3 May 2014
My job for today was to drive to Mineo – the notorious refugee camp I wrote about yesterday. After having breakfast and writing the article on Greece, I left Catania at around 11.30 for the 50km trip. The road was quite busy, and it wasn’t long before I saw the first African prostitutes by the side of the road. I called Alex and wanted to ask her whether what I had in mind was a good idea. Part of me probably thought that I may be putting myself in a dangerous situation. The other part of me wanted his fiancée’s approval to allow a prostitute into his car. Alex told me that I had nothing to lose. So, after a few kilometres I saw another woman approaching and decided to pull over. I asked her whether she speaks English, and whether she would be willing to speak with me about her life here in Italy. She was happy to do so, and got into my car.
|Residenca degli Aranci in the middle of fruit farms|
The 21-year old girl was from Nigeria and had come to Italy nine months ago, arriving by boat. She vividly described to me how the waves had crashed over her boat six times, and that she is lucky to be alive. She kept saying how powerful God is. She left Nigeria because she had known a “girlfriend” in Sicily who promised her a job in an old woman’s house – but when she arrived, she was forced into prostitution by that same girlfriend. “I don’t have any choice,” she said and I can still hear those words ring very clearly in my head. After spending three months in Sicily, she also moved to Genoa in the north of Italy. It was far more difficult to do “streetwork” there, so after three months in Genoa, she came back to Sicily. She has no documents and no money. All the money she earns on the side of the road she submits to the woman who ‘employs’ her. When I heard this story I felt totally helpless. I simply didn’t know what to do or say. Before she left I prayed for her and handed her a little bit of money, which she said she would keep as a gift from me, rather than give it to her pimp. I really don’t know whether I did the right thing.
I drove on, even though I was still completely in thoughts about what I had just heard. I had no idea where the Residence degli Aranci was located, so I drove up a hill, helping me to spot the place immediately. Being situated in the middle of endless lemon and orange fields the former US army base stood out like a false penny. I drove towards it through seemingly infinite rows of fruit trees, noticing immediately a crowd of Africans standing outside the gates as I approached the camp. About 30 cars were parked by the side of the road for reasons unknown to me. The entire facility is high militarised. There was a Humvee patrolling the barbed wire fences, and dozens of soldier equipped with machine guns stood at all corners of the camp. Remember that Mineo is not a detention centre, but a “Housing”-facility, as the roadsigns on the way had politely reminded me of. From a distance, I have to admit, the Residence looked very pleasant. The houses actually appeared American rather than Italian, and they did not seem older than 10 years. However, a closer look revealed the reality behind this façade: many of the houses did not have functioning windows, and often they were boarded up. I tried to enter the camp, but was referred to the authorities in Catania which may or may not provide me with an authorisation to enter.
At around 15.15 I decided that I needed to speak with people. The first guy I spoke with had just returned from Catania with two dozens of lemonade bottles and some fruits. He wasn’t very approachable though, and his English was limited. Then I got into a conversation with three guys who spoke Arabic between themselves, and they told me a few things about the camp which were very interesting. The first thing they all complained about was the food. Apparently a daily meal consists of nothing other than pasta with oil. The camp’s clinic is primitive, which one of the guys evidenced by showing me badly scarred wound on his ankle. Rooms are usually shared with seven other people, meaning that up to 24 people live in the same building. Everyone who lives at the camp has ID card that allow him or her to enter the premises. The ID card of one of the guys I spoke to said that he had arrived about a year ago. The ID card number, which is specific to the Mineo camp, ran into the 8400s. However, apparently some people had been there for over three years. If you leave the camp for more than three days, you are “dismissed,” meaning that you cannot come back. Although you are an asylum seeker, you will then have to live in the streets. Life inside must be horrible. The high population density, lots of young men with nothing to do, and the melange of sometimes hostile nationalities is fertile ground was constant clashes and confrontations. Only last week, I was told, a guy hung himself. Drugs evidently form one way out of this situation. Two out of four guys I spoke with were clearly under the effects of drugs. As the residents have little or no money, cigarettes form the currency of Mineo. They can be used to be something different to eat.
As we were chatting, a group of around twenty young men approached the camp and eventually walked past us towards the gates of the camp. “They are coming back from work,” I was told. Apparently the vast majority of people who live at Mineo work in the lemon and orange farms that are surrounding the camp from all directions. Although the people work all day, three different people confirmed that the salaries amount to only €15 per day. I had noticed on the way that one of the farms advertised its organic production methods. I became acutely aware that while there is a European organic label, there is no way of knowing whether a fruit or a vegetable was produced with the help of irregular workers. We seem to worry more about the mistreatment of animals than about the exploitation of human beings.
One of the first things one of the guys told me he was actually born in Barcelona. “I am not African, I am European. I am European Union!” While I am a proponent of open borders, I would also want Africans thinking about migrating to Europe to know that the ‘European dream’ has in many cases turned into the nightmare of forced prostitution and inhumane refugee camps. So far, I have never seen this exemplified more vividly than in Mineo.