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3 October 2014

A year of Mare Nostrum: political impotence has stranded hundreds of refugee children in Sicily

Since April this year 5,000 unaccompanied children have arrived in the small Sicilian town of Augusta, fleeing war and poverty in north Africa.

By James Mackay

Last week I visited the Sicilian town of Augusta, one of the key landing sites for the Italian government’s Mediterranean rescue mission, “Mare Nostrum”. In the past year the operation, lead by groups of military, coastguard and customs officials, has processed over 130,000 migrants arriving from Libya, the majority of whom are fleeing war and poverty across north Africa. While Lampedusa caught headlines in the months following the Arab Spring, the Sicilian mainland now faces a prolonged refugee crisis which local communities are unequipped to deal with.   

The normal procedure for landings in Augusta is designed to minimise the impact of continental migration on the town’s community: the migrants arrive at the commercial port, are checked over by Médecins Sans Frontières and within 48 hours are moved to camps where some remain “indefinitely”, others are given work permits, and a few are sent home. The only exception to this are unaccompanied minors, who by Italian law are required to stay in the port of arrival until they are given an identity card or can receive institutional care. This is intended to remove them from the squalor of the main camps, the emphasis being on their wellbeing.  

In the case of Augusta, however, this benevolent regulation has backfired, causing a humanitarian crisis. Since April this year 5,000 unaccompanied children have arrived in the small town. Most come with no money, few possessions and none have ID. The port authorities have been caught off-guard, with no idea and no way of knowing how many will arrive in the coming months. In the absence of an official strategy it has therefore been down to church groups, charities and individual families to lead the initial processing.

Among this chaos the response of the comune has been minimal, focusing predominantly on legal issues surrounding the conversion of disused buildings such as the “scuola verde”, an old school which is now being used as a refugee centre. The ominous fascist-era building, with a formal capacity of 200, is surrounded by a high black fence and guarded by caribinieiri though the day and night. At the time of writing it is home to 120, though visibly overcrowded. Dirty clothes hang from the windows and the smell of sweat and dirt is palpable well down the street. The space is managed by three full-time staff, only one of whom is one paid by the commune – the other two are volunteers. A local doctor visits once a day with two nurses in tow.

The government has labelled this a “temporary arrangement”, though many have been living here for as long as six months and several people I spoke to thought they would never leave. A week ago, on the back of pressure from the Sicilian president Rosario Crocetta, Rome pledged €2.4m to support unaccompanied minors in the country and Augusta is at the top of the list for funding. The general impression among the townspeople, however, is that this is too little and too late. In the words of one local student: “There’s going to be a war here. It can’t go on like this. I mean, you can’t blame the kids for coming here but the government has to do more than this for Sicily, we can’t take it alone and they can’t all stay here forever.”

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More importantly, while sizeable, the proposed funds do nothing to address the more pressing problem of documentation. Augusta is at the frontline of the economic crisis and there are very few jobs in the town. The vast majority of those in the scuola verde want to work and their future plans depend on it. Sketches of “The North” adorn the walls of the dorms, of office workers, trees and rainbows. Of course, they cannot legally move anywhere until they have acquired work permits. Public administration is notoriously slow in Sicily at the best of times, and in the case of these children is further complicated by the mountain of false information. Many of those living in the school are running from debts in their home countries and have changed their names and ages in order to avoid these ties. 

Life is violent inside the school. Fights are common and many of the children sport bruises and bust lips. Yet scuola verde is not a prison. Since the spring around 2,200 of those who have arrived are now unaccounted for, having risked the journey alone. Most of these will have headed to Rome or Milan to meet friends and attempt to reach richer northern European nations. A recent study by the International Organisation for Migration has indicated around one in eight die during journeys of this sort. The resident lists on scuola verde’s dorm walls are covered in wonky lines, crossed out initials and new scribbled names flowing into the margins. This discrepancy between official figures and these chaotic squiggles is perhaps the most blatant indicator of political impotence in the face of this problem.

These young refugees see borders in Europe as liquid and passable, and they see themselves as having the right to cross them. This is something European citizens take for granted everyday. While right wing populisms have capitalised on primal fears about cultural contagion, such a perspective makes little sense to these new arrivals whose belief in democratic politics seems far stronger than that espoused by party politicians. In Augusta, things remain calm for now, though the atmosphere is tense and the fence around scuola verde feels charged with historic signifiance. A local journalist, Gianni, explained to me that the general attitude has been one of anger towards the political class and global elite: “People don’t hate these young people they see their difficulty but if arrangements aren’t made that could change. The EU should provide transport for these kids to distribute them among the member states.”

Mare Nostrum will soon run alongside a new operation funded by the EU. In contrast to the Italian programme early indications suggest that this new venture will turn a blind eye to ships sinking in international waters, such as those that many of the children of scuola verde arrived on. It is of course these very people that are most in need of assistance from wealthy nations. European budgets are enormous and while the Italian state struggles to set-up initiatives, transnational must take more of a lead in this mission, not dilute it and back down. For now, those fighting to help these children are confronted with a stark institutional truth: the EU is quite capable of finding funds to build walls and arm security forces but has little incentive to foot the long-term costs for supporting those who have been through hell.