The young man walks alone with his backpack along a very solitary street. At noon, the sun in the Sicilian countryside burns the skin. Didier, not the real name of the 22-year-old man from the Ivory Coast, has to walk more than an hour to get to school for his classes. “Sometimes our teachers pick us up at the crossroad. There was a bus service, but there is no public transportation here now,” he tells Solomon, smiling when he’s offered a ride.
Mineo is a small, remote village in central Sicily: from here you need a car to reach Catania, the nearest city. Even more remote is CARA, a colossal reception center for asylum-seekers among the orange groves in Mineo.
It takes 15 minutes by car (if you have a car) to get to the village from the reception center. Theoretically, people living at CARA can come and go as they please during the day, but in practice they are almost cut off from their surroundings: some of them own a bike and they can reach the village faster than on foot. But it still takes half an hour on an uphill road, an arduous journey when temperatures rise. Military and police patrol CARA’s gate, where entry is strictly forbidden. Only stray dogs lurk.
A white elephant in the Sicilian countryside
CARA (which is an acronym for Centri di Accoglienza per Richiedenti Asilo) has been in operation since 2011 and it was the largest reception center in Italy. But now its days are numbered.
The Italian Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini, has declared that the center will close within the year. Fewer than 200 people reside here, waiting for their destiny. Didier is discouraged, like many other people. “We do not even know where we are supposed to be transferred. We will discover it directly on the bus. They just publish a list with the names of people to be displaced on the day of departure. Many of us would refuse to get on the bus if they knew where they are going.”
The asylum-seekers are being relocated to other centers in Sicily. According to Italian law, they have the right to leave CARA whenever they want, but staying away for more than three days means losing right to stay at a reception center.
In march 2011, the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi inaugurated the “Village of Solidarity” – which would be the biggest reception center in Italy. The chosen place was “residence degli aranci” (residence of oranges), originally designed to be inhabited by US soldiers working at a nearby military base, but converted to manage high flows of migrants during the Arab Spring.
The integration of migrants did not seem to be a priority: CARA’s residents were housed far from residential areas, surrounded by fields and a landscape of wind turbines. At times, the population at CARA grew to about 4,000 people, almost the same as the closest village.
In past years, Mineo’s CARA has been a synonym for dirty business: some Italian entrepreneurs and politicians have used it to take advantage of funds which finance the reception center. A long list of irregularity and fraud related to reception managing can be summarized in one sentence: “Migrants are more profitable than drugs,” which was wiretapped in 2014 by public investigators.
In 2015, CARA’s management was put under the control of a commissioner, following a decision of the Italian Anticorruption Authority (ANAC). Nonetheless, there are still strong suspicions of labor exploitation and prostitution within the center. Now, the Minister of the Interior wants to show that he is able to wipe the slate clean.
Hellish waiting room
Since its opening, this center has been an unstable place of violent protests and even criminal acts. The Italian authorities started an inquiry in early 2019, suspecting that Nigerian crime gangs were operating within CARA, running drugs from the center and dealing across the country. Throughout the years, several rape cases have been reported by humanitarian organizations and two people have lost their lives at CARA. In 2013, a 21-year-old Eritrean man committed suicide; in 2016, a 26-year-old Nigerian woman was killed by her ex-boyfriend, who came from outside the camp.
There have been countless riots inside and around the reception center: many asylum-seekers felt like prisoners and demonstrated against the system. Their requests for asylum should have been answered within 30 days, but often it took several months.
After migrants endure a dangerous journey through the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea, CARA is perceived as a hellish waiting room. Alberto Leotta has worked at the camp for years as an Italian Red Cross healthcare volunteer and has witnessed shocking situations. “Life in the camp was terrible. First of all because many people arrived there in extreme pain. I saw pregnant women exhausted and young boys who got their skin burned by the boat fuel during the journey across the sea.”
Some asylum-seekers lost control and attacked those who were identified as authorities. “We have been insulted, kicked and spat on. During a night of rebellion, we had to lock ourselves in the ambulance. Another time all the police cars were burned and all the officers couldn’t leave the headquarters.”
New destinations are not a solution
In recent months, all the activities at CARA have been stopped one-by-one, also because in the meantime the Italian government cut resources for the asylum-seekers’ reception.
CARA’s football team, the dance course, assistance for mothers and transports for children to school have gradually disappeared. Food is scarce in the canteen. Many social workers have lost their jobs and some of them have been working without pay for the past few months.
Several humanitarian organizations agree that CARA’s closing is good news, but they are really worried about the future of the asylum-seekers. In their opinion, migrants should wait for their asylum requests in smaller structures with fewer residents, possibly in small towns, as they would live better and have more opportunity for integration. CARA’s residents would like to be more involved: “I just need to be included in some activities, to be in contact with the Italians living here,” says Didier.
Italian newspapers have reported overcrowded barracks and unsuitable buildings where residents from CARA have been transferred. Some of them can’t resist and leave their new housing. “I was relocated to a center in Caltanissetta, but I went back to CARA. Many of my companions did the same,” says Moussa (not his real name), a young asylum-seeker from Mali. His request has been rejected and his appeal is still pending. He is now a squatter here, as access to the structure is denied to people who have been transferred, but migrants are sneaking in through the back.
Various sources (that prefer to remain anonymous) explained to Solomon MAG how everybody enters through holes in the fence. The military security at the main gate operates in order to stop journalists and activists. “Life in the new center was much worse than at Mineo’s CARA. Sanitary facilities were disgusting and we could never leave the center. I spent two years in Mineo and I got laboriously involved in a network of people. I also had a job in the surrounding countryside, even if it was really tiring and badly-paid. But my life was suddenly turned upside-down, as I was sent so far away.” If the authorities in the center find Moussa, he will be expelled from CARA. But he doesn’t care – when CARA eventually closes completely, people in his situation will have no place to go. “The Italian law is unfair to me. I will have no alternative but being on the street.”
As dozens of people like them, Didier and Moussa remain inside CARA on a Saturday afternoon, with nothing to do. Didier’s school lessons will most likely be stopped and Moussa’s reference points will soon change. Good or bad news can come from their lawyers, regarding the answer to their appeal for the asylum application. Good or bad news can come from the center’s management, regarding the place they will live. All they can do is wait.