can stir up public opinion. The elevated number of rescues immediately carries us to a discussion of the difficulty in managing the reception system: the new diplomatic agreements, the increase in the brutality and detentions in Libya, which has presumably blocked the departures till recently, is not considered worthy of space in the daily papers.

And thus it is that navy vessels, merchants ships and humanitarian organisations have undertaken dozen upon dozen of rescue operations in a few hours' time. On August 24th a new agreement was struck between the military mission Sophia and the Libyan coast guard, projecting the training of the latter by agents from the Eunavformed operation. This is the same Libyan coast guard who have been attributed with the assault on MSF's vessel the Bourbon Argos, which took place on August 17th. The attack was preceded by shots fired at standing height, and which brought about a continuing stop to the ship's rescue operation. The agreement with the Libyan coast guard reflects the political will to increase rejections and deportations, and the general strategy of stopping migrants at the European borders, a strategy in which European governments are engaged far more than any attempts to provide protection to those who are fleeing.

This political will has been confirmed by the EU Vice-Commissioner Frans Timmermans who, on the occasion of yesterday's meeting with the citizens of Syracuse at the Greek amphitheatre, responded to various questions about immigration by reaffirming that Europe's challenge is to “help them in their own countries”, protecting its own borders, distinguishing between economic migrants and refugees, using an iron fist against those African countries who do not accept the agreements for readmission, and the impracticability of any humanitarian corridors. The Vice-Commissioner also defended the agreement with Erdogan's Turkey. There was a great deal of rhetoric about how wonderful the Italians are at welcoming, but not a single concrete word about how to change the Dublin regulations, nor even a reference to the total failure of the Hotspot and relocation system. This is a Europe, in sum which for fear of giving too much ground to the populist right, ends up assuming their positions, even if mitigated by a less vulgar or openly racist tone.

At Pozzallo there were two landings following one day after the other, while only the night of August 30th the English vessel “Fast Sentinel”, although originally directed towards the Ragusan port, was redirected to Porto Empedocle with 300 migrants on board, because the situation at the Hotspot seemed unsustainable. The condition of the dozens, if not hundreds, of unaccompanied minors, both male and female, present in the Hotspot for weeks is equally unsustainable. The lack of appropriate available places is no justification for the violation of human rights and arbitrary, illegitimate detention in a place which is entirely inadequate, and without any appropriate separation between men and women, adults and children.

We know that often within the centre there aren't even enough mattresses, and the physical sleeping space and conditions of overcrowding have by now become chronic with the new arrivals. Only a week ago we met some young men who had run away from the Hotspot a week earlier, who were aware that they needed to wait for available, appropriate places, but not the fact that their presence in the centre had no legal basis, above all for such a long period. “We have Italian lessons, clothes and regular food in the centre. But waiting is too hard, it almost makes you ill, even more so because we see other people are transferred and we're too many”, says A, from Gambia, who has been acting as an impromptu translator, including for his friends from Mali and Eritrea. “I know a lot of languages, I want to study and here I've already learned some Italian words. My friends haven't, they haven't even gone to school, which is why they can't make themselves understood.” A's friends will still have to keep waiting until the point when, one hopes, they will arrive in a place where they can be more than just numbers and instead make themselves understood and be known as human beings. But in the meantime the maps of Italy and of Europe which these young men have received continue to be sketched with a geography of voyages and dreams which remain imaginary for whoever cannot move themselves freely, in which they differ from their European peers.

The 473 migrants who arrived yesterday at Pozzallo have followed the same process as the 692 who arrived less than 24 hours previously, among whom there included 40 or so unaccompanied minors and around 20 pregnant women. The disembarking of the OOC Jaguar merchant vessel, planned for 8am on Thursday, was delayed by 4 hours by the medical checks undertaken by USMAF; it seems in fact that the merchant vessel did not have any medical staff on board, and that it had not been possible to undertake the routine checks immediately following the rescues. There was a large deployment of police forces, along with Frontex agents, members of EASO* and workers from the Red Cross, the UNHCR*, IMO*, Save The Children, Terres Des Hommes, Emergency and MEDU.

The nationalities of the migrants present were varied and heterogeneous: Gambia, Guinea and Mali, but also Bangladesh, Senegal, Egypt, Syria, Somalia, Cameroon, Nigeria, Tunisia and Morocco, all having departed from Libya like their companions from the day before. From the Hotspot, the transferrals continue to Campania, Abruzzo, Molise and the Central North, but last night a hundred people spent the night in tents set up at the port by the department for Civil Protection. Among them were women, children and Eritrean and Syrian families. This is similar to Augusta, where around sixty minors were landed on Wednesday and are still hosted in the tent-city at the port, along with another 600 people. Yesterday, after the go ahead from the doctors, the long descent under the beating midday sun began, the refugees waiting in line for the photo, the scrupulous metal detector checks, and the unending series of questions from the police and Frontex agents, who are ever more active on the quayside. The landing operations lead onto the removal of the witnesses and presumed boat drivers/people smugglers, the alighting onto the buses and the accompaniment to the area of the Hotspot, far from prying eyes. Darkness and silence, all too frequently along with a lack of protection for human rights, thus return to the migrants, who have only just escaped from the jaws of death.

Lucia Borghi
Borderline Sicilia

Project "OpenEurope" - Oxfam Italia, Diaconia Valdese, Borderline Sicilia Onlus  

*EASO: European Asylum Support Office
*UNHCR: UN Refugee agency
*IMO: International Migration Organization
*MEDU: Medici per I Diritti Umani – Doctors for Human Rights

Translation: Richard Braude