The same old waiting room.
Governments change, and so do managing bodies, officials, and legal names for migrant detention centres. The only fundamental constant is having to wait in front of the bars and to argue – more or less cordially – with the guards to be allowed to visit the centre. Even though they know that the Parliament’s mandate includes inspection tasks in order to verify and denounce whether detainees’ dignity is damaged – and in what terms – in a setting of deprivation of liberty. Our representatives in Parliament have the duty, as well as the authority, to do so. And it would be very beneficial for the community as a whole to facilitate enforcing it, rather than hinder it.
In the meantime we stand before the bars and wait.
I’m on the Island, working as an advisor for Terre des Hommes and for the campaign LasciateCIEntrare with Elly Schlein, MEP in the group Possibile. In a few months, we have visited Marassi prison in Genoa and Ponte Galeria CIE in Rome. An Honourable who truly honors her parliamentary duty.
Alberto also works with us. An activist for Mediterranean Hope], an evangelical project, he works alongside other volunteers of Forum Lampedusa Solidale and the unstoppable Father Mimmo, providing first aid and reception (the real one: free, made of hugs, hot cinnamon tea and “welcome!”) at Molo Favarolo, where the exhausted refugees arrive from the sea.
The three of us have been waiting outside for at least half an hour: a draining but customary negotiation to obtain as a favor what should be granted as a right. Finally, the tormented decision comes: the Member of Parliament can get in, but with one partner only.
Alberto is a gentleman (for elegance is not a matter of age nor appearance) and let me go with her. We get in. We are never allowed in any office, though (apart from the forensic office, where the police officers are definitely cooperative).
We take note of all the information, standing in the Island’s salty and humid cold. The same cold that bends the refugees’ backs, forced to live with it for days, and weeks, with no shoes other than flip-flops, the only footwear available, even in January.
Our presence is particularly unwelcome because people in Imbriacola were waiting for someone else, surely someone much more seductive: the World Bank representatives.
Here we are, instead.
For the occasion, they had emptied half of the hotspot in just a few hours. As a matter of fact, the divergent information we are given on the number of refugees detained, which fluctuates depending on who is speaking to us and how informed they are, is not inconsistent due to dishonesty or deceit, but rather because of the sudden halving.
If the managing body proudly responds that the refugees locked in there are “only” 383, just two more than the maximum capacity of 381, the police respond to the same question: 516.
Numbers. Also because we lack the words.
What can we call the people locked in the hotspots?
Hot inmates? At the end of the day, the very nature of the hotspot is uncertain, and clearly lacks legal legitimacy.
Hotspots were established by the circular of the Ministry of the Interior, on October 6, in spite of the constitutional law reserves (the crystal clear art. 10 paragraph 2 states that “the legal status of foreigners is regulated by law”), and provide for sine die administrative detention of refugees after their more or less constrained (because of the condition of detention itself) identification.
But the Constitution itself stipulates in Article 13: personal freedom is inviolable. Any form of detention, inspection or personal search is not allowed, nor any other restriction on personal freedom, except by warrant from the court and only in cases and manners provided by law. In exceptional cases of necessity and urgency, strictly defined by law, the police authorities may adopt temporary measures which must be communicated within forty-eight hours to the judicial authorities and, if not ratified by the judicial authorities in the next forty-eight hours, are revoked and legally void. Every physical and moral violence against individuals subjected to limitations of freedom is punished.
Yet in the hotspots every constitutional protection is put aside: there is no law, no individual measure, no communication to the court and obviously no prompt validation (or validation at all). There are no judges or lawyers.
There is plain (illegitimate) detention and, in some cases, unpunished physical and moral violence. And also the violence inevitably arising from an unjust imprisonment.
Now, how could we name the victims of this restriction of freedom?
Everything is easier when they are just numbers.
This is perhaps why their identities in the center are determined by a number printed with a black marker on a white plastic strip attached to the inmates’ wrists.
And to look at these bracelets, fastened tight on the skin of the prisoners, many of whom are minor (6 young children and 87 unaccompanied minors, if we resort to numerical precision), a few days after the Holocaust Remembrance Day, is really disturbing.
So we adapt to “their” ruthless algebraic bureaucracy. In order not to compromise the centre’s precarious balance, given the complete lack of privacy, we give up on speaking directly with the refugees, apart from stealthily wishing them good luck. We ask questions to the centre’s managers and workers, instead.
The manager and the vice manager of the managing body “Misericordia” (“Mercy”) – the same company that manages the CIE and Cara centres in Crotone -, deny us access to the refugees’ rooms, for unspecified security reasons. By insisting, we managed to only see one, in the outside area reserved for women and families. Which is empty. Six bunks with rough foam mattresses and nothing else. From the squat toilets and the showers, sewage comes out. Not even bathrooms can avoid the logic of numbers: only 6 toilets and 6 showers for 36 people.
For unaccompanied minors it’s even worse.
They are kept in an outer section (enclosed by bars, obviously), aside from what the Tunisians in the spring of 2011 called, with rigorous properties of language, “il gabbio”[[“Cage”, usually referring to the prison, in the vernacular of Rome.]], that is the cage inside the cage that is the centre itself.
Children are provided with ten 6-bed rooms. Today, despite the hasty “clean-up” to impress the World Bank, there are 87 minors. Where will the redundant 27 sleep? And what will the 4 toilets (in total) and the 4 showers at their disposal look like?
We can’t verify, but it is easy to imagine.
We are not allowed to visit the infirmary either (there are too many people in the queue for the visit, we don’t want to impede the physician doing his work, do we?).
The only area we can visit, other than the forensic office, is the kitchen (but only thanks to the cook’s intercession), where the meal-tray-sealing machine proudly displays itself. An object the managing body seems to be particularly proud of, perhaps to compensate for the absence of a lunchroom and even of basic tables and chairs for people to eat their meals.
Thus food is handed out on the stairs that separate the kitchen from the “gabbio” and I can only imagine how complicated it must be when the number of inmates to feed exceeds 1,500.
Like those expected by the contract between “Mercy” (an oxymoron rather than a Confraternity) and the Prefecture (and to which the evasive director refers to for every question we ask her, as if we were to know it by heart) and that mark the distribution of meals, telephone cards, paper bed sheets, blankets, soap, etc., or the shifts of doctors and nurses (no specialist here) who do 24-hour shifts, no one knows for how many consecutive days.
And, as what goes around comes around, even Frontex (6) and Easo officials (2) are just numbers, lacking names because of the rapid turnover.
The former work together with the local forensic staff. They have no access to the computers of which the Italian police are so jealous, but they have the task to “convince” the refugees to hold their wrists and fingertips firm and well-pressed during fingerprinting and photographing.
The data is immediately included in the Italian database (SDI) and the European database (Eurodac).
Working with UNHCR officials, Easo officials should convince refugees of the wonders of the relocation scheme (for instance by showing videos showing asylum seekers being delighted to have been relocated).
Too bad no one knows where, how, and for how long refugees should be transferred to another unknown country.
What is certain is that before leaving Italy, they will be transferred from Lampedusa to other centres or hubs an unknown number of times and probably for months.
No promotional video can fix the distrust produced by such approximation.
At the time of our visit nor Frontex nor Easo officials seem to be present.
We ask for explanation to the operators of the NGOs paid by the Ministry to be there, but the only answers we get are shrugs and evasive comments.
We know for sure that refugees are subjected to all kinds of investigation (they have to fill in all the paperwork, get photographed and fingerprinted, get an x-ray to their wrists to verify, in an invasive and rough way, the age of the alleged minors) and forced to fill and sign an infinite number of papers whose content they don’t even understand. Yet for some reason they cannot submit a formal asylum request.
The answer we get when we can’t help asking “why?” is always the same: they lack the so-called C3 forms, those used by the police, to apply for protection.
The answer leaves us flabbergasted. The police offices inside the hotspots are very efficient, they have every kind of machines for fingerprinting and photographing, and computers connected with databases all over the world, yet they cannot print forms that anyone could download from the Internet?
They want to separate illegal immigrants from refugees to be relocated, yet they are not even able to receive their claims for protection – claims that cannot be lawfully ignored.
On January 8th, Dr . Morcone (Head of the Department of Civil Liberties and Immigration) had to reaffirm, with a letter sent to every prefect and police station, that “not allowing refugees to apply for international protection is a clear violation of law”, echoing somehow what many humanitarian organizations denounced.
But the inmates of Lampedusa’s hotspot are still not able to apply for protection.
They can only “show the will to”. And, in a system centered on bureaucratic formalities, verbal requests not accompanied by the release of any form or receipt give no guarantee.
And as a matter of fact, all the activists, lawyers and professionals engaged on different levels in migrant protection know what is happening in Sicily, and what Schlein denounced to the European Parliament on several occasions: hundreds of refugees are given Deportation Orders, upon arrival in Lampedusa, Pozzallo or Augusta, despite crying out for asylum, for they are not given the proper form to fill out.
The so-called deferred refoulement decree (art. 10 paragraph 2 of T.U. Immigrazione) is the absurd and unenforceable order to leave the country, even when having no money nor passport, and self-deport back to the country from which, with so much trouble, they escaped.
Finally we get out, with no answers to our most crucial questions and no solutions.
But we did leave with one certainty: in Lampedusa there must not be a hotspot, not only for being unconstitutional in itself, but because the Island and its islanders, for their nature and temperament, are good — even champions — “only” in first aid and reception, but certainly not in detention, especially if unjust and sine die.
Nominee for Nobel Peace, the Island cannot host a detention centre, for the sake of consistency and dignity. It can only host first aid and short-term reception facilities, in order to allow the refugees to get back on track before being transferred to the cities of destination.
Because, as mayor Giusi Nicolini says in a notice to citizens on January 8th: “islands are bridges and shall never become barriers”.