Italian Detention Centres, the black hole of law and justice


Italian Detention Centres, the black hole of law and justice635 (out of 775) adolescents landed “unaccompanied” – translated from the bureaucratic jargon, utterly abandoned to themselves –in three months, from May to July 2008, at the rescue and detention centre of the island of Lampedusa. The data comes from Save the Children, the non-profit organisation that together with the Italian Red Cross, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration, adheres to the Praesidium III project, co-financed by the Department of Civil Liberties and Immigration of the Ministry of Interior and by the European Commission to Monitor Migration Flows.

These under-aged, often fragile and disoriented, almost always carry a history of deprivation and abuse. The statistics of these last three months show that they mainly come from countries at war or at high risk such as Eritrea(19%); Somalia (17,1%); Nigeria (16,8%), Palestine (12, 6%), Ghana (12,5%), Togo (3,5%), and Sudan (1, 3%). Together with the women, they form the weak link of a situation that is hard to manage, especially according to human standards. In fact, Italy was rebuked by Amnesty International and other humanitarian associations, and received a very critical report by the Commission for civil liberties and Justice of the European Parliament.

The situation of the under-aged may be critical – due to the difficulties given by the lack of credible documents to identify their age and to the approximation of the medical checks, that have a margin of error of two years – but the organisation of the control system for clandestine immigration is itself in the eye of the storm.

The temporary detention centres, introduced by the Turco-Napolitano law and strengthened by the Bossi-Fini law (which doubled detention periods and made internment conditions more severe), are a much debated “parking lot” for irregular immigrants waiting to be expelled. These structures, from government to government, from reform to reform, remain hardly acceptable.
The cases of death, mistreatment or failed treatments, that also this year have studded the national news, are only the dramatic eye-opener of a difficult situation caused by the permanent inadequacy of the structures. This figure should be taken into consideration even before we think of debating on the legitimacy and fairness of the institutions. According to Save the Children, during the summer period, when disembarkments reach their climax, the centre of Lampedusa, which is equipped to host up to 762 people has to fit up to 1.600 in its structures. Therefore, as explains Carlotta Bellini, Coordinator of the protection area of this non benefit organisation, “In these situations, despite the engagement of the various actors involved, the living conditions and the access to the services within the centre become critical”.
This is not the only case. The Commission report and many other private investigations have highlighted the deficiencies of all the other Italian centres. Starting from the housing - often consisting in containers that become overheated in the summer and freezing cold in wintertime, or in old badly converted buildings – and the meals – scant and of low quality; to the inadequacy of the toilet blocks and the lack of medical assistance (no psychological or psychiatric assistance, no wards for vulnerable categories, bad management of clinical records and no prevention measures for the diffusion of epidemic diseases); up to the factual deprivation of personal freedom.
Such living conditions, according to the report of Médecins Sans Frontières, lead to acts of self-destruction like those that occur in prisons, and provoke acts of vandalism and hooliganism. Moreover, they put together and on the same level persons with very different backgrounds. Asylum seekers and former convicts are kept in the same premises, and the Centres end up by mixing normal illegal workers with people coming out of the hard school of jails. In short, some say, instead of limiting crime, these centres become recruitment grounds for young blood.
Italian Detention Centres, the black hole of law and justiceThe problem however, aside from any ideological or biased conjectures, does not only apply to the single public administrations and is not only Italian. It is European and strictly relevant to rights.
The Assistance and Detention Centres, were established in 1998 - much later than the other European partners, except for Finland - by the Turco-Napolitano law on immigration in compliance with the adoption of a common migration policy following to the Schenghen agreement in 1995. The former then became Identification and Expulsion Centres, though nothing really changed in substance. Foreign citizens are detained, strictly speaking, for illicit administrative purposes, that is due to the absence of identity documents and/or stay permits.
Unfortunately, they provide a weak protection against illegal immigration since it is often impossible to identify the immigrants within the 60 days prescribed. In some cases, this form of segregation is almost unconstitutional, as denounced by some parliamentarians.
For example, in the centre of Pian del Lago in Caltanissetta, in the night of the 29th of June 2008 Yussuf Abubakr, an immigrant from Ghana aged 19, died unrescued – according to witnesses – after at least six hours. During her visit to the site, Radical parliamentarian Rita Bernardini, denounced the paradoxical situation of the asylum seekers detained there waiting for the decision of the Territorial Commission of Syracuse.
In this case, Police Headquarters in Caltanissetta do not issue any stay permits and asylum seekers are forcibly detained in the centre until the outcome of the Commission’s re-examination or of the appeal to court. However, the court of Caltanissetta is not involved, as these competences pertain to the Court of Catania. It would be interesting to know, underlines the parliamentarian, how this situation can lead to an effective right of defence or challenge to the court, as provided for by art. 24 of the Constitution.
Thus, the Commission periodically travels to the centre of Caltanissetta for the hearings, or on the contrary, asylum seekers are transported by bus from Caltanissetta to Syracuse. This waste of money is in inverse proportion to the few minutes granted to those pleading their cause.
Another critical point rests in the application of the community guideline on repatriations, approved on last 18 June - ironically only two days from the World Refugee Day – that allow sending back illegal immigrants also in transit countries further to their countries of origin. Humanitarian associations consider this proposition as a gift to the criminal organisations that exploit illegal immigration. Furthermore, for many immigrants of African origin it also entails the nightmare of the Libyan concentration camps, financed and fostered by Italy where, according to witnesses, human rights are systematically violated.
Italian Detention Centres, the black hole of law and justiceThe most desolating situation, also in the absence of evident illegalities, is the one recounted by those that spent time, often more than once, in these centres where there are no internal rules, where the charter of rights and duties provided at the entry is often not translated, where the legal system is non-existent or botched and the prisoner finds himself in a Kafkian solitude in the face of unknown and illegible mechanisms. Where moreover access is extremely difficult, even for those who should have the right/duty of knowing and testifying the circumstances such as parliamentarians, human rights activists, lawyers or journalists.
The situation in the rest of Europe, does not represent, in this case, an encouraging example. France and Great Britain almost daily register claims of abuse and protest. In Spain, the “centros de internamento por extranjeros”, according to the witness of the spokesperson of the “Coordinadora de Inmigrantes” of Malaga: “Sometimes they are worse than prisons because there is no internal rule, life within those premises does not depend directly on any kind of legislation. The armed personnel that watches the entries can widely act on his own discretion”. For once, a trouble shared, is not a trouble halved.


Carla Reschia

This article was produced in the framework of the DARMED project.



Italian Detention Centres, the black hole of law and justice
    "Preventing Violent Radicalisation 2007"



"With financial support from the Preventing Violent Radicalisation Programme
European Commission - Directoracte-General Justice, Freedom and Security"