18 September 2012

Chapter Four: What’s in a Law?

A Sicilian Diary of Nina Perkowski

“There used to be three reception centres in Catania. People would live there and go out, explore the city, integrate into city life. And now they instead put them all in the middle of nowhere, 2000 people grouped together and isolated from society. Rendered invisible to the rest of the world. I just cannot believe it.”
It’s Monday night and I’m sitting in a bar with two young people I just met, trying to explain what I am doing, share what I have found out already, and listen to their thoughts and points of view. Both of them are teaching Italian to migrants here in Catania, voluntarily of course, unpaid. They seem genuinely upset about the few insights I can share thus far. I am happy they put up with my difficulties to express myself and are eager to hear about Mineo and some the current difficulties of asylum seekers in Sicily.

I share what I have heard earlier today in a long conversation with two representatives of one of the main NGOs here in Catania to offer legal counselling to asylum seekers and migrants more generally. That there are only five lawyers in Mineo, five lawyers who are available for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. That some asylum seekers travel all the way to Catania, which is about an hour’s drive away, to be able to access free legal advice here in the city. That maintaining the centre is a huge business, and that those running it maximise their profits by receiving a fixed amount of money per day per person by the state, and in turn investing very little of it in services, which should in theory be provided. For unaccompanied minors, the daily rate is apparently 80€ per child, a centre for them houses typically 10-12 children. If little is offered besides a bed, some food and maybe some balls to play with, running such a centre can turn out to be rather profitable. In Mineo, not 10, but almost 2000 people are housed, making the potential profit margin significantly larger.

My two companions for the night listen, nod, shake their heads. Every now and again, they help me out, correct a word, ask a question. One of them tells me that she wrote her dissertation about the situation of refugees here in Catania. Her fieldwork took place nine years ago, and since then, the asylum system in Italy has been reformed significantly. She thought for the better. Maybe it has improved, I wouldn’t be able to tell yet. Apart from noting the manifest difficulties that the opening of the “Mega-CARA”1 Mineo has brought in terms of isolation, access to services and legal aid, and the length of the decision-making process, I am still lost in the wide chasm between formal laws and administrative practice.

On the website of the Ministry of the Interior, for instance, it states that CARAs “Sono strutture nelle quali viene inviato e ospitato per un periodo variabile di 20 o 35 giorni lo straniero richiedente asilo (…)” – i.e. are structures which foreign asylum seekers are sent to and then hosted in for a period of 20 to 35 days. In my one, brief visit to Mineo, I already met people who had been in the centre for nine months.

Wherever I go, whomever I talk to, I hear the same thing. What’s in the law is one thing. What happens in reality is a completely different issue. To date, I remain confused. Am wondering if it wouldn’t be possible to somehow insist on people’s legal rights. To go to court if the local administration fails to fulfil its duties.

At the same time, I do believe that the people I speak to are doing their best to assist asylum seekers, and have their reasons to not follow such an approach. I suppose I might quite simply still have to learn a lot about how things work down here…

Nina Perkowski came to Sicily to research the living situation of immigrants from Africa in Sicily for her PhD. For borderline-europe, she reported the situation in Cassibile and Mineo, where there is a collective home for asylum seekers. Within ten chapters Nina wrote down her experiences and her monitorings.

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