The blockaded entrance to the La Laconda migrant reception centre
I arrived with the rest of the whites. A couple of police cars had pulled up on the road; a crowd had formed around the makeshift road block, stopping the vehicles from entering the driveway leading up to the main building.
The migrant reception centre of La Locanda stands about an hour or two's walk from the small town of Castelvetrano, and an hour from the beach village of Marinella di Selinunte, scrappy farmland stretching beyond it on all sides. Firmly in the middle of nowhere, it acts as home to around 100 young men, all from West Africa or the Indian subcontinent, some of whom have lived here for almost two years.
This period of waiting has been forced on them by the lengthy, broken Italian system of seeking refugee status, entailing that a centre designed to host people for only a few months at a time has become the institutional crutch for scores of young men. Putting their faith in the centre for help in gaining their documents, their only temporary escapes are short spells of travel when given permission – but in which time they receive no allowance – and the most exploitative of work. Staying in such a centre is not obligatory, however; indeed, it does not even necessarily improve their chances of receiving asylum. Nonetheless, this is the only system of state support available to them (mediated of course by private business). Furthermore, once registered at such a centre this becomes their fixed address for all correspondence. As the months go by, the time invested in the process itself becomes a reason to stay, even at centres in urgent need of reform or closure.
The fight for documents is thus that for a ticket out of a dire situation. On Monday afternoon, the situation flared up when one of the young men inquired yet again about the situation with his documents, and the manager lost his temper. This, the occupiers tell me, was a final straw. In the morning, those remaining at the centre (around 60, another 30 or so being away) took the decision to eject the workers and barricade the driveway, in protest against waiting so long for their documents, the official stamp they feel is so necessary for them to continue and plan their lives. Their initial demand was that the 'police' from Trapani, where they have all given interviews in relation to their request for asylum, come to the centre in order to discuss their situations. By 'police' the occupiers meant more generally those presiding over the processing of their asylum requests, even while I was left unclear as to exactly at whom in Trapani the demand was aimed. The pressing situations, according to the protesters, are these: residents who have received 'negatives' but have since heard little or nothing about their appeal; people who have received 'positives' but have not received the hard copies necessary to travel; and those who are still waiting for a decision to be made.
Within this last category is Abab, a young man from Pakistan who has now been waiting three months for a decision to be made on his asylum claim, despite the guidelines provided to the residents stating that they should receive news of the decision relating to their claim within a month and a half of their interview at the commission for asylum requests in Trapani. Abab tells me of his heart condition, which he only developed once in Italy, the heart attack he suffered, and his dissatisfaction with the medical care he receives. 'I have my next appointment in six month!' he laments. 'If you die before an appointment, I ask you, who goes for you!?'
Abab's complaint, though of course worsened by the stress of the situation in which he lives, also speaks of the more general problems in Sicilian welfare support and public services – six months not being an unheard of waiting time for an Italian national either. But then, Italy's economic problems haven't escaped the protesters' attentions over these months, these years: a young Gambian man gestures to his companions around us and tells me that all of those who remain at the centre are those without relatives or friends in other countries to which they can go. The majority of the residents received 'negatives' from the commission, of which many have already left for Germany, choosing a life of illegality over deportation.
While many have left the centre, new arrivals continue to replenish it. A young Nigerian man tells me that he was recently transferred to La Locanda from a centre of around 50 people in Piana degli Albanesi, closed a few weeks ago. The former residents were taken to a centre in Trapani: 'I've seen better prisons', he said. They refused to live there, and camped outside the police station in protest. Two weeks later he finds himself in the middle of another protest here. He is convinced that he and his compatriots are treated so badly, 'like slaves', due to their black skin, noting that paler, whiter Syrians have apparently been welcomed by Europe.
The maltreatment at the centre does not only relate to the lack of documents. A litany of criticism emerges: no television to pass the time; inadequate wifi to stay in touch with family (many have children back home); a constant mistrust in the medical care received; that they are served pasta every day 'only fit for bambini'. That lawyers seem uncontactable. That there isn't enough shampoo. These demands may seem to request the stuff of life beyond the level of 'slavery', even if necessary for modern life. Yet everything must be placed in the context of the seemingly eternal wait for documents, the grey-zone of life lived in a waiting room. I ask Tijan, another young Gambian, dressed in a bright cap and necklace in Ethiopian colours, what he thought the situation would be like before he arrived in Italy. Humbly, quietly, he tells me only that he believed he would received papers quickly and, 'by the grace of God', find work.
Blocking the roads was an attempt to bring this modest prayer to fruition. Back in the Summer, the residents briefly blockaded the main road outside the centre. This time, however, they took the building itself. When the catering van arrived on Tuesday morning they turned it away, while securing the grounds for themselves. Initially the occupiers informed the police that they did not want the deliveries, but when they changed their minds, the deliveries had been cancelled by the centre, under the claim that food could not be distributed except by the workers. The residents disagree of course, knowing that this was simply a bargaining chip. Nonetheless, the protest coincided with the distribution of their monthly allowance of €75, meaning that they also did not have enough funds to buy supplies either.
Not long after I arrived, the negotiations with the police – amid hollow threats of deportation – led to a few officers being allowed onto the grounds, along with the manager and a couple of workers, including a translator. One officer asked me what I knew about the protest, what the complaints really were, seeming to believe that the protest was aimed against the workers or manager, rather than taking the protesters words at face value: that it was directed at the authorities in Trapani. But despite the criticisms of the centre, the residents did not in general aim their anger against the manager or the workers, but the system as a whole. They are well aware that the situation elsewhere is no better.
The police demanded that the residents provide them with a list of those protesting for their documents; which the occupiers immediately interpreted as a request for a list of 'trouble makers'. Eventually, however, the two sides came to an agreement that on Friday morning four spokesmen would go to the police station and present the problems of each and every resident, on the condition that if no progress is made by Monday, they would retake the building. Thus by Thursday evening matters had returned to normal. The catering van arrived; the workers distributed the food. Institutionalisation, and the infantilising culture corresponding to it, recommenced its repetitive cycle. The break in this repetition, the emergence of a collective voice, was submerged again under the rhythms of a deprived daily life.
Protests of this kind are not unheard of in the Italian migrant sector: sleep-outs and road blockades are frequent, and the heightened police finger-printing operation in Lampedusa has been disrupted in recent weeks by hunger strikes and demonstrations. Those involved in these activities, pushing back against a system which makes them dependent on meagre hand-outs in a fog of timeless waiting, have no particular network, common language or even the same legal situations. Their unifying moment is perhaps only this: the difference between their expectations for a life to be led in Europe, with access to effective health care, labour markets and cultural life, and the reality into which they have been suspended, one hidden from society's daily view: a limbo among the cacti and olive groves, directed towards the production of the paperless. The gap between these two points, the modest dream and the disturbing reality, is being filled by the angry and defiant voices of people such as the occupiers of La Locanda, whose courage may be the only hope for the ending of such a system.
This article was originally published on migrantsiciliy and is republished here with permission of the author and website.