Since March 1st and the Day Without Us protests, the situation in Italy's detention centres, the Centres for Identification and Expulsion (CIEs), with widespread hunger strikes and on-going protests by detainees.
In Rome's Ponte Galeria CIE, the biggest in Italy holding more than 350 men and women in separate compounds, the situation is especially tense. The Day Without Us just happened to coincide with the handover of control of the CIE from the Red Cross, who had managed it since it opened in 1998, to a company called Auxilium, which already manages the reception centre for asylum seekers (CARA) in Bari and bid a lower tender. Francesco Rocca, special commissioner of the Italian Red Cross, claims that Auxilium were only able to win the contract, as they will cut corners and not pay union rates. He also warned that it was inevitable that respect for the human rights of the detainees will suffer.
Auxilium also happens to be currently under investigation by a prosecuting magistrate in Potenza, one John Woodcock (has an English father and Italian mother), for its involvement in the opening of the Policoro CDA (Centro di Primo Soccorso e Accoglienza - Centre for initial support and reception) mini-detention centre in Puglia, part of a network opened around the country since 2008 as part of the government's crackdown on 'illegal' migration, and canteen services to the San Carlo hospital and 91st Army Battalion. Rather dodgy all round one would have thought? However, the lure of saving money from the running of the Italian asylum system proved too much.
The night of the handover at Ponte Galeria (28 February) a Tunisian migrant Badis Barhumi tried to escape from the CIE, setting off the alarms. He quickly returned inside to hide but the chief police officer on duty found Barhumi among the other migrants and beat him with his baton. “We yelled at him to stop,” said Mustafa, an eyewitness who denounced the assault to a local radio station, “but he just kept going.” The incident soon ignited a revolt. Migrants started grabbing blankets and mattresses, setting them on fire and throwing them at the police and army who patrol the detention centre.
This is not the first such explosion of violence and it will not be the last as the conditions inside Italy's CIEs are truly appalling. A report released earlier this year by Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) entitled 'On The Other Side Of The Wall' based on visits to 10 CIEs, 7 CARAs and 4 CDAs last summer. It concluded that the whole system plagued by scarce hygiene, crowded quarters and inadequate care for chronic illnesses like diabetes, hypertension and HIV. And when MSF visited the Rome CIE, it found that the inmates had gone without toilet paper, soap or towels for two weeks.
As well as the Ponte Galeria CIE, the Milan (Via Corelli), Bologna (Via Mattei) and Turin (Corso Brunelleschi) CIEs are also carrying out a hunger strike. The detainees in the Corso Brunelleschi CIE have issued a statement: "We are tired of being treated badly. We live like rats. The food sucks. We live like prisoners, but we are not prisoners. The time in detention is too long, six months to identify a person is too much. We are victims of the Bossi-Fini law (...). We are not criminals, 80% of us have worked for years for Italian companies.”
Elkattani Abdelatif, a Moroccan detainee in the Ponte Galeria CIE, echoed these sentiments when he spoke to the press during the Rome riot: “This is worse than a prison. I’ve seen people breaking their hands or feet or eating batteries and razor blades just to go to the hospital. The other day a Romanian guy drank a bottle of detergent, just to get out. This is worse than a prison. I’ve seen people breaking their hands or feet or eating batteries and razor blades just to go to the hospital. The other day a Romanian guy drank a bottle of detergent, just to get out.”
Another detainee claimed that "the police came with batons and beat us like animals" following the suicide attempt. "But we are not animals, we are immigrants, non-EU immigrants as we define them. We consider ourselves world citizens. This protest is an act of despair: We are tired of this life. We want to be free as a seagull and fly."
In the Milan CIE, detainees have claimed that the police have taken prisoners refusing food away. They also complain about the poor health and sanitation provision: rooms have things like dead pigeons in them for days, the cleaning staff do not clean and we are given "massive doses of psychotropic drugs."
Detainees in the CDA at Gradisca d’Isonzo, Gorizia, a former military barracks near the Slovenian border and scene of a number of mass protest last year, are also staging a “sciopero del carrello” (consumer boycott) against the low quality of food. Food supplies, according to them, are brought directly from the Slovenia to save on costs and are inedible.
All this is of course happening against the backdrop of the austerity measure being brought in by the government that public service workers are holding a series of strikes. Last December, the General Confederation of Italian Workers (CGIL) staged a general strike and they are doing so again on 12 March. Amongst the unions broad-based demands on work and taxes, are a series around 'citizenship':
"It is necessary to build a future for the country through reception policies and to fight against the new slavery. Fundamental is the regularization of migrants who are working, the suspension of the Bossi-Fini law for migrants in search of re-employment, to abolish the crime of illegal immigration, recognizing the citizenship by birth in our country, to extend the implementation of the article 18 of immigration law decree comparing the crime of illegal hiring to that of human trafficking."