Per la libertà di movimento, per i diritti di cittadinanza

“First steps” into Europe: the spreading of the “hotspot approach”

We have looked into Pozzallo’s hotspot during our trip’s first step. In the port of Catania and in the port of Augusta – where migrants saved from the sea land -, we have witnessed a similar situation. Even though these two ports are not official hotspots, things seem to work in the same way.

In Augusta we get stopped at the port entrance, too far from landing areas, so we can only see the tents. Police and army are there in large numbers.
We speak with Gianmarco Catalano from Rete Antirazzista Catanese (Catania’s Anti-racist Network), who has been monitoring the situation for months. He tells us that even though Augusta’s port is not formally recognized as “hotspot”, it certainly works as such. It was initially supposed to be listed as the fifth hotspot in Italy, but it hasn’t because of the strenuous opposition of the mayor and the local right-wing groups. It is just a technicality, however, as the Megarese Port follows the same procedures of a hotspot. Identifications and fingerprinting are mandatory, and obtained using force if necessary. In its report “Hotspot Italy”, Amnesty International exposes the abuses, tortures and illegal procedures migrants are subjected to within the hotspot system.

Porto di Augusta: l'area che svolge la funzione di hotspot
Porto di Augusta: l’area che svolge la funzione di hotspot

Gianmarco tells us that there have been many cases of “deferred” refoulements, with people prevented from applying for asylum and given order to leave Italy. The policy of deferred refoulement is applied to everyone identified as “economic migrant” solely on the basis of their country of origin. We want to stress, once again, that this procedure is completely unlawful, as every person should be given the chance to apply for asylum regardless of their origin, according to an individual right.
And this is not the only violation of human rights he reported.
The port of Augusta is now hosting up to 1,000 people, two times its max capacity. Many migrants are thus forced to sleep on the ground, using a thermal blanket as makeshift bed. Many people denounce very poor sanitary conditions and poor-quality food. There are no cultural liaison officers nor medical personnel. Many people have to stay here for weeks, even though, by law, the limit is 48/72 hours.
In Augusta, like in Pozzallo, there are many minors and vulnerable people subjected to the same treatment. Moreover, Gianmarco reminds us that this hotspot is located in Augusta’s industrial area, one of Italy’s most polluted areas. A recent investigation has discovered that the GESPI incinerator – just one of the many factories actively working in the area – exceeds the emission limits defined by law.
All the information that Gianmarco provides us comes directly from the migrants that have lived inside the port of Augusta. The poor living condition and unjust treatment they were subjected to pushed them to try and escape through a breach in the fence. This “poor reception” exposes migrants, especially minors, to the risk of abuses, blackmail, trafficking and kidnappings. Some lucky ones get to meet activists like Gianmarco, and provode them with information that helps us understand the situation inside the hotspot.

Our stay in Augusta ends when we hear that the ship Bourbon Argos would dock the next morning in the port of Catania. The camper of #overthefortress quickly takes off towards Catania. On the ship, used by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) for maritime rescue, were 867 migrants, 119 of whom were women (7 of them pregnant) and 8 were minors (4 of them only a few months old). Thanks to Melting Pot’s long-standing collaboration with MSF, we were allowed on board.
It has been a moving experience to get to meet, know and witness the smiles of the migrants in such a meaningful moment of their journey. Considering the trouble, the stress, the fatigue and the fear they had to withstand in crossing the Mediterranean Sea, now a certain serenity seems to shine through their faces.

Porto di Catania: l'attesa sulla Bourbon Argos di MSF prima dello sbarco
Porto di Catania: l’attesa sulla Bourbon Argos di MSF prima dello sbarco

We also had the chance to interview some of MSF personnel working on board. That’s how we met Michele, MSF project coordinator (see the video] of the interview). Michele explained us how the first phase of the rescue works: MSF personnel, on smaller ships, approach the migrants’ boats to assess the need of emergency aid and to help everyone keep calm. They hand out life jackets and secure the boat to make sure it doesn’t capsize; finally, the main ship gets closer and the migrants are pulled on board. The Bourbon Argos usually sails 25 nautical miles off the Libyan coast, and it takes them almost two days of navigation to get back to Sicily. In that time, MSF personnel have very specific duties to carry out. Intercultural mediators, for instance, have to establish first contact with the migrants (Psychological First Aid) in order to identify unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable people. It’s difficult to sort out who’s most vulnerable, as almost all of them, in Libya, experienced torture or violence, and according to the Decree of the Ministry of the Interior 27/06/2007, every “victim of torture or violence” is to be considered “vulnerable”. Even the few who haven’t experienced it first-hand, have witnessed it.
On the boat, they are given a backpack with a tracksuit, a pair of socks, a blanket and, of course, something to eat and drink. A MSF officer tells us how hard is to not know what will happen to the people once they leave the ship. As a matter of fact, it’s impossible to know where the migrants will be sent after leaving the port, as the Italian reception system doesn’t follow the bureaucratic procedures envisaged by the law.

Porto di Catania: i controlli della CRI durante lo sbarco
Porto di Catania: i controlli della CRI durante lo sbarco

During our visit, we could see what happens to people in their first steps on European land. Right after getting off the gangway, they are given a pair of rubber flip-flops while the Health Ministry officer takes their temperature, with an instrument – the front electronic thermometer – described by the officer himself as “inaccurate”. Then, they get in line to have their photo I.D. taken and marked with a number. Only at this point the Red Cross medical officers make their first clinic evaluation. Those who don’t need medical attention are taken to “the tunnel” – a row of gazebos where they are searched and identified. This is a concealed area: the gazebos are arranged in such a way as to make it impossible for anyone to see the whole process from the dock or the press area.

Porto di Catania: la zona di prelievo delle impronte
Porto di Catania: la zona di prelievo delle impronte

We manage to see and photograph it only thanks to the fact that we could board the MSF ship, however we couldn’t see when the fingerprinting happened. In any case, Michele told us that people get fingerprinted before leaving the dock. Although they are not official hotspots, the procedure in Catania and Augusta is the same in all its phases. The migrants are eventually divided into groups and put on buses, mostly run by a company named Atlassib.

We don’t know where they are headed, but we know that this is just another step in their long journey along the Mediterranean route. After going from the hot desert to the cold prisons of Libya, from the horror of the open sea to the long-desired Italian coasts, we now see a little hope in their eyes. We feel a sense of bitterness thinking about what awaits them: the Italian reception system is certainly not comparable to the tortures in Libya, yet it will probably wear out their perseverance to the point of exhaustion.

Porto di Catania: welcome!
Porto di Catania: welcome!