18 September 2012

Chapter Seven: Sbarco

A Sicilian Diary of Nina Perkowski

The last week here has been pretty much bizarre, absurd, almost unreal…. now, Friday night, I am left with a curious mix of anger, helplessness, frustration and a great number of questions on my mind.

On Monday, the Italian Refugee Council (CIR) and a range of other organisations celebrated World Refugee Day with a slight delay, and welcomed a variety of speakers reflecting on current conditions and pressing needs regarding the situation of refugees in Italy. Speakers included delegates of various NGOs but also the UNHCR, the prefecture, and the local police station. Naturally, they came with varying viewpoints and agendas – and I am currently still in the process of writing and reflecting on some of my impressions from this day. Overall, the atmosphere was benevolent, many refugees attended, and it was a rather interesting afternoon and evening, which ended with an impressive movie.
Only a few days later, this positive and welcoming atmosphere seems light years away. Wednesday night, migrants irregularly arrived in Catania. 115 people were intercepted close to the city, after having been observed by the Guardia di Finanza for two days. They came in an old fishing boat from Egypt, about 15 meters long. In the same night, some 30 of those newly arrived were identified as minors and transferred to reception centres for minors. The rest were brought to an abandoned building, which was once meant to serve as a gym for a school. From what I heard, it was never actually used as it failed to fulfil safety standards.

I received notice of what was going on around midday yesterday, and decided to go for a stroll to the former gym and have a look at the situation. When I arrived, I was struck by how little I could see: two big gates, a fence with a shirt tied to it, an apparently abandoned sports ground behind. Looking through the fence from the side, I could see that behind the gates, there were police cars, and a few uniformed policemen were standing around. I walked back and forth twice, and then decided to return home. I learned later that the migrants were apparently hosted in the basement of the building, and were thus completely invisible to passersby.

A little later, somebody called me and told me they were going to the Palestra (the gym), asking if I wanted to come. I did, and so I found myself in front of the very same gates I had passed by a few hours earlier. This time, representatives of the UNHCR and local NGOs were there as well, and told me they had tried obtaining access to the migrants in order to identify them and advice them on the possibility to request asylum. They were, however, not allowed to enter the premises or talk to those arrived. After a little while, they decided to head home and to return the next morning. I did the same – after all, nobody was left in front of the place, there was no way to enter, and I was supposed to meet people to watch the Italy-Germany semi-final. Many people were out to watch that match, and to eventually celebrate Italian victory. A local, leftist organisation having an international youth meeting ongoing decided however to bring their guests in front of the Palestra, and to monitor the situation a little longer… thanks to their initiative, we now at least have some information of what occurred over there late that evening.

The group present raised alarm and mobilized a number of other activists to join them when they noted two large buses close to the Palestra at about 10pm, with a carrying capacity of over 100 passengers. Personally, I did not receive a phone call – my contacts had decided that it was ‘too late’ to disturb me and get me to come into a rather dangerous area, and I thus obliviously celebrated Italy’s football achievements.

First, another 22 minors were transported away from the Palestra to specialised reception centres. As they did not know what was occurring to them (there was no translator present), they shouted ‘political asylum’ and made understood that they were Christians – they were afraid that they were about to be deported back to Egypt. To calm them down, a police officer apparently entered the bus and lifted his weapon – certainly a much easier way to make them shut up than organising a translator in due time.

Then, all remaining adults (53, as some had been taken in custody for being suspected of people smuggling) were about to be brought to the airport, where they would be summarily deported to Egypt. The activists present decided to stage a sit-in, and blocked the bus from departing. They managed to sustain this situation for two hours, passing on information to the migrants via megaphone. In the meantime, a little crowd of onlookers had gathered – and after a while, some of them approached the activists and openly threatened them, saying they did not like disturbances in their neighbourhood. Only a few metres away from the Palestra is, allegedly, one of the main spots for cocaine dealing in Catania, which the Mafia is, again allegedly, in control of.

When some of the activists sought to approach the police regarding this issue, the answer was clear: those policemen present had miraculously not heard or seen any threats, despite having stood nearby. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, as I have heard quite often during the last few weeks that there exist intricate links and agreements between the Mafia, local politicians and the police. Given the threats and the apparent unwillingness by the police to protect the activists present, a number of them got up, leaving the sit in. In the end, only two were left. Demoralized, fearful and tired, they eventually agreed to give up the blockade and to instead drive to the airport, to try to affect something there.

When they reached the airport, however, it was closed – after all, it was 2.30am at night, and no more flights were operating. This morning then, the press confirmed what all had feared – all 53 migrants had been summarily deported back to Egypt. Not only had neither UNHCR nor NGOs in Catania been given the opportunity to talk to them and provide them with information, or take note of potential asylum request. But also, there were apparently a number of people who clearly stated that they were Coptic Christians, and that they wanted to apply for asylum. Nevertheless, they were sent back to Egypt within less than 48 hours – without having their nationality confirmed by non-state actors, nor having been able to exercise their right to apply for asylum. Their names are now circulating among local NGOs, who will attempt to follow up with them and their fates back in Egypt.

The expulsion occurred in blatant violation of EU, international, and Italian law. Isolating 53 people from outside access, rendering them invisible to the outside world by locking them in a basement, not allowing even the UNHCR to speak to them, and deporting them at dead night… this has reminded local activists of the last boat arrival of irregular migrants in Catania, 1,5 years ago. Now, as back then, they tried their best to stop the summary expulsions. Now, as back then, they failed.

There was an emergency meeting tonight of some activists, who were discussing what had occurred, what had gone wrong, and how one could learn for the future. The desperation, powerlessness and frustration were palpable; some were fighting back their tears.

As I was sitting there, I couldn’t help but feeling hopeless, too – the system and structures against which both they and I am trying to work against seem almighty at times, the support for migrants and refugees amongst politicians and the population more generally is vanishingly little. Are we all just battling a hopeless battle in the end, celebrating tiny victories while in essence, nothing will ever change…?

A dear friend of mine listened the other day to these rather destructive thoughts, and reminded me of something I wrote on my Couchsurfing profile many years ago. It’s a quotation my Dorothy Day, who said that

“Nobody has the right to sit down and feel hopeless. There’s too much work to do.”

Maybe Dorothy Day was right, just as my younger self who decided to quote her, and my friend who so kindly reminded me that I did.
There is incredible amount of work to be done.

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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