Montag, 28. November 2016

A Reception System Which Only Benefits the Few: A Visit to the Centre of First Reception for Minors at Castiglione di Sicilia

State of emergency”, “exceptional” and “extraordinary” measures: those words so frequently associated with illegal practices carried out without any check and controls, but which seem to be the only method used for years to run the so-called “welcoming” system in Italy. The Extraordinary Reception Centres (CAS*) are but one example of this, another being the First Reception Centres (CPA*) which for years now have become part of the “ordinary” character of the migrant reception system. For ever more people, the possibility of having professional figures throughout the procedure for getting documents, and during insertion into a host community, has simply disappeared.

For months a host of prefectures, following the umpteenth legislative intervention declared in the name of emergency, have authorised the opening of Extraordinary and First Reception Centres, including for unaccompanied minors. This has allowed for yet another method of blocking the ability to guarantee increased protection for these subjects, instead implementing a “mass reception” system. This has been a moment of enjoyable gluttony for those managing bodies who act without scruples across Sicily and who, as everywhere else, are finding fertile ground to further their own interests. From the end of June we have seen a multiplying of these kinds of centres in every province, and there is already a problem of overcrowding in the existing structures. People are meant to stay there only for the time necessary for the identification process and the commencement of the document procedure, and the promised services are those of minimum basic assistance for very high numbers. However, these centres are frequently functioning as substitutes for 'Second Reception', with their very basic character thus deeply compromising migrants' future lives in Italy. One of these is “La casa del migrante” ('The House of Migrants'), a First Reception Centre for minors in the ward of Verzella, some 7km from Castiglione di Sicilia, a small town of just over 3,000 inhabitants, surrounded by the forests set between Etna and Alcantara, a location which is extremely difficult to reach without your own means of transport.

We became aware of the existence of the structure while speaking with some migrants passing through Catania: “A friend of mine was transferred to a place very far away, where it's really cold. Maybe he's not even in Sicily anymore.” He put us in touch with the young man, who immediately complained about the lack of shoes and clothes, and the isolation in which he had been forced to live: “I got here two weeks ago, and I've still only got plastic shoes. We're really far away from everything, even a shop.” The young man told us that he lived with about forty other male migrants and three Nigerian women who remained after three other Nigerian women had run away. “Everyone wants to run away from here, but we're so isolated we can't even do that.”

We stay in touch with him, and after a few weeks manage to make our way to the structure, after having spoken with the manager of one of the two cooperatives, which we find out are Azione Sociale, already engaged with various other Emergency Reception Centres in the province of Ragusa (as well as being the manager of the Pozzallo hotspot since the end of July 2016), and the Ippocrate cooperative based in Enna. There are in fact two buildings, one much larger and another smaller one, which comprise a complex which was previously used for older persons recovering from hospital. Some traces of the former structure can be seen in the furniture inside, and the post box at the entrance. We immediately presented ourselves to the two workers on shift, who gave us a snapshot of the situation. The centre opened in September, first hosting 6 young Nigerian women, but hosting only men after this. Three of the women immediately left, so by now there are 57 male minors present, as well as the three women, with the final dozen young men having arrived from the port of Catania the day before our visit. In the past months the migrants have been brought to the centre straight from the landings, save for a minor transferred from another centre for reasons which they did not manage to explain to us, who is the only resident who has a tutor at this point. The residents are from a range of countries: Nigeria, The Gambia, Mali, Ghana, Guinea Conakry, Ivory Coast, Eritrea and Somalia.

Some of the Eritreans and Somalians have been placed in a “special” program, about which it was impossible to understand anything except the fact that they had been transferred to Palermo. No one seems to have left of their own accord for a while now however. The staff are composed of around ten workers, including a psychologist, the night watchmen and a mediator. There have been various external collaborations with a social worker and a legal assistant. They explained to us that on arrival everyone is given a hygiene kit, a change of clothes, a pair of slippers, and a pair of shoes “from those which are there”, an issue which we were able to discuss and verify throughout our visit. Pocket money is given once a month, as well as telephone cards. Reading and writing lessons have been proposed every now and again, and recently they have made contact with a local school to provide Italian lessons. The workers said that the residents had no particular health problems, and in small groups have been taken for medical screenings to a clinic in Catania, an opportunity which some have taken to run away, especially a few months ago.

The request to have a legal guardian has been sent off for everyone, even if the workers confided in us from the start that they have found the procedure very difficult to understand, because they were not attuned to the important and substantial differences between the tasks necessary for adults and for minors. This is a extremely serious fact, in relation to which we advised them to immediately consult their legal advisor, after having flagged up the urgency of the issue for an adequate execution of duties. We also asked for an explanation for the presence of women in the structure, and the management of their situation within the centre. It seems that months ago the workers from an organisation – identified, on our suggestion, as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – met with the women and spoke to them about placing them in special protection programmes. Up to today, the women have still not been provided with any special protection – aside from the workers arbitrarily limiting the number of telephone calls which the women can receive from certain phone numbers, when the calls are very frequent, on a mobile which the centre makes available to the residents. We talk about the potential risks arising from this situation, and suggest the immediate adoption of adequate measures, even though we are continually told that the women, who arrived back in September, are only in a transitory phase at the centre. From what the workers said, no other organisation appears to have visited the centre since it was opened.

We leave the office to go and visit the other spaces in the complex, while a group of young men insistently call for the workers' attention: throughout our meeting we repeatedly proposed that we pause it in order to give attention to the minors, but this moment was continuously postponed. The young men, who were for the most part in plastic shoes or flipflops, included a few who said they had arrived the previous night, and had still not received anything, but even they were made to wait, despite our emphasising the urgency of the situation. We visited the bedrooms very quickly, which are situated at the centre of the building: each has four or five hospital beds and a bathroom. There were lots of guys lying in bed, some wandering the drenched corridors, angry about the lack of cleanliness. There is a sitting room with a TV, a canteen and a large terrace, while the young women live in a small building set apart. It was very cold everywhere.

We finally met up with the minors who had been waiting in front of the office for around an hour, requesting slippers and clothes. There were around twenty of them, speaking French, for which reason we found ourselves mediating and translating – as much as we could – the requests they were making of the workers, who did not understand their language but seemed to have already understood the problem well enough. They informed us that the young men were asking for shoes, but that when these are handed out to everyone, many of them refuse the shoes because they do not match their exact size, or “they don't like them.” The same for jumpers and trousers as well. From their side, the minors claimed that in fact not everyone had received footwear, and that many of them had waited for weeks, bounced from one promise to another. “After two weeks they gave shoes to some, but not everyone. I'm still in flipflops, and it's cold.” “There isn't anything in this place: shoes, clothes, school. They tell us one thing but then never do it. Yesterday they promised us that today everyone would have shoes, but yet again there's nothing. If we don't complain, it will always be like this.”

We found out that, two days before, the police had been called to talk to the manager following a protest by the residents. Today yet again, three police cars drove through the gates after half an hour, which had been called by the workers during the midst of a discussion. Some other workers also arrived with them, including a woman with whom the young residents seemed to have a relationship of trust. None of them spoke French, English or any other language to ease communication, aside from a few words. We thus found ourselves in the office assisting with the hurried handing out of some of the remaining shoes, while the majority continued to protest outside along with the recent arrivals, who were left to wait in a corner for even longer. On the request of the Marshall of the Carabinieri, we reported the information we had gathered while talking with the workers and the residents over the last few weeks. It was at this point that we were met by a man, presumably a worker, who suggested that the Marshall take away 4 or 5 of the more worked up young men for a few nights in a cell to teach them a lesson which would also discourage the others. We quickly reminded him of the different roles and tasks of the centre's staff and those of the Carabinieri, and noted how the proposal relied on the logic of “punish one, teach a hundred”, a principle which runs against every ethical, educational, supportive and legal practice, all of which the centre's workers are held to. The idea faded away for the moment, but our understanding of the centre's modus operandi, which follows this logic and which would likely be adopted by the workers in our absence, did not. They then showed us the signature which the residents apparently gave on accepting the distributed items, other than the hygiene kit – on dates which were nevertheless frequently some time after the day of their entrance to the centre, and which in any case provided no assurance of any real understanding on the minors' part, given the clear linguistic barrier between them and the staff. In the end they were promised the distribution of everything by the end of the day, with which tensions eased and the Carabinieri left the centre.

We stay and talk with some of the residents who had not participated in the previous discussion, predominantly English speakers, walking far away from the centre. Unlike their French speaking housemates, who noisily demonstrated their exasperation, the English speakers seemed exhausted, retreating into their concerns. We spoke about their days spent in the repetitive daily boredom and limited spaces of the centre, days passed between bedroom, television and sending phone messages, as well as some football games with other residents. The sensation was on of total stagnancy, where their real interests and aspirations are never listened to by anyone with any patience. “I don't know what's waiting for me, when I will have my documents, how long I will have to stay here.” “The workers all speak Italian, but we can't understand them, and can't learn on our own either.” “I haven't been able to sleep recently, and often I think that I'm not even in Italy.” “Talking is pointless, they only realise we're even here when we pause to take our meals.”

No one made any reference to the earlier discussion until one of the locals stopped us to give a jacket to one of the guys, saying that he had always seen him pass by in only a jumper. “Even the water is cold in the centre, and frequently it's only turned on in the mornings. They gave us money, but there isn't anywhere where we can buy clothes or food, everything is too far away. When we ask something, the only answer is that they will transfer us soon, without any other explanation.” “I want to go to school and play football” – says 'L', who is clearly very young but speaks very good English and livens up the discussion a bit – “I'm 16, but in Gambia I had already learnt three languages, I hope I don't forget them.” We remain in silence, completely alone in the middle of the only deserted road which takes to the other houses dispersed among the forest, until a thunderstorm sends each of us down our own path.

Today we got a message from one of the young men: “Yesterday I finally got some shoes. I can't wait to use them to take me far away from this place.”

Lucia Borghi
Borderline Sicilia

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

* CPA = Centro di Prima Accoglienza (First Reception Centre)
* CAS = Centro di Accoglienza Straordinaria (Extraordinary Reception Centre)

Translation by Richard Braude