GUE/NGL delegation visits Sicily and Lampedusa
Participants: Martina Anderson, Josu Mirena Juaristi Abaunz, Ángela Rosa Vallina de la Noval and Inês Cristina Quintas Zuber
In light of the increasing number of deaths in the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2015, with more than 2064 migrants who have drowned this year and the unacceptable answer of the Council and the Commission so far, the GUE/NGL delegation to Sicily and Lampedusa aims at:
– Building on GUE/NGL former delegation in October 2014 to see how the situation has evolved;
– Visiting temporary first reception centres where migrants are transferred after rescue at sea both in Sicily and Lampedusa, including one for unaccompanied minors;
– Meeting with lawyers, NGOs and officials working there on the ground to assess the current situation, both in terms of search and rescue as well as reception and procedures.
Thursday 18 June 2015, Catania
Anger, desperation and lack of understanding towards European Union inaction… that is the strong feeling of all NGOs and lawyers we met today when we started discussing the situation in Sicily and what the response to the structural emergency situation has been so far despite all the promises after the shipwrecks of the 3rd and 10th of October 2013.
The situation of first reception centres according to their testimonies seem to be critical, especially for unaccompanied minors. “It is not possible to ask more from Sicily”, stated one of our interlocutors today, “we play with the lives of people”. All agreed that the first and urgent priority should be the suppression of the Dublin Regulation (theme of a GUE/NGL hearing next week on 24th June!). From a 98-year-old Syrian man who had arrived on a boat to a 5-day baby born on the boat, the stories they told us were diverse but all pointing out at the dramatic situation they see every day. Despite the increased number of arrivals at the Italian shores this year, they also reminded us that these numbers represent nothing when compared to the total European population and fail to understand why we cannot welcome them in a humane way. They reminded us of the need to have humanitarian corridors to ensure people will not risk their lives at sea.
When asked about what they need, the list seems endless but crucial to ensure humanity: financial assistance for NGOs and local authorities; cultural mediators in hospitals; more and small reception centres; identification and special care for migrants who are suffering from post-traumatic disease; monitoring the conditions in all reception centres; training and financial support to guardians of unaccompanied minors… But more than anything else, political action is needed to change current policies, which they are still waiting for.
Meeting with Padre Gianni di Gennaro and lawyers from Centro Astalli and with Giulia Chiarenza, Responsible Emergency Sicilia Orientale
Friday 19 June 2015
“Is this Europe? Is all Europe like this?”
We left Catania this morning reading the figures released by a consortium a journalists about the absurd costs of Fortress Europe that have made refugees and migrants spend over 1 billion euros a year to reach Europe while the EU and its Member States pay a similar amount to keep them out, with few big companies benefitting from this new border surveillance corporate business. (see: http://www.themigrantsfiles.com )
After a 2-hour drive, our delegation arrives at the First Emergency centre of Pozzallo (Centro de Primo Soccorso di Acoglienza de Pozzallo). During the whole visit, our delegation was torn between the official presentation of the situation of the centre and what we were seeing and being told by all the migrants.
Two different centres in one. One centre that in theory was a transit centre where migrants could not stay more than 72 hours with a capacity of 180 persons and with a maximum in an emergency of 240 persons where people are being provided with the clothes they need upon demand, get all the assistance they need, are able to go out during the day if they wish to do so. Another centre that in practice had in the last months hosted about 540 persons over one night due to multiple arrivals, has locked the migrants in the building without even giving them access to the courtyard for months until last Saturday apparently. It had stopped providing welcome kits when boats arrived for a period of one month. This prevented doctors from curing migrants as they had the same clothes they had before leaving Libya and had scabies. The migrants told us they had been in the same clothes for 10 days and did not have enough shampoo or soap. They also told us about the extreme violence which had been used against a minor to take his fingerprint; about a 2-month baby which had been kept with his mother for 10 days; about people who did not want to be fingerprinted were locked in a small space; about FRONTEX which is responsible for detecting whether a person is lying about his/her nationality; about migrants who do not have any legal advice….”Is this a prison or a centre? What is this?” asked Mahad, ayoung Somalian boy, “all we want is our freedom, we have never been treated like this since we came from Somalia to get a new life, peace, education and a better future”.
“To think that they have been rescued at sea to be treated this way is unbearable”, stated Martina Anderson, “Migrants have been telling us that they were treated better under Khadafi.” When a young Somalian boy asked the delegation, “Is this Europe? Is all Europe like this?”, none of us could answer. “Europe is doing everything wrong. The same Europe that created the wars and the conflicts these women, men and children have been escaping deprive the same persons of any rights once they reach Europe,” added Angela Vallina. “This is unacceptable”, concluded Inês Zuber.
Since end of January, the centre has benefited from a great team of MSF doctors, nurses and cultural mediators who work in partnership with the local health authorities to provide medical and mental health care for all the people in the centre. This team also provides medical assistance during landing of the boats and are responsible for identifying scabies or tuberculosis. They have witnessed the same health and hygienic conditions as a detention centre in Libya when the centre stopped providing clothes and soap upon arrival for one month. This team was also appalled by the post-traumatic stress disorder linked to what the women, men and children went through during their journey to Europe with many having suffered sexual abuse or extreme violence in prisons in Libya or by the people who kidnapped them in exchange of money.
One can only hope that with the change of consortium managing the centre that should happen within a week (due to the default in payment of about 820 000 euros by the municipality to the cooperative while they had received the money from the Prefecture…), the situation will improve and decent and humane conditions will become the rule in this centre. This will be crucial as arrivals will be still coming in the absence of safe and legal access to Europe. This centre hosted 28000 migrants in 2014 and already 7000 have gone through the centre this year.
The day ended with an encounter with FRONTEX Triton operational officer who was in Sicily to prepare the opening next Friday of a European regional office or so called “hotspot hub” in Catania where FRONTEX, EASO, Europol, Eurojust and the Italian authorities will be sharing an office and sharing information. He briefed us about the new “Triton 2015” compared to “Triton 2014” with many more Member States participating (27 out of 28), an increased budget (from 2,5 million/month to about 6 million/month), more assets to be deployed (now 6 Open Patrol Vessels, 3/4 fixed wing aircrafts, about 3 helicopters, 7/8 CPVs, 5 fast intervention boats) and an extended operational area. The overall focus of this meeting that aimed at showing us how best we can “remove” the boats to prevent smugglers to reuse them and identify the smugglers seemed unreal after the visit to the centre.
Saturday 20 June
Full programme on the occasion of International Refugee Day.
Last visit before leaving Catania to “Regina Elena”, a Centre for Unaccompanied Minors in Catania managed by the municipality of Catania and currently accommodating 64 minors. A former centre for Italian minors, it became in 2011 a centre for migrant unaccompanied minors with a normal capacity of 36 beds. However, given the “emergency”, the centre converted part of the building that was a school into “emergency” bedrooms that have become normal long-term stay bedrooms until they are able to transfer the minors to the normal bedrooms or another centre. Some minors had been in these bedrooms for 2 years. The main difference with the “normal rooms” is the absence of a heating system, which in the winter was unbearable for the minors, as well as the now numerous mosquitoes that prevents them from sleeping at night, and the very old furniture and beds. Minors can be allowed by the tribunal to stay until they are 21-years-old if minors expressed the will and want to go to school and/or have a clear project. Like in Pozzallo, this centre has not been receiving the financial envelope provided by the Ministry of Home affairs to the Municipality. As a consequence of that, staff has not been paid for 16 months and are working on a voluntary basis and there is no activity organised for the minors there: “we play football, that is all” one of the minors told us. One unexpected surprise of the visit to the centre was to find there the unaccompanied minors the GUE/NGL delegation had met in November in the Palaspedini stadium who had been transferred on the day of our visit because of our presence. Since then, they have been living in this centre next door to the stadium.
After landing in Lampedusa at 15:30, our delegation started its series of meetings by meeting with the Commandante Cannarile of the Italian Coast Guards to understand better the search and rescue operations from Lampedusa. “Since 1994, when migration first came to Lampedusa, it is the same,” insisted the Commandante. The main difference is the origin of the people as between 1994 and 2004 only Tunisians came here, while now you have many countries of origin like Syria, Eritrea, Mali, Gabon, Nigeria, Somalia etc. He also insisted on the fact that their operation as coast guards is not an immigration police operation, it is a sole SAR operation with as reference the International 1979 Hambourg Convention, which means as well that they do not patrol and intervene only when they receive a distress call. The boats are also very different from border surveillance/police boats as they are made for SAR and can operate under all weather conditions, including 7-8 metres high. During a SAR operation, there is only one authority coordinating SAR and that is the Italian Coast Guards, that looks for the nearest boats able to carry out a SAR operation under their command, whether a navy, FRONTEX or cargo ship. “It is key in this regard to have boats near Libya”, he insisted, which at the moment of our visit included the new MSF dignity boat, the U.K. HMS Bulwark and the German Schleswig Holstein; all these boats are not part of the Triton operation. We learnt also that FRONTEX has, through the Italian Home Affairs Ministry, paid coast guard crew and boats, so FRONTEX for them means a “bag with money”. He ended the meeting on something important he wanted to tell us: “You have to know that most migrant boats don’t have smugglers on board.” He added: “a smuggler is a guy with a jacket, a tie, a laptop, reads EURONEWS and BBC, checks the weather conditions on the internet”. Smugglers on departure of boats give migrants who could not afford the travel an old compass telling them the direction they should follow and “drive” the boat, he told the delegation showing the compass he had on his table. He also insisted that for the media, it is normal that all people arrive alive, but that actually given the very poor conditions of the boats, it is a miracle that they are rescued and alive. “I never find people in a good situation; we had many cases of chemical burns on their skin”. Asked about the possible military operation to destroy the boats, he shared with us his personal opinion: “we have to understand why people want to come to Europe, if we destroy boats, the people will find another way. We want these people to say in Libya? That is a humanitarian problem.” For him, the only way to resolve this problem is through humanitarian corridors that would enable refugees to reach Europe without risking their lives at sea.
The meetings continued with Marta and other staff from Mediterranean Hope, a project of the Protestant church that aims to be an observatory about migration. In Lampedusa, they work with local associations to create a relationship between the migrants and the local population, they also welcome the migrants at the docks at the landing just to show they are welcomed with a smile. They have also a center for unaccompanied minors in Scicli in Sicily called “House of culture” that they opened in one of the main streets so that migrants are not hidden in the outskirts of the city as it is often the case and develop projects with the population in order to strengthen the links. They are also working with the government of Morocco and Italy on a pilot “humanitarian corridor” between Morocco and Italy where 1000 humanitarian visas would be given by Italy to vulnerable asylum-seekers in Morocco.
After this meeting, our delegation went to the City Hall to meet Mayor of Lampedusa, Giusi Nicolini. Asked about the conditions of the centre we were about to visit the next day, she reassured us that the situation in the centre has improved after the December 2013 scandal when a video filmed by a migrant revealed violations in the centre and transfers are being conducted much more swiftly (survivors of the 3rd and 10th of October had been locked for 90 days in the center after the tragedy). She pointed that the main issue is the difficulty to transfer the migrants within the 72 hours set by Italian law as it is a first reception centre. She regretted that transfers for economic reasons could not be done by flights anymore as this enabled to relocate the migrants in different parts of Italy. While Mare Nostrum navy boats used also to do transfers, now they have to wait for the normal ferry to come and weather conditions often cancel ferries; twice they had a navy ship that transferred migrants. She also wished that only first reception centres existed and that all other big centres would be closed and have very small structures to spread migrants. She also told us about the close relationship the municipality has developed with the Committee of the 3rd of October, that brings together the survivors and relatives of this tragedy and also how touched she is when she meets migrants in other parts of Sicily who share their gratitude to the rescuers and the island telling her “we were born a second time in Lampedusa”. Asked about the message she wanted us to transmit, she explained that they have tried for years to make Europe understand “that the Mediterranean Sea belongs to all” and talked about the “delicate moment we are at today” where the theme has entered the political agenda but faces an attitude of rejection by many politicians. “We do not know whether we should be hopeful or resign ourselves”. She insisted on the need to have an obligation to relocate migrants who have arrived, although she did not like really the idea of quotas.
The day ended with a visit to Porto M, the migrant museum and associative space of the Collective Askausa, to enable the delegation to find out about their work on the island and their political positions. They insisted that problematic situations in centres are all linked to the logic of profit-making that is behind this and that for them all centres should be closed as it has become a business. They told us about the appalling conditions in the center of Lampedusa that had been shown by a video of 1 M5S national parliamentarian 15 days ago, but deplored the fact that many politicians go through the island, even showing indignation at the conditions migrants are held, and nothing happens after, the situation remains the same.
Visit of the Centre for Unaccompanied minors “Regina Elena”, Catania
Meeting with Commandante Cannarile, Italian Coast guards
Meeting with the Mayor of Lampedusa
Visit of Porto M, migrant museum, Askausa Collective
Sunday 21 June
Our stay in Lampedusa ends with the visit of the Centre of first reception of Lampedusa that the GUE/NGL delegation visited in October before the reopening of the centre when it was being renovated. On the day of our visit, the centre had about 400 migrants but some days before it had accommodated 800 migrants as a transfer took place 2 days before our announced visit. Since its opening, it has received up to 1500 migrants at the same time while its capacity is 381 people. The men and women present in the centre had all arrived on 9th June and came from 3 different boats that had been rescued. Children, whether with their families or unaccompanied, had all been transferred before our arrival.
Asked about the conditions in the centre, especially when they are well over their reception capacity, the director stated: “We try our best”. After an explanation of the process migrants go through since landing, our delegation starts the visit of the different parts of the centre and engaged in long discussions with the men and women present there to know more about their life in the centre. What we saw was, despite a center running at its normal capacity, a centre that was still overcrowded with very poor living conditions; no bedsheets (a mosquito net full of holes instead when they had one), 8 beds per room in the women’s section and 12 per room in the men’s section with many more mattresses that are being used to sleep outside or on the floor of the bedrooms when they are more people. Many migrants had just been transferred to bedrooms the night before and both the women and the men told us that they were sleeping outside 2 days ago and were just able to sleep inside since the last transfer as they took the beds of the people who had left. Therefore they had slept 11 days in the open air.
We had complaints of people who told us they are sick (fever, stomach problems, cough) and were not allowed to see a doctor; there were many complaints about the food that had been the same the whole week both for lunch and dinner, iand is being served cold and without any meat except once since their arrival on the 9th June; there were complaints about water being mixed with milk, complaints about no new clothes being given to them since the ones given upon their arrival, insufficient shampoo and soap, no shaving materials, no skin cream. Of course, the official story was quite different and the Director of the centre and the staff accompanying her accused the migrants of lying just because they wanted to be transferred quickly: “We are not criminals”, insisted the Director in reaction to one migrant denouncing milk being mixed with water. Except that migrants showed us pictures to prove this. The Director also certified that the official menu given to us by the sub-contracting company managing the kitchen is what migrants had received the past week, but again the official story is worlds apart from the ones told by the migrants who had just had pasta the whole week without any meat while the menu looks like a tourist restaurant menu. We ended the visit with a discussion with representatives from UNHCR, IOM and Save the Children present in the centre to talk about their experience and the conditions in the center.
Migrant Ships' graveyard in Lampedusa
Centre of first reception of Lampedusa
Meeting with UNHCR, IOM, Save the Children officers working in the centre