A member of the Italian Parliament goes undercover to protest for the rights of undocumented immigrants after images emerged of mistreatment at the rescue center in Lampedusa.
LAMPEDUSA — Although I'd visited the Center for Identification and Expulsion (CIE) center several times over the past few years, I could have never imagined I'd spend the night with the refugees housed on this tiny island. The decision I made to get locked up inside this facility was taken after seeing the faces of the survivors of the Oct. 3 tragedy that left more than 350 dead when a boat sank off the Lampedusa coast.
Seven young people — all Eritreans — who miraculously were saved that day, are still detained here.
But after having met some of the survivors of that tragic day, I also came here because I wanted to talk to Khalid, the young Syrian who last week documented with his cellphone the shameful scenes that took place at the Immigration Center, that were later broadcast by the RAI public television station. When I arrived, Khalid (not his real name) was pale, sitting in the corner of a small room.
"Thanks for your visit,” he said, as he asked me to sit beside him.
Khalid and I are almost the same age and we both speak Arabic. He was pale because he has been on a hunger strike. "I am not mad at the operators of this center. We have always been treated in the best way possible. I just want to get out of here because we cannot stand it anymore."
Khalid, together with a group of fellow Syrians, has been held here since Nov. 3. Officially, they are all detained in order to testify against the trafficker who is now under investigation.
Unfortunately, when I asked to see the case file, officials were not able to answer. There are no formal acts here in Lampedusa. Action is taken only after receiving directives from Rome. The law actually states that people can only remain in this center for a maximum of 96 hours: not three months. It is a situation completely outside the law, and these refugees should technically not be detained at all.
This is not a bona fide identification facility, but a rescue and first reception center — a place of primary care, not of detention. This utter lack of clarity is also why I decided to stay here. If the police don't even have a clear answer for us, how can we properly care for the refugees, who after months of exhausting journeys find themselves in a place where their rights are put on hold?
Now it is 9 p.m. For my first night, some Syrian refugees offered me a place in their dormitory. Among them there is also Ahmed: a man in his 50s who told me about his wife and his newborn daughter who are still in Syria, as the bombs fall around them. In tears, he confessed that he wants to go back to his country.
He decided to flee hoping he could better help his family from Europe, and then maybe go back to his homeland. But he is now trapped, and hopeless.
The sense of abandonment has also reached the volunteers. They want to talk about their years of sacrifice and hard work, which they do not want to see dismissed because of the bad pictures of a few days ago.
At the end of this first day, I can only pray for all these brothers and sisters. Yet, it would be so easy to help these people. Young people like me, who just had the misfortune of being born “elsewhere.” Our Italy cannot remain silent.
*Khalid Chaouki, 30, was born in Casablanca Morocco, and is a member of the Italian Parliament from the Democratic Party.