Italy: you have to queue for everything, life at CARA di Mineo
22 October 2014

Walking on the road from CARA di Mineo towards Catania. The journey takes an hour by car. (Oscar Spooner / Jesuit Refugee Service)
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For anyone staying at CARA di Mineo, integration is nothing short of a physical impossibility – the centre is simply a massive waiting room where the residents kick their heels while hoping to get the documents that will allow them to get on with their lives as soon as possible.

Sicily, 22 October 2014 When migrants land in Lampedusa or Sicily, the registration process begins. They are accommodated in first-level reception facilities and, once processed, those seeking refugee status are taken to a Centro di Accoglienza per Richiedenti Asilo (CARA), or a centre for the reception of asylum seekers set up in Italy in 2008, to await the decision on their request for asylum.

Many end up in the infamous CARA di Mineo, a mega-centre housing some 4,000 asylum seekers that is situated on the road between Catania and the town of Gela. On arrival, they are told they will be there for six months, but delays in the asylum procedure inevitably mean they end up staying for longer, often twice as long or more.

More than a centre, CARA di Mineo is a village of rows of pre-fabricated houses surrounded by barbed wire and armed guard. The CARA is a totally incongruous structure in the rural Sicilian landscape that surrounds it. Planted in the middle of nowhere, the centre has been described as “una cattedrale nel deserto” – a cathedral in the desert, which is another way of calling it a white elephant. The premises were originally used by the personnel of a US military air station and include a sports ground, a bar, swings for children and other facilities.

But the comfort runs no more than skin-deep. The asylum seekers at the CARA di Mineo feel confined and frustrated by the long delays, overcrowding, isolation and because they have little or nothing to do. Technically speaking, CARA di Mineo is an open centre, so the asylum seekers may come and go as they please, provided they clock back in every evening (they may get permission to leave for a few nights). But the place is so remote and their resources so limited that many don’t venture out at all.

For anyone staying at CARA di Mineo, integration is nothing short of a physical impossibility – the centre is simply a massive waiting room where the residents kick their heels while hoping to get the documents that will allow them to get on with their lives as soon as possible.

Testimonies

Elvira Iovino, Centro Astalli: “Recently we assisted a young Nigerian Christian. He spent seven months parked at CARA di Mineo; it’s such a shame. He was not taught a single word of Italian and he was not enlisted in the health service although he had severe scabies that he contracted on the boat.”

Jonathon: “It’s boring inside the camp, you have to queue for one or two hours to eat, sometimes fights break out in the line. You cannot really create space for 4,000 people to eat, can you? I never thought I would leave my country but when I had to do so, and I crossed the sea to Lampedusa, I thought I had come to a free life. But now I see it is not so. I know that if I have documents, I can continue my life, go to school, learn the language, look for work.”

Abdul: “I’ve been here at CARA di Mineo for nearly one year and three months. I received a negative decision and I am appealing because I know that if you are here without documents, you are nothing. This is why I am still here, sitting in one place, not doing anything, not going anywhere, because I am waiting. Here at CARA di Mineo, it’s not like morning is easy and night is tough, it’s always difficult. You have to queue for everything. Sometimes, getting meals is a problem. Because there are so many people, you have to stay in a queue for two hours to get food. I can’t be in a queue every day for so many months. We want to leave this kind of life, to be free and to benefit the country that has helped us. We are still under control here, and it’s very different from being on our own. I am definitely tired, this is a camp, not a city, it is really too much. I need documents. I’ve never experienced something like this before. I want to leave this system, to be free.”

Samir: “Before it was worse at CARA di Mineo. The way they were taking care of us was very bad, just food and that’s all. We had to protest for clothes, toothpaste, soap, and then they would give you once and that’s it. Something else is that the Italian teachers at CARA di Mineo could only speak Italian. It was difficult for us to understand and I was discouraged. I had a copybook where I used to write things in English and then I would go to people working at CARA to ask ‘what is the meaning of this or that?’ They would write in Italian and that’s how I started picking up some words.”

Michael: “We were rescued at sea and brought to Lampedusa. We stayed for three days before they brought us here to CARA di Mineo. The time to go before the commission is too long for us, 10, 11 months. They feed us and look after us here – we are ok. We can go to Italian classes if we want, we have a football field, we have advice, social workers, free healthcare. But what I want to see in this camp is job opportunities – we need to do something.”

Marcel: “When we came to CARA di Mineo and saw the military, we believed we would be shut up here, like in Libya, and we were afraid. I spent one year and two months in Mineo. There are many ethnic groups there and this always caused problems. The houses were overcrowded and even going to the bathroom posed a problem: you had to queue. To get clothes, again you had to queue. Also, we could not study Italian well because there were too many people in class, around 50 at times, and we could not understand what the teacher was saying.What I’ll never forget is the time an Eritrean man killed himself because he got a negative response to his asylum application. This was very bad. We came here to have freedom, we didn’t come here to find more problems, to be shut up in an isolated place where we don’t know anything, because that place is too far away from Catania and anywhere else, practically in the bush.”

Ahmed: “I want to stay here at CARA di Mineo to be a cultural mediator because there isn’t one for my country. At first, I wasn’t happy here, but now it’s ok. I have friends and also I am thinking of work – it would be good if I could get this job. The Italians who work here are good. Although life at CARA is ok, one problem is that now the houses are very crowded. Another thing is the clinic: they told my friend he would need 2,500 euro for an operation in his nose, they did nothing to help him and he can’t breathe or sleep well at night. We earn nothing here, how could he pay that money?”

Adam: “I get very upset when I see the others here at CARA di Mineo calling their families back home because I don’t have anyone to call. I stay inside my room all the time. I only go out to eat and I go back to my room. There is nowhere to go and I have no friends. Actually I can leave now because I have a paper to show I am appealing my asylum decision. But I am staying here because I have nobody, where can I go?”