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INTERNAZIONALE

Invisible Horrors Of Italy's Migrant Detention Centers

A young detainee's suicide is drawing attention to the otherwise invisible plight of people locked up in decrepit, pre-deportation facilities known as CPRs.

Migrants protest in the migrant reception center of Torre Maura where there are some coronavirus infected cases
Migrants protest in the migrant reception center of Torre Maura where there are some coronavirus infected cases
Annalisa Camilli

Accused of stealing a smartphone, Moussa Balde was savagely beaten in Ventimiglia, near the French border, by three Italians with plastic pipes and bars. But after just a brief hospital visit, the 23-year-old man from Guinea was transferred to what is known in Italy as a CPR, a detention center for people awaiting deportation. Now he's dead.

Balde's death is the sixth in a CPR since 2019, and it is is raising serious questions about conditions in the facilities, especially given the circumstances that led up to his detention. The attack that preceded it took place outside a supermarket, and was recorded by a passerby who can be heard in the video shouting: "They're killing him, they're killing him."

Activists hung up a banner in memory of Musa Balde, a young migrant originally from Gambia — Photo: Matteo Nardone/Pacific Press/ZUMA

The video made it possible to identify the attackers and charge them with bodily injuries. Balde was admitted to the nearby Bordighera hospital, but after being discharged he was not treated for his injuries. Instead he was transferred to a CPR in Turin and placed in solitary confinement.

The young man's residence permit had expired and he faced a deportation order. The activist group No CPR, claims that Balde was denied adequate care, and his lawyer, Gianluca Vitale, insists that Balde's last thoughts were of distress.

"I can't stay locked up here anymore," Balde told Vitale. "How long will it be until they let me out? Why was I locked up?"

Two days later he died by suicide after he tied a sheet around his neck.

Useless and inadequate

The face and story of Moussa Balde are told through a video shot in 2017 by the local news site Sanremonews in one of the reception facilities in Imperia that welcomed him after he arrived from Libya in 2016. He had escaped from a difficult situation in his country, he explained, and wanted to study and find a job. Balde supported AS Roma and had finished middle school in Italy.

His suicide is only the flashpoint of the faults of a prison system that has had severe structural problems since its creation in 1998.

Administrative detention is above all a mechanism to create social marginality

The head of Italy's authority for the rights of detainees or people deprived of personal liberty, Mauro Palma, made a series of visits to the country's CPRs for one year between 2019 and 2020 and wrote an assessment of the conditions inside them. In the report, Palma highlighted the uselessness and inadequacy of these detention centers, noting, among other things, that less than 50% of those held there were actually deported last year. Nevertheless, the detainees suffered considerably, being deprived of personal liberty without having committed any crime.

"Administrative detention is above all a mechanism to create social marginality, confinement and to temporarily remove from the sight of the community people that the authorities don't want to be there but are unable, at the same time, to deport," reads the report, which also highlights that the old buildings have structural problems that have not been dealt with in the years.

Between June 2019 and December 2020, five other migrants died while in administrative detention in Italian CPRs.

Serious shortcomings have been found in the centers: The privacy of migrants is not respected, the bathrooms lack doors, police officers attend medical examinations, migrants can be denied writing materials and furnishing, spaces for exercise or communal areas are closed or out of order, health facilities are out of order or in unacceptable conditions, the heating does not work, the migrants' phones are seized on their arrival.

The pandemic has made conditions of the centers even worse, in part because repatriation flights have been suspended, making detention even more pointless for those held in the centers.

"Last May, to protect the health of migrants and local communities, the UN asked the international community to suspend forced deportations," reads an investigation into CPRs run by the Italian website Frontierenews. "But Italy continued to lock foreign citizens in prison-like structures designed to detain and deport irregular migrants. Isolated from society and in precarious physical and mental health, foreign citizens imprisoned in CPRs even lack the protections reserved for prisoners of the prison system. Riots, self-harm and assaults are frequent and there is little transparency about the individuals who manage the centers."

Out of sight, out of mind

Moussa Balde's suicide is not an unexpected event, explains Massimo Veglio, a lawyer with the Association for Legal Studies on Immigration (ASGI) who has been dealing with conditions within the Turin CPR for years. "Deaths in these centers are frequent, and the conditions in the Turin CPR have degraded over the last year, not only due to the pandemic," he says.

The structure is particularly inhospitable and the Turin prosecutor often requests solitary confinement for its guests.

"The Turin CPR is the only one in Italy with a specific section for solitary confinement: There are 12 cells. We call them "chicken coops,"" Veglio says.

The management of solitary confinement measures is left to the arbitrariness of those in charge of the CPR

The rooms are bare, with essential furniture is lead-sealed to the ground and no windows. There's a courtyard that measures only a few square meters, is surrounded by iron bars and closed above by a roof. Natural light is poor. The view is limited.

"People remain in this place without a legal status, unlike in prison," the lawyer says. "The administration of a CPR is not required to write a formal report explaining why it put someone in solitary confinement and is under no obligation to indicate the duration of the measure, which can be extended arbitrarily. Furthermore, the detainee has no right to appeal against it. So, the management of solitary confinement measures is left to the arbitrariness of those in charge of the CPR."

Another person died in the Turin CPR in 2019. In that case too it was someone thought to have mental health problems who had been kept in solitary confinement for five months. "In solitary confinement, there is no right even to ask for out-of-cell time, which is allowed in prison," Veglio explains.

Police standing in front of a group of activists — Photo: noaicpr/Instagram

"People can't use phones, since all the phones are seized in the center," the lawyer, who organized a recent protest outside the Turin prefecture, goes on to say. "In fact, it is a maximum-security prison with inmates that have committed no crime."

At the moment, about 100 people are locked up in the city's detention center. Among other things, they only have access to poor medical assistance. There is only one doctor available for six hours a day.

"And yet, it seems that this problem does not interest anyone and that it's acceptable in Italy that someone who has not committed any crimes is locked up in such a structure without any right to communicate with the outside world," Veglio concludes. "Right now, what happens inside these centers is completely invisible."

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