Meetings and interviews with Alfonso Di Stefano, Rete Antirazzista Catanese (Catania Anti-racist Network), activists from Immigration Desk of Caltanissetta: attorney
Giovanni Annaloro, Santa Lombarda, Cologero Santoro, and Giuliana Geraci.
Watch the video of the press conference
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In 2010 the Residence degli Aranci was an accomodation for the US Marine staff. A year later it became a reception centre for asylum seekers (CARA, Centro di Accoglienza per Richiedenti Asilo). Located at about 10 km from the town of Mineo, in the province of Catania, the CARA in Mineo is in terms of numbers of residents the biggest reception centre in Europe. Initially run by the Red Cross, currently in charge of medical assistance, it has been passed down to Consorzio Calatino - Terre d’accoglienza in October 2011.
We arrive in Mineo with Alfonso Di Stefano from Rete Antirazzista Catanese. This scenario vaguely reminds us of the government-run camps in Greece, we can’t see tents or latrines, but the sight of barbed wire, gates, army and police certainly doesn’t make you feel welcome. Our presence is clearly inconvenient for the authorities so we keep distant from the entrance. Along the road we meet several migrants, who can come and go from the centre freely, as long as they commit not to spend more than three nights outside the facility. As unfair as this obligation may be it’s important to stress that the position of the CARA in Mineo is a major problem. Located in the countryside next to the provincial road that connects Catania to Gela, the centre is very isolated and poorly connected by means of transport. The risk of feeling isolated is high and the guests live their everyday life in a condition of suspension and apathy. Although the maximum capacity is 2000 people, the facility is currently hosting between 3200 and 4000 migrants in about 370 terraced houses of 160 square metres each. Even though the maximum permanence period in CARA was initially indicated as 35 days, some migrants told us they have been living here for over 2 years. Overcrowding leads to services failure - due to a lack of workers and causing long queues- , and to the loss of individual identity - at the arrival the person name is replaced with a numbered badge. Every house is supposed to host about 10 people, but according to the people we met outside they are actually housing more than 25 people. According to the MEDU (Doctors for Human Rights) report, “the very model of CARA, i.e. a huge facility to house thousands of migrants, proves to be unmanageable and inhuman”. MEDU also highlights the relationship between the CARA residents and 5,200 inhabitants of Mineo. “This imbalance creates major tensions, and represents a serious obstacle to social and cultural interaction with the territory.”
Thanks to Melting Pot’s network we managed to meet a group of migrants from Syria, Yemen, and Egypt, who agreed to tell us - after been granted anonymity - what happens inside the facility. They are concerned about potential threats and abuses from managers and operators within the centre. Authorities clearly don’t appreciate whoever is brave enough to report the situation inside the centre.
Earlier that day we had met a young men from Gambia who has been living in Mineo for more than a year. He told us how happy he is here, how grateful he his to Italy for saving his life and how much support he gets from the operators. Regrettably, it is hard to believe him, not out of mistrust but because of the many accounts of violations in the CARA of Mineo coming from various movements and organizations. We have also been told that certain privileges are granted to migrants who agree to say nice things about the CARA to journalists, activists and parliamentary delegations. We talked to Ahmed (fictitious name), who translated his friends’ words for us. They told us of the awful service management, of the harsh living conditions due to overcrowding, and of the professionals’ work. We learn, for instance, that upon arrival nobody is told about the health, legal, mediation and social integration services offered in the centre. According to article no.10 of DPR 12 January 20155 “CARA’s residence procedures”, the centre should provide an information booklet to asylum seekers, yet none of the guests interviewed by us or by MEDU seems to know anything about it. Information sessions for the guests are indeed scheduled, but only in certain times of the year. As a consequence, an asylum seeker might have to wait for over a month before receiving basic information about their rights and their life inside the facility. Guests’ badges are topped up daily with 2,50 euros that they can spend on cigarettes and calling cards, but only within the facility; everyone receives the same amount, regardless of age and habits. Medical assistance is guaranteed 24/7 by the Italian Red Cross (CRI), that covers both general practice and emergency intervention.
Upon arrival, guests are subjected to a first medical screening, although - as a CRI operator tells us - “patients are not even asked to undress”. The screening is followed by a psychological evaluation in order to establish the patient’s level of vulnerability. The time spent on these procedures is scarce and hardly allows professionals to identify potential victims of abuse and degrading treatment. Moreover, asylum seekers are denied another basic right they are entitled to by law, that is being registered to the National Health Service (SSN). Because of that, Mineo’s CARA depends on a sort of "extraterritorial health care". About 300 professionals work in the centre. Among them, 7 are mental care professionals, 6 are social workers, and 7 legal advisers. Considering the number of asylum seekers housed in the centre, the ratio is one psychological, social, or legal professional every 450-500 people. The legal advice service and orientation services are clearly understaffed, which means that completing the process to apply to and obtain international protection may take an incredibly long time. After filing out the infamous C3 form, people usually wait about 12 months before being called by the Territorial Commission. Applicants are given only a week notice before the interview, which is hardly enough time for the social workers to help the asylum seeker prepare for it. According to the DPR 12 January 2015, after the 35 days of maximum stay in the CARA, asylum seekers must be given - by default - a 3-month residence permit, to be renewed - also by default - until a decision about the international protection is taken. In Mineo’s CARA of Mineo this permit is given only upon explicit request and upon the payment of a fee of €16.
Furthermore, several crimes have occurred in the CARA of Mineo, from homicide to sexual violence, drug trafficking, theft, and prostitution. An investigation exposed a prostitution ring involving women from the centre, exploited not only by other guests but also by social workers.
Work exploitation under the gangmaster system is also an issue. According to the people we have spoken to, every morning recruiters’ trucks pass by the centre, stopping just a few metres away from the entrance. Everything happens under the eyes of the army and the police, who to turn a blind eye - probably thanks to a bribe.
In Caltanissetta, just like in Mineo, there are anomalies in the immigration process as well - usually not of the good kind. Luckily, there’s also the good work of Sportello Immigrati (immigration help desk), a grassroots group of activists who want to tackle the limits and contradictions of the refugees reception system. Among them, the attorney Giovanni Annaloro from ASGI, Santa Lombarda, social worker for the SPRAR (System for the Protection of Refugees and Asylum Seekers), the activist Cologero Santoro, and Giuliana Geraci, cultural mediator. The office is quite small, yet big enough for about ten people, a table, a printer and a NO MUOS flag on the wall.
Every Wednesday afternoon they work at the help desk trying to assist anyone in need, for any kind of problem. As we had the opportunity to assist them, it was clear how their accurate work is difficult, but important at the same time. During our visit, we could have an hint of what their work really is: in the late afternoon a man came, brought by his friend, complaining about a pain in his foot. The man sat down and took off the shoe, revealing that his fot had been amputated. After having redressed, he started to talk, while the other translated: he is 62, Pakistani and homeless, desperately trying to be accepted in a reception centre, more specifically, the CARA in Pian del Lago, which is momentarily offering help for vulnerable people. He suffers from diabetes and hepatitis. Called by the Help Desk staff, the CARA operators first requested a certificate of “compatibility to community life”. Aside from that, this guy seemed not to have money enough to pay a taxi to the hospital: if he isn’t granted this certificate, he will probably continue to live as a homeless person, without any form of assistance. Helped by the Help Desk staff, he will try to get this document, but until then, he will have to sleep outside. We wish him all the best.
The Help Desk activists explain us that the CARA of Pian del Lago is an abnormal centre. First of all, the building is divided into two sections, one working as a CIE (Centro d’Identificazione ed Espulsione - Centre for Identification and Expulsion), the other used as a Reception Centre for Asylum Seekers (CARA). It’s hard to imagine that both structures are one built within the other. The first section hosts approximately 90 people, while the second contains about 480 migrants. The area has been obtained from a former military base, to which a prefabricated building and some containers were added. The living conditions are far from being acceptable, yet, there’s a long queue to get in. That is because, until recently, the procedure to complete the application for the status of refugee was way quicker than in the rest of Italy. Compared to the average waiting time of one year and half or two years, in Caltanissetta the procedure could be completed in six months or less. This unusual efficiency workes as a magnet for many migrants, who came to the centre to seek asylum, even though they had not disembarked on the Sicilian coasts. Whoever doesn’t find a place at a friend’s or relative’s arrived before them, will look for a spot in an unofficial camp under a huge overpass, where several dozens of people live in tents or shacks without any help. Everything is missing in this shanty town: water, electricity, food and medical assistance.
To avoid this internal flux, local authorities decided to intentionally slow down the bureaucratic process bringing it back to the national average time. A rather absurd solution that did not contribute to lower the number of applications received in the CARA. We had reports of procedures being started, but not being carried on before three months due to this new internal guideline.
Even here, there are people who take advantage of this situation of fragility. There’s a network of work exploitation involving both CARA residents and outsiders. We were told about attorneys preparing asylum seekers for the Commission’s hearing, with some of them following up to 600 appeals to the Commission’s rejections. Such a figure highlights the lack of effort put in proceeding migrants’ application and ignores the unique and strictly personal nature of the appeal. Not least, there’s a black market for fake residencies, which are essential in order to get a passport, with prices varying from € 150 up to 600. Yet, there are people who still live in unacceptable conditions, waiting for the “privilege” to live in a container inside the CARA.
The issues we reported and the effects they have on the territory make the CARA of Mineo and that in Caltanissetta a failure with regard to the system of reception of migrants, which still conceives migration as an emergency phenomenon. This vision has been contradicted several times by facts and numbers, yet, it continues to influence national and local policy choices which are driven by political and economic interests. Migrants hosted in these centres live in constant apathy and passivity: “I wake up every day, have breakfast, eat and go to sleep”. Those who still live in the streets and willing to enter are aware that they don’t have a choice on where to live. Luckily, despite the difficulties, there are those who wake up every day and work to support and help these people, with outstanding dedication and humility.
(*) CARA in the original text, ‘cara’ also means ‘expensive’ in Italian language [translator’s note]