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"Why Are You Here?" Undercover Inside Italy's Wretched Immigrant Detention Center

In the wake of the immigrant tragedy off the coast of Lampedusa, a reporter sneaks into a detention center in southern Italy to witness living conditions and hear tales of refugees.

"It’s not much better in here than it is outside. It’s like Guantanamo"
"It’s not much better in here than it is outside. It’s like Guantanamo"
Martin Dehlen

ISOLA DI CAPO RIZZUTO — The Santa Anna refugee camp lies on a dusty country road that runs along the sole of the Italian boot. Behind the fence you can see the rows of shipping containers that house the refugees. A few Eritreans and Somalis sit by the entrance watching cars go by. During the day the refugees are allowed out of the camp but most have no money and the nearest town is 15 kilometers away. Anyone who comes back late is locked out.

After an hour of waiting, a bus approaches the camp and a group of refugees gets out, all holding plastic shopping bags. They go through the security gates to be searched. Only one walks quickly along the fence and disappears round the corner. I follow and find him inspecting a section of fence that has been recently mended.

“They fix it every two or three days. Then we open it again. Whatever. Do you want to go in?”

I hesitate. “Where are you from?” he asks. I tell him: “Syria.”

“OK, I’ll go in and get a passport from someone who looks like you.”

First, however, *Abdul has to smuggle in his kidney beans, as only certain food products are allowed in the camp. He asks two friends to keep a lookout for police and throws the cans over the double fence. Then he disappears inside and I wait by the main door. Half an hour later, a young man in jeans comes towards me. “Are you Syrian?” he asks me in Arabic. I’d hoped to avoid Arabs, Somalis and Sudanese as Arabic is clearly not my mother tongue. I tell him that I’ve come from Greece and have been living on the streets for weeks.

“OK,” he says, still unconvinced. “Take the passport and go in.”

I hand my new passport through the window and the guard scans it and waves me through. Inside there are six soldiers in camouflage uniforms and black boots. I empty out my pockets and go through the metal detector.

My helper is waiting for me on the other side and introduces himself as Mohammed. He takes me past barbed wire fences and more soldiers with batons to the container where he sleeps. There are ten men crowded into the container, lying on filthy beds. The walls are adorned with messages left by previous residents, in Kurdish, Urdu and Somali. In the corner there is a hot plate that is connected to the socket by exposed wires.

Mohammed shows me to a bed and I sit down. Then the questions begin. “What are you doing here? Why don’t you speak Arabic well?” I tell them that my parents are Syrian but I grew up in Germany. I say I was thrown out after problems with the police and am on my way back. Then they begin to tell me their stories.

Trapped in the system

“It’s not much better in here than it is outside. It’s like Guantanamo,” says Mohammed.

He had been politically active at university in his home country (which he didn’t want to identify) and one day secret service agents knocked on his door. He wasn’t at home. His brothers brought him a few things and he fled to Europe. “I thought it would be better here,” he says.

He was told on arrival that his asylum application would take no longer than six months but so far he has heard nothing. When he asked officials, they all told him to come back the next day or ask someone else. He feels like a criminal locked away for some unstated crime he never committed.

Those who are granted asylum don’t fare much better. They have no work, no housing subsidy and no support. “I have to go to Germany. I have family there. I have a future there,” Mohammed tells me. However, under European law, refugees must apply for asylum in the first country they enter. Mohammed tried refusing to give his fingerprints, but he claims that the Italian police took him from the container and threatened him before forcibly taking his prints. It wasn’t much different than the secret police from his home country. “I wanted to cut my hands off,” he says.

Unsanitary conditions

I go to the washhouse and find that most of the doors are missing from the five toilet cubicles. The locks are smeared with excrement and urine. It stinks. This washhouse is shared by up to 500 people. I go to the basin to wash my hands. “Forget about it,” one man calls from where he’s sitting against the fence with a friend. “There’s no water again.” Sometimes the refugees go for three days without running water. They each get three small pieces of soap, three portions of shampoo and one toothbrush per month.

“I’d rather not wash at all than go in there,” the man tells me.

We get talking and John and Michael take me to their container. On the way I make a comment about conditions in the camp and John gives me a look. “I’m grateful to Italy,” he says. The two came on a boat from Libya. They knew how many people have died on the crossing but decided to risk it. An Italian coastguard helicopter discovered their boat and they were brought to Lampedusa, then to the Santa Anna camp. They thought they could now live in freedom. Ten months later, they are still thankful to be in Italy but it is clear that life in the camp is wearing them down.

When Michael arrived, he didn’t eat for three days and hardly left the container. “Even the camp in Lampedusa was better,” he says. “We can’t stand the food here.” Every day there is macaroni swimming in cold water. It’s well meant but if you eat it every day, soon your stomach will start to rebel. They often take the bus to the nearest town so they can beg for money to buy rice. One euro is enough for three days, but the police raid the containers regularly and take away their hot plates.

But Michael says the real challenge is something else: “The biggest problem is the waiting. It drives you crazy.”

Violence and desperation

Most refugees stick with others from the same country, and when they mix there can be flares of violence. In the tense atmosphere it only takes a look to spark a fight and what starts off as a scuffle soon becomes a mass brawl. “Some people have made themselves weapons,” says Michael. The police intervene with batons and shields.

Two months ago a refugee was stabbed with an homemade knife. Another mass fight raged for over four hours before the police could stop it. In late August, the refugee’s hopes were raised when Italy’s integration minister Cécile Kyenge visited the camp. Kyenge inspected the conditions, spoke with some refugees and gave a press conference. As her convoy was leaving the camp, the tension reached its climax and men blocked the street, throwing stones. The police broke up the crowd and the minister drove away. Conditions have remained unchanged.

Michael’s asylum dossier is set to be reviewed soon. He hopes his application will be approved and he will be able to work, but if not he says he’ll get through somehow. Others are less resilient. “Do you see that tree over there?” John asks, pointing towards the fence. “One guy had his application rejected, so he climbed up there and threatened to kill himself.” Another man who had his application rejected found a piece of metal and threatened to slit his throat. No one knows how many suicides or attempts there have been.

When I go back to Mohammed’s container, the atmosphere has changed and people are giving me suspicious looks. The men start asking me questions while Mohammed sits in the background and shakes his head apologetically. I tell them the answers I’ve prepared but they don’t seem convinced and I offer to leave. Mohammed follows me out, apologizing the whole way.

Once we are outside the camp, I tell Mohammed that I’m a journalist. He smiles. “I know. I wanted you to see the conditions in the camp. I knew right from the start that you were a journalist.” Surprised, I ask him how he knew. He pauses a moment, then says, “I can recognize someone undercover from the secret police in my home country.”

*All names have been changed.

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