It’s spring, and while most of us are already organising our summer holidays, some people have very different journeys in mind. In Northern Africa, migrants from all over the continent try to reach the Sicilian coast by any means.
Crowds of men, women and children leave in little boats at the mercy of the sea, without knowing whether they’ll get to the other side alive. A few days ago an inflatable boat with more than 50 people on board was rescued in the Sicilian Channel just before sinking due to a broken engine. It was coming from Lybia, and it’s not the only one. Another boat was rescued south of the island of Lampedusa – renamed “The New Alcatraz” for its infamous detention centre. The Maltese authorities hadn’t done anything about it because it carried “illegal immigrants”. Many more boats have been sighted, some rescued, some left to their destiny: a story so common we’ve got used to it.
For those who make it to Sicily hoping to build a new life, hell begins: most of them get locked up in detention centres, waiting to be identified by the Italian authorities, and in most cases, eventually deported back to their countries of origin. The conditions people endure in detention centres can be compared to those of Nazi concentration camps. In one centre, the local authorities decided to bury 5 people in a mass grave with no marker.
Recently, a Tunisian man who was to be deported threw himself from the deck of the boat in Palermo’s docks and ended up in hospital with serious injuries. The newspapers talked of a “tragic accident”, deliberately blind to the truth: he preferred to die rather than to be taken back to his country. In the local detention centre in Pozzallo, a group of Tunisian migrants who had been informed of their imminent deportation, started a hunger strike and other protests against the guards of the centre. They were immediately moved to a different centre and then deported anyway. The newspapers are full of stories like these, that people read as if they were soap operas, without realising the protagonists of these stories are real people, flesh and bone like us.
In the meantime, a little beacon of hope sparkles for people born in Italy from migrant parents. Two Bosnian brothers had been locked up in a detention centre in Modena to pay for the “mistakes” made by their parents: they’d lost their job and consequently their permit. The children, then still minors, had become “illegal” and had eventually been locked up with their parents.
The brothers were finally released a few weeks ago, after the judge decided that children of migrants, who are born in Italy, cannot be imprisoned in detention centres. The sentence didn’t go unnoticed by right-wing parties: Maroni, from the Northern League, defined it a “crazy decision”, and Bertolini, from Berlusconi’s People of Freedom, painted the justice system as a tool in the hands of the lefties, accusing the judge of bypassing the decisions made by the Parliament.
This sentence is but a grain of sand, but it’s a beginning, a domino that didn’t fall as planned. While some politicians keep referring to people locked up in detention centres as “guests”, we will keep calling these centres what they really are: concentration camps.
An ever interesting blog to read about migration in the Mediterranean is Fortress Europe (now available in several languages).