A Guided Tour of Europe's Largest Refugee Camp
As of 2016 there were almost 180,000 asylum seekers living in publically-funded reception centers in Italy. Among these centers is the largest refugee camp in Europe, the CARA Mineo in Eastern Sicily, which formerly housed American soldiers froma nearby NATO base (CARA: Centro di Accoglienza per Richiedenti Asilo or Reception Center for Asylum Seekers).
With over 3000 inhabitants, it is a small town unto itself, except with service providers instead of businesses along the main street. The maximum length of stay at this “primary reception center” is meant to be 35 days. Most are there for far longer, anywhere between 6 months to two years, the length of an asylum claim, and sometimes even longer if there are no available beds elsewhere in the “secondary reception” system, which there often are not.
The operators of the CARA Mineo receive about 100 million euros per year and have become notorious for mafia-related corruption. At 35 euro per asylum seeker per day in public funds, migration has become a big business in Italy. Because the reception centers are largely privately-operated, the profit-motive often takes precedence over the provision of high-quality food, education, health care, and other basic needs. Fifteen people affiliated with the center will be brought to trial in October for allegations relating to corruption and intimidation in the bidding and hiring processes.
Although it has been increasingly difficult to access the CARA Mineo, a fellow Fulbright researcher and I, who study contemporary migration in the Mediterranean, were granted permission through the Ministry of the Interior to visit the camp in May 2017.
11am, Arrival: The landscape around the camp is bleak, inhospitable: rocky outcrops and yellowed fields blanketed by a haze that turns the sky and horizon a sweaty grey. The scirocco, a hot, sub-Saharan wind, has arrived in Sicily. The effect is a certain listlessness in the air, a headache.
Long lines of cars are parked on both sides of the road. On the one side nothing, an open field, on the other, fencing, barbed wire, and just beyond a group of black men playing basketball, another group in the shade, neat rows of single-story houses—when U.S. soldiers lived here it was called the Villagio degli Aranci, the village of oranges, referring to the citrus groves dotted around the area.
Army soldiers in full camo with automatic weapons stand at the entrance, along with a tank and two black horses. We approach, give over our letter of permission and passports, and are brought into the security station. There is a young soldier with blue eyes and a sympathetic face. It’s his first week.
Another man is there, shorter, older, with a belly that pushes his faded blue shirt out in front of him. The logo on the back reads “Nuovo Cara Mineo.” He explains that it isn’t new actually, just a renovation that occurred in 2014, but “same owners and everything.” The asylum seeker reception system in Italy consists largely of privately-owned and managed “emergency camps,” often former hotels, or in this case, an army base, that have been repurposed to respond to the ongoing migration phenomenon. At 35 euro per person per day and year-round tenancy many property owners have found this to be a much steadier and more profitable source of income than tourism.
Luigi picks us up at the security station. He is tall, with well-defined muscles and neatly gelled hair. His manner is reminiscent of a high school soccer coach
whom you want to talk with when you have problems at home. He takes us down Intrepid Way, the central corridor of the “town,” to the administrative office where we wait. The room is indistinguishable from the waiting room of a dental clinic, relentlessly cream-colored, but without the magazines.
All of the camp administrators who come in and out of the office apologize profusely, saying that this is a terrible day to come. There is a formal delegation visiting to observe the conditions in the camp. We are offered water and coffee multiple times. We wait. I use the bathroom then wait outside. The weather is matched by the overwhelming sense of stagnancy that hovers over the place. Everyone seems unhappy, ill
at ease. Half-hearted greetings, men quietly congregating in doorways, women walking down the street on the phone, eyes averted, dogs wandering around, sleeping. There is a young Italian woman waiting outside the office too. She is a mediator and offers that she has been working there for about a year, but adds nothing more.
Noon, the tour begins: Finally, the delegation comes out of the administrative office. We are told we will be joining their tour of the camp. They seem flustered. One woman said, “But I had so many more questions!” The delegation includes a Member of the European Parliament from Spain’s Basque country, and a representative from ARCI, Italy’s largest youth and recreational association.
The Director of the CARA Mineo comes out. Every stereotype about a mafia don describes the man’s presence. In addition to Luigi, we are now also joined by Denise and Ivana from the administrative team, as well as by a staff photographer (we are allowed to take no photographs). Denise, originally from Burkina Faso, has been working at the camp for 6 years and seems vaguely uncomfortable. Ivana, a blonde-haired Italian, has an anxious cheeriness etched onto her face in pencil thin eyebrows, and when the director walks away she reassures us that we will see him again later.
We are led into a small room, the “occupational workshop,” which Denise explains is for people who require “extra support,”though the exact type of support is left unsaid. The room seems small even when nearly empty. There are three young men sitting at a table along one wall. One is tracing a picture in a coloring book. Our group kind of just looks at them, unsure of the purpose of the highly-supervised conversation we would need to have. The wall behind the men is covered in large red sheets of paper that have been painted directly on—an image of a hand with each finger a different color, a Christmas tree. Denise encourages the men to share with us and the delegate from the European Parliament. One of the young men, M, from Côte d’Ivoire talks about the need for professional training to facilitate integration adding that, “it’s not worth welcoming someone if you can’t give them a job.” Ivana rushes in and starts to rub his back and smile. M has been in the camp for over a year. “This is not a life,” he concludes. The photographer snaps a few pictures and we move on.
At the job center a clean-looking young woman with glasses and white-collared shirt explains that there they help asylum seekers to “reflect on their skills and aptitudes.” The office assists them in writing a CV. She explains that many of the people there do not know what a CV is. The CVs are sent out to employment centers but the overall rate of employment for people at the camp is not great, which is unsurprising when you consider where it is located and that there is very little in the way of transportation. Although a few people have been placed at a local agro-tourism farm, making 300 euro a month, most who are able to find jobs, the counselor admits, work in the fields around the camp. When asked why there are not more job opportunities, she says, “It is also difficult for Italians.”
We start to walk towards the school when we see three people with blue vests, from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. They visit the camp once a week. The MEP seems excited to see them and speed-walks over. He expresses frustration with this “tour” and they just nod.
Onto the school. As we walk, Denise and Ivana smoke and say we are in a rush because it’s Friday and many people have prayers in the afternoon. “There are many Muslims here,” says Ivana. They smile knowingly as if to indicate that the camp is a bastion of religious tolerance.
In the school building there are two classes going on. The only courses available are in the Italian language, though most asylum seekers would prefer to leave Italy. A teacher gives me the rundown: 9 teachers; 20 1-hour classes each day; 30-35 students per class; and over 2000 registered students. A simple calculation reveals even at “full” class size, only 35% of the registered students are attending class. A simple conversation with a student reveals why. When I ask his name in Italian he looks confused. I speak with another group of students, two from Ghana and one from Nigeria. The Ghanaians had both been in the country for over a year. S had received his documents for humanitarian protection-a status that lasts two years-five months ago. He is frustrated that he is still there and has not been transferred to a place where he can start to rebuild his life. They say they go to class regularly but are still in a beginner class. Maybe part of the reason they come is because there is nothing else to do. They wish there were more programs so they could prepare to leave the camp and to work.
They wanted to know why Eritreans and Syrians are transferred out of the camp and no one else is.. They figure the Eritreans and Syrians must be doing or saying something that gets them out and they want to know what it is.
As far as taking trips out of the camp is concerned, the transportation options are limited to one bus a week to Catania, the closest major city, leaving on Tuesday at 2:30pm and returning to the camp the same day at 6:30pm, which only leaves them three hours there. There are daily shuttles to Mineo however, a small town nearby. With a lack of transportation options to larger towns and cities it is almost impossible for the residents to find work, except in the fields around the camp, where the ‘lucky ones’ are offered the option to toil for hours under a blazing sun for a reported 20-25 euro a day.
Although all asylum seekers are entitled to 2.50 euro per day in pocket money distributed by the camp, everyone I spoke with said that they have never received it. Instead, they are given cigarettes to try to sell to their peers, the ones working in the fields who might have some cash.
A man who lives there, with whom I spoke later on the phone, explained the scheme. The asylum seekers are given a carton of cigarettes for 5.40 euro in the money they would be entitled to, or one packet every two to three days. Those who don’t smoke or who need money then try to sell the cigarettes. They get between 3.50-4 euro per pack. Some people won’t retrieve their cartons all month so they can try to make more of a business once they have them in bulk. An anonymous NGO worker reported to the Huffington Post that the cigarette company is owned by a Mafia boss’s brother-in-law.
1pm: Back on Intrepid Lane Ivana stops a man with his toddler daughter. In the plastic bag he carries there is a takeaway container of plain-looking pasta. According to some of the residents, the only meat they are given is one chicken thigh per person per week, on Wednesdays. Ivana squats to coddle the man’s daughter, speaking in a cooing voice, caressing her, trying to sing a song so she will dance. The little girl looks back and up at her dad. His face is completely expressionless, as though he was being detained and knows that resisting would make everything worse.
At the end of Intrepid Lane are the bazaar, a pediatric center and a cafeteria. “We feed 1000 people at a time,” says Luigi. There are also a series of stalls selling hats, t-shirts, sunglasses etc. The administrators gesture towards them proudly, saying that these were started “by the refugees themselves.” “The Bangladeshis…” Luigi laughs, “it’s in their blood.” The interpreter translates this to the delegation as, “It’s in their soul.”
Across the street, women wait on the curb outside of the pediatric center. Inside, our guides proudly demonstrate a closet full of bath products—shampoo, body wash etc. They give these out once per month. One of the women sitting on the curb had been in a particularly terrible rescue situation in mid-April. The delegation stopped to talk with her to find out more. They take notes but it is unclear what will come of this.
The formal end time of the EU delegation is at 2pm. Though it is clear the administrators want them to leave, they are nevertheless invited for lunch “as our guests.” the MEP politely declines and explains that they have another appointment at the port, that there may be a rescue ship landing. Before they can leave, howeve, things must be brought to a formal close, so we go back to the Director’s office.
The MEP asks the director what message he would like to give the European Parliament.
He responds, “The European Parliament and all its member states should understand that Italy should not be the only country to take up the migration issue, just because the flows are moving through here. And they could give…because so many people speak French and English, these people would like to understand why they aren’t accepted in France, why they aren’t accepted in England, and it is very difficult to explain it to them. So I would say to the European community, that a response absolutely must be found.” He ends by invoking the words “moral obligation.”
The MEP nods and says, “Grazie.”
The delegation leaves and the administrative team is now stuck with us, two American researchers of whose goals they are unsure. They lean back in their chairs, perspiring lightly and scrolling through their phones. It’s past lunch time.
The director says the waiting time at the camp is between 6 months and 2 years. If they get a negative at their asylum hearing, they stay for the appeal. Even if someone does receive international protection, they may still be living there because there is no room in the massively overwhelmed “secondary reception” system.
Contrary to news reports, the director denied that any of the women living in the camp were engaged in prostitution. Also contrary to reports, and what everyone we spoke with said, he asserted that all of the residents receive their daily pocket money each evening electronically on their identification card, or in the form of phone credit if they wish. He explained that they can them use that card to buy what they wish at the on-site “bazaar.”
“But what if people need cash?”
“If they need cash they sell the phone cards.” Says the director.
“But to whom, if no one has money?”
They all laugh.
Denise says, “We don’t know who they sell it to! But we know they sell it.”
They all laugh again.
3pm, lunch: We walk back out to Intrepid Way. Everyone is a little glazed, squinting. It’s hot. We go to the staff cafeteria where there is not a chicken thigh in sight. Tilapia, pork, seafood salad, tomato salad, peas, rolls. It’s actually pretty good.
At first the director and Denise sit at a different table from us. I wonder if they are offended in some way or just tired. Luigi, ever the peacemaker, moves another one of the long cafeteria tables to join ours and waves his fellow administrators over. They come. We eat.
Luigi and the photographer accompany us back to the entrance. Luigi talks about his love of photography. That’s what he was doing prior to working here but now he doesn’t have time. He used to shoot film and develop his prints in the darkroom. Henri Cartier Bresson is his favorite.
The official photographer hasn’t taken pictures in a while. As we approach the gate he asks,
“Did you find what you were looking for?”
“Yes, I think so. Why?”
“I just wanted to make sure you found what you were looking for.”