Italy: all my bones used to hurt – sleeping on the street
27 October 2014

The Caritas help centre near the train station in Catania. Migrants queue for food. (Oscar Spooner / Jesuit Refugee Service)
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When I came to Catania I spent a month sleeping outside. Then I stayed in a dormitory for nearly a year. We had to go in at 8pm and leave at 6am even if we had nowhere to go, even if we were sick, even if it was cold, we had to leave and stay outside. I didn't know what to do, there was nothing to do, just sitting and thinking, all the time.
Catania, 27 October 2014 – Once asylum seekers are granted protection in Italy, they leave the Centri di Accoglienza per Richiedenti Asilo (CARA), or centres for the reception of asylum seekers that were set up in 2008, and graduate to accommodation known as Servizio di Protezione per i Richiedenti Asilo e i Rifugiati (SPRAR). This is a system of reception and integration run by the Ministry for Internal Affairs, in collaboration with humanitarian organisations, to offer asylum seekers and refugees accommodation and help to integrate into Italian society.

Ideally accommodating a few residents each, SPRAR centres are usually located in the heart of cities and towns all over Italy and, in June 2014, there were 19,000 places available. In August, the emergency parallel system set up by the Italian government was accommodating an additional 25,000 people. However, demand still falls far short of need so even if, technically speaking, refugees have the right to live in a SPRAR centre or other accommodation, many end up with nowhere to go.

In Catania, some find temporary shelter in five dormitories run by NGOs and the Missionaries of Charity as well as a few other places including the city mosque. But countless people sleep on the streets – recognised refugees together with others awaiting the outcome of the appeal on their rejected asylum application, and still others who evaded the system altogether. They sleep at bus stops, at the train station, on patches of grass and benches, in abandoned cars, under stone arcades.

Sometimes they are chased away. Some find a place in abandoned factories or warehouses by the harbour.

The asylum seekers and refugees we interviewed unanimously agreed that their time sleeping on the streets, ranging from weeks to months, was one of their worst memories.

Testimonies

Matthieu:
"When I came to Catania I spent a month sleeping outside. Then I stayed in a dormitory for nearly a year. We had to go in at 8pm and leave at 6am even if we had nowhere to go, even if we were sick, even if it was cold, we had to leave and stay outside. I didn't know what to do, there was nothing to do, just sitting and thinking, all the time."

Kofi: "At first I was sleeping in the streets then Caritas found me a place to stay called Il Faro. I am happy there because I am not sleeping outside. To sleep in the street is not easy, all my bones used to hurt me. Even now, if I sleep in a bed, after two hours, I wake up in pain. I used to sleep on a carton, and that was all I had. I was alone. Sometimes I stayed at a bus stop, sometimes at the train station, placing my carton on the bench. I didn't even have blankets. Every day I went to eat at Caritas. I would go to the town and ask friends to give me one or two euro to buy bread."

Godwin: "When we arrived in Catania, we went to Caritas but they told us they have no place – we were outside for months, sleeping on the streets. Then Caritas found a place for us. We don't do anything in the day because there is no work; this is very difficult for me. So I have started Italian school and later I walk around to see if I can find anything to do... I look for a place to sit down and wait until it is time to go back to the dormitory. What experiences will I never forget? The experience of sleeping outside in very cold weather, that was very bad, and of staying idle, without doing anything."

Abraham: "Norway was a good place to be. I was there for three years and I had a job, a place to live and food, but no documents. When they wanted to deport me, I worried about what would happen if they returned me to Afghanistan. So I came here because I heard Italy was good for refugees. But I spent two years without documents, without a home, without food or money. For three months I lived on the street without spare clothes or food. It was a bad time. In winter it was so cold, especially when it rained, and I was very sick. I wanted to die. I thought, why is this happening? One day, I thought about my family and country, and I felt so bad – it is so bad there and so bad here, how can I live? Then a friend helped me and took me to his place, I paid him when I could. I changed accommodation many times... one day one place and then another place the next because I had no money except when I found odd jobs here and there."

Samir: "When they give you a document at CARA, they take you to the train station and drop you off, without even one euro in your hand. You really don't know where to start. I left after a year and a half. I went to a SPRAR house near Agrigento, we were four residents, but I was not very happy there. There was nothing to do, I had no money in my pocket and I was learning nothing. So I left. I spent two years sleeping outside and it was difficult even to get food to eat.

"I tried going to Italy. I stayed in a place called the Ghetto outside Foggia in the south, a settlement where hundreds of African migrants live. Italian people go there to collect them for work. If you see this place and they tell you human beings live here, you won't believe it; it's terrible. 'Houses' are made out of carton, poles and rope. The ground is like clay and everything is dirty. I lost my documents there so I came back to Catania. It was very difficult to get them replaced, it has taken me over a year, and still it's not over. Back in Catania, I slept at the train station, in the rain in winter and the heat in summer. Actually we were outside because the station is closed at night. If we wanted to go inside because it was raining, the police would drive us away.

"There were many of us; we had nowhere to go. We used to go to Caritas to eat. It was a very bad experience, I felt like going out of this world because I had nothing to give me joy at that time. Not only did I have nothing, there was nothing I could do to get the things I needed, no one to give me the links to start somewhere. It was just faith that kept me going, I told myself, 'leave it in the hands of God, whatever God says, it is going to be like that.' Even if you go now to the train station, you will see women sleeping there with their children, from Eritrea, Somalia and other countries, it's not fair."