|The initial reception centre for unaccompanied minors in Giarre, Province of Catania|
In January 2016, the San Giovanni Battista cooperative took over the management of an initial reception centre for unaccompanied minors located in the Chico Mendez park, an area several kilometres away from the historical centre of Giarre, but apparently connected to the town’s main services. The structure is one of those established according to the regional law of 2014 (DPRS n. 600) which provides a maximum capacity of 60 people, and a maximum stay of three months, as well as very precise standards of hosting which ought be respected.
In June 2016 we were contacted by a group of residents and some volunteers from a nearby church, who asked us to help with a “difficult management situation”. We made an appointment in the park, and began to listen to the stories about the first months which these young men have spent in Italy, trying to understand the issues which have turned their initial concerns into a real panic. “Now there’s around 80 of us, but before we were 100” (in the context of a maximum capacity of 50). “The compound is very large, we sleep in rooms with 2 or 3 beds, there are communal spaces, TV, table tennis and Wi-Fi. But when you get there you don’t have any money, so you can’t call home for a week. The staff tell us to borrow a phone from our friends and we spend our pocket money on phones and phone credit.” The pocket money is often used to buy new clothes as well – given that the minors are guaranteed only one change of clothes – and above all to buy food, in place of the food which the centre provides and which the residents describe as “of the worst standard and in small quantities”. We note the small portions from some of the photos which they show us.
What is disturbing the young men is something entirely different however. Above all, the issue of documents: the only information they have been provided on the procedure which awaits them came from Save the Children at the landing, following which there has been either only silence from the staff, or the reply “you need to wait.” The same goes for the assigning of a legal guardian. The majority of those present arrived 4 or 5 months ago, but only a very small number of them are lucky enough to have been assigned one. The lucky few say that sometimes they hear from their guardians, but the conversations are very brief and are blocked by language difficulties. “They always say that we need to have patience and wait”, without providing any explanation what they are waiting for. The young men feel abandoned and confused during the medical visits, analyses and blood examinations, which scare them because no one explains the reason for this. The legal guardian is always absent, even when the medical problems are more serious and include recovery in the hospital. Some of the residents refer to having been very ill and despite this, the only solution adopted by the ‘administrators’ (a term used by all of them to refer to the centre’s staff) has been to take them to ER, after long periods of indifference. They show us a video of a young man being taken away by an ambulance while screaming, and they tell us the story of a young Eritrean boy, around 13 years old, entirely alone and disorientated, who could find no one who spoke his language, and who came to the centre in very serious health conditions. “He got tired just climbing the stairs to get to his room, he was spitting blood and was always exhausted”. One day he was checked in to hospital, a stay which lasted several weeks. When he returned, the boy seemed to have recovered only slightly, but a few days later he left the centre “on his own”. There has been no further news about him, not about the dozens of other young men who frequently run away from the centre only a few days or weeks after arrival. Among them there have been many Somalians and Eritreans, often younger than 15.
The Italian lessons also seem no more than a mirage, demanded by all of those present, who even went to the church to ask help in this matter. “They’ve told us since July that they’ll sign us up for a course, which never happened. Now we do two lessons a week in the park, but not all of us.” The group of boys we speak to have written various letters and consigned them to the ‘administrators’ and the centre’s manager, “because, given that they weren’t listening to us, we thought that at least they might read what we write, and demand our rights.” They ask to have a legal guardian, Italian courses, the possibility to be involved in the local area and to go to the mosque in Catania with ease. One of these letters was also consigned to the prosecutor at the Court of Minors in Catania by a volunteer, and 4 of the young men then formalised the accusation at the relevant offices some days later. “We gave our information and signed a form, but we haven’t heard anything else. We live in hope.”
We flag up the case and remain in contact with the young men, who ask us not to talk with the ‘administrators’ for the moment, because they have seen us together, and they are scared of possible repercussions. We know that at the end of June 2016 some representatives from the prosecutor of Catania visited the centre and met the management. The situation remains unchanged for weeks nonetheless, while many of the residents have turned 18 without having even formalised their request for papers.
All the while, new residents continued to arrive and others ran away throughout autumn. Some have remained however, even after turning 18 and finally receiving a document, in a centre of very initial reception, where the length of stay is not meant to last beyond three months. The young men continue to protest, frequently sitting down and calling the police or Carabinieri. The quality of the food seems to have improved, and many go to “school” in the afternoon.
We went back to Giarre on March 1st, just over a month ago, to ask the managers if we could visit the centre. On this occasion we also met a part of the Terres des Hommes team there, who attend the centre every Thursday with the ‘Faro’ project, in order to provide psychological support and to organise social and educational activities, including Italian lessons. We were met by one of the members of staff at the entrance, who stopped us and suggested that we formalise our request by email. She confirmed the imminent transfer of some of the 18-year-olds to the centre for refugees and asylum seekers* at Mineo. There are dozen such cases, and some of the young men we know (who we met outside a little later) are among those forced to go through yet another illegal practice implemented by the Prefecture, one neither blocked nor reported by the centre in any way. “Form the moment we got here we hoped to be transferred to a centre run by the central service.* Then from one day to the next they say we’re going to Mineo” ‘M’ confides in us. For him, only a moment away from his school certificate, it will now be very difficult to matriculate this year. We pass through two, three, four weeks of emails and phone calls just to get some signal from the managers: on the umpteenth call, the centre’s coordinator tells us that our visit “won’t be possible for now”, refusing to provide a reason, and hastily ending the conversation.
Shut out from having a dialogue with the managers, we continue to monitor the situation from outside, and to flag up the serious problems encountered. The building is currently host to around 50 young men, more than half of them 18 years old, and mainly from Nigeria, Mali, Senegal and Ivory Coast but also Ghana and Eritrea. The average age is around 16-17, and for several months there have been no new arrivals. There are residents of all nationalities who have decided to leave of their own accord. “We only stay here because we don’t have relatives or contacts elsewhere” some of the young men told us a year ago, but this phrase seems to be far truer now.
‘M’ tells us: “Since at least a month we don’t go to the Italian lessons. The school is far away, the bus is broken down and there’s no one to take us there. In March we weren’t even given our pocket money, so we asked to speak with the manager to understand why, but the coordinator blocked any chance of meeting him. Sometimes someone goes and asks for explanations and leaves the office with tobacco, even if he’s a minor, and a few Euros – but no news.” Some of them have a permit to stay by now, for humanitarian reasons, but after a year they still have not been transferred. “If you want, you’re free to go whenever you want” is the response which seems to be given most of the time to those who ask for a transfer, or who ask information about their own future. ‘R’, who has a humanitarian status, wants to request a passport, but the only help he has been given is being told to go and ask at his country’s embassy in Rome, without any support for the journey, the costs of the procedure or any kind of help in order to understand it. The justification that this is the management of an ’emergency’ centre is entirely unacceptable, given that what is at stake is the young man’s future, and given the total lack of protection for his basic rights. “They take our blood and do tests but when we’re ill they only give us painkillers. If someone is doing really badly, there’s the ER, but you need to really earn it.” Several young men, including those who arrived almost a year ago, are still not in possession of a tax code or a health card. Some complain of having difficulty concentrating, of anxiety, nightmares and recurring worries, because the hope of constructing a future is collapsing with every day pushed up against the facts of the matter. ‘L’ tells us: “Lots of us work in the fields for around 20–25 Euros a day, and a lot of anger. Some have slaved away for weeks without receiving anything at the end. But if you want to earn some money, there’s no choice.” There is no help to access the world of legal work, to put together a curriculum, to have contact with associations prepared to provide some support: the sad and inevitable consequence of the acts of those who do not even guarantee the possession of the most important documents.
“The only person willing to help me get a tax code is the translator. I hope I’ll get it soon, so I can start looking for work and finally get out of here” says ‘R’. After 6 months in Libya and a year in Italy, many people are in the same situation, victims of violence and of a systematic rejection, and appalling reception practices which the Prefectures continue to tolerate, and which public opinion stubbornly defines as a “welcoming” system.
Project “OpenEurope” – Oxfam Italia, Diaconia Valdese, Borderline Sicilia Onlus
* ‘refugee centre’ = CARA, Centro di Accoglienza per Richiedenti Asilo
* ‘central service’ = SPRAR, Sistema di protezione per richiedenti asilo e rifuigiati
Translation by Richard Braude