(Please note that this report was published in Italian before the violent evacuation of Eritrean refugees in August, first from a building in Via Curtatone and then from a protest sit-in. This piece is meant to be an overall picture of the situation. We are working on a new report on the ongoing story of evacuated Eritreans, in English translation as well – stay tuned).
Baobab Experience in piazzale Maslax
Everybody knows it even though the authorities ignore it, at least formally. That name, Piazzale Maslax, dedicated to the memory of a young man who took his own life in a reception centre, does not exist on the official maps of Rome, but it’s there in the address books and the messages of hundreds of migrants arriving in the capital who receive first assistance there. Someone even geotagged it on Google Maps to make it easier to find Baobab, an informal camp that exists thanks to volunteers and that is periodically evacuated by law enforcement officers. The irony in the capital’s migrant reception system begins right here, in an old bus garage behind the Tiburtina station where camping tents have been pitched to accommodate 100-150 people every night and where there is no electricity or running water; a camp supported only by activists and groups working hand-in-hand with migrants, from Medu to Diritti del cuore, to the Support Network for Migrants in Transit, which includes A buon diritto, CIR and Action.
A long line forms at sunset near the table where volunteers serve dinner: rice, vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, and bread. Seydou, a 23-year-old from Mali, arrived here on the advice of a German friend who had learned about Baobab from Facebook. “They told me this name, Maslax, I looked it up on the map and I came here. I had read on the internet that they might be able to help me.” Seydou is one of the so-called “Dublined” migrants forcibly returned to their country of arrival where they are required to seek international protection under the Dublin III Regulation. And Seydou had arrived in Italy in 2015. As a result, he had to leave Germany after two years, even though he had started learning German and was expected to intern at a company after training. “There was nothing that could be done. They had first taken my fingerprints in Italy, so they sent me away. Now I’m here and I’m waiting for my papers,” he explains. “I come from northern Mali, where there are many problems – rebellions, violence – and I hope I will be granted asylum soon, so I can go back to my friend in Germany.”
Paul, a 27-year-old from the Ivory Coast, came to Baobab almost by chance after sleeping in the streets near Termini station for a few nights. “I met a young Ivorian man who works at the Red Cross, he gave me two euros to take the subway and go to the police station to explain my situation. I had been served with an expulsion order in Sicily,” he recounts, “but the police sent me away because there was a long list. Just outside the subway, I met a girl, Roberta, I explained my problems to her and she told me to come here. Now, thanks to the legal assistance I received at Baobab, I have appealed the order successfully and I’m expecting to receive my residence permit by August 3rd.”
The people who arrive on the eastern plaza at Tiburtina are from several countries and their legal statuses vary, but all of them were identified upon arrival. Most of them are from Sudan, but there are also many Eritreans and Somalis, and lately there have been a few Kurds. “Among those we help, there are people who have not yet been assigned a reception centre, or people who leave the centres they were assigned because they received no assistance there,” Roberto Viviani, the president of Baobab Experience, explained. The new development over the last months has been the increase in the number of “Dublined” migrants, people sent back to Italy from France, Germany, and other countries. “They find us through word of mouth,” Molugheda, a Sudanese young man who came to the centre when it was still on Via Cupa, told us as early as 2015: “in the countries of origin they know that the Tiburtina area in Rome is an area where migrants are taken in.”
As we talk, three people wearing blue vests record the daily number of migrants. They are from the city’s social operations room. “It’s ironic, but despite 20 evictions and the city’s persistent refusal to acknowledge us, the people from the operations room come by every day, twice a day, because they know this is a hotspot. From here, when there are places available, they send people to government centres, giving priority to the ones that we mark as vulnerable: women and children, or people with physical or mental disabilities.” Informal collaboration with the city ends here; volunteers take care of everything else. For two years, Baobab Experience has been asking for official recognition of the work being done here. Earlier in June, they petitioned with National Railways, which owns the Piazzale Maslax area: “In 12 hours we could set up a proper camp, bring solar panels, put up a library tent and provide attorneys with a space for legal assistance,” Viviani added. “That would benefit migrants and residents alike, because everything would be monitored and secure.” Eventually, Fabrizio Torella, director of corporate shared value for the National Railways, answered the activists’ petition (which by then had collected 17,500 signatures), proposing the Milan hub as a model. Torella explained that, if the “relevant territorial authorities were responsive,” National Railways would be willing to “discuss initiatives with the councillor for social policy.” Having secured the company’s support, Baobab Experience is asking not only the city, but also the Region of Lazio and the prefecture to respond to the call of the activists and commit to the creation of a permanent facility. A few days ago, the association Medici per i diritti umani also wrote to both the Mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, and the prefect, Paola Basilone, calling for “a humanitarian centre for the more vulnerable migrants,” but neither one has replied. Citizens, on the other hand, are providing plenty of support: “some bring canned tuna or a package of pasta, anything makes a difference,” coordinator Andrea Costa added. “Everything helps, even a little time dedicated to those who otherwise have no means to communicate and become more and more isolated.”
It’s getting dark as we leave the camp, and we head for the city centre. A few kilometres down the road, on Via Aniene, there’s another hotspot for migrant reception, which is reserved for unaccompanied foreign minors. It’s called A28, a private night centre run by the association Intersos. Young people start coming here around 10 pm. Once they are buzzed in, they say hello, grab their soap, and take a shower before sitting down at the dinner table. There are 24 beds, but during busy times, capacity can reach 40. Each bedroom has six beds: boys and girls are housed separately. “They come here through word of mouth or are directed here by the social operations room,” Intersos spokesperson Maurizio Debanne explained. “We also have a mobile team monitoring the areas around Tiburtina and Termini stations to intercept unaccompanied minors.” Since the beginning of 2017, the number of young people at the centre has doubled as more and more unaccompanied minors have been arriving in Rome. “Over the last few months, we have been at maximum capacity,” Debanne added, “and by October we will be closing and moving to a larger building in the Torre Spaccata suburb, leased from the region. There we will be able to provide assistance 24/7. The number of minors is increasing constantly; we believe we should be able to provide even greater support.”
While the kids are showering, Pino Bardaro, who is in charge of running the centre, makes dinner in the kitchen. Souvenirs from the kids who passed through the centre are hanging on the walls. Some have left a drawing of their country’s flag, some a picture, and some printed out their dreams for the future. One of them is 17-year-old Godstime, who wants to be a professional soccer player. He is from Nigeria, and his impoverished family has invested in him for a better future. Before coming here, he also went through Baobab, and when they found out how old he was, he was sent to A28. 16-year-old Yonas, from Eritrea, had his dreams shattered when he ended up in jail on charges of helping people leave the country. A white crucifix hanging from his neck and two large tattoos (a flower and a bird) as a reminder of his time in prison, he is as shy as any other teenager. “After doing my time, I was forced to leave,” he explained. “I arrived in Rome on my own; I used to sleep at Tiburtina. Now I’m hoping to leave with the programme,” he said, referring to the relocation procedure. “I’d like to go to the Netherlands where I have relatives. Germany would be OK, too. I don’t want to stay in Italy.” Unaccompanied minors stay at A28 for an average six days, after which many of them resume their travelling. This is precisely why they are all given a blue wristband with the Intersos logo. “They know not to take it off, for when they arrive in Como, or Ventimiglia, or other border towns, they are recognised by other Intersos operators thanks to the wristband, and taken in accordingly,” Deanne added. “We have a legal team that will assist them throughout the entire process.”
Via del Frantoio
There are other vulnerable subjects–women with children, people with physical or mental disabilities–who are taken in by the Red Cross centre, a former schoolhouse on Via del Frantoio. The centre is currently at full capacity: there are 86 guests, mostly Eritreans (about 70) and a few women with children. Two of these, barely a year old, are playing in the long hallway after breakfast. The centre is run with the funds that the Ministry of Interior allocated for migrant reception in Rome. The lease is extended every six months: it was last renewed in June, and it will be up again in December. “This is a humanitarian centre, and we chose this name for a reason; we want to take in everyone: not only asylum seekers or people eligible for relocations, not only the homeless, but everyone. The only criterion is that you are a human being in need. We also have Italian citizens without a home,” said centre manager Giorgio De Acutis. “Rome is especially attractive to people spending months in reception centres scattered around Italy who have no access to asylum procedures, no interpreters, no knowledge of their rights. Once they arrive in Europe, those who have travelled even for years cannot stand another long wait. They get away from the centres and come here. Very often what they need most is to be informed about their rights; they come to Rome because there are many people from their countries here; Eritreans, for instance, know that the people at police headquarters in Rome work very hard and well on the issue of relocation. So they are drawn to the capital.”
Most people who arrived at Via del Frantoio had passed through the informal camp on Piazzale Maslax. “We are working with the activists at Baobab Experience, we have also started a few courses for our guests. But even when we receive reports from Baobab, we have to run them by the city’s social operations room,” De Acutis explained. “Compared to the past, however, the situation has improved: there is more coordination between the administration and the prefecture, something we had been asking for for months. We’re optimistic, we believe that better coordination among the authorities and between the authorities and civil society will result in better management.” Especially as there is no current emergency in Rome, he adds: “We are well below the numbers that we had in 2015 when arrivals were constantly exceeding our capacity. This is due to the fact that Italy is less and less a country of transit. Since mid-2016, all new arrivals have been identified, and fewer and fewer people attempt to cross the borders outside of legal channels.”
The eviction of via Vannina
Even in the SPRAR and Extraordinary Reception Centres (CAS), numbers have remained low: according to data from the prefecture, there have been 5,581 requests for international protection from the centres, including the CARA of Castelnuovo di Porto, where most people are awaiting relocation. In addition, 3,000 more have been taken in by the SPRAR network. This brings the total number to about 8,000, well below the 11,000 quota that falls to Rome under the agreement between the state and the regions. These figures were released following a letter that the Mayor of Rome sent to Prefect Basilone that called for a moratorium on new arrivals in the city.
But while the data seem to contradict the idea of a city straining under the weight of the arrivals, what the statistics fail to account for are the thousands of homeless, jobless migrants who are sleeping in the streets or squatting. The eviction of two buildings on Via Vannina in the eastern suburbs, ordered by the landowner only two months ago, has brought to light a situation that had long remained invisible, not only to the authorities but also to aid groups and organisations. These abandoned buildings housed more than 500 people, including families with children. Nearly all of them were either in possession of long-term residence permits or recipients of international protection, and had previously been in SPRAR or CAS centres. Once outside the reception system, though, they ended up on the streets. A month later, about sixty people (including one family with underage children) were allowed to re-enter one of the buildings. Others were scattered among the dozen squats that elude official monitoring. The associations which provided assistance on Via Vannina also reported instances of exploitation and human trafficking in the case of some women, the type of situation that is hard to handle following an eviction. The UNHCR also stated that the state of things in the capital is a critical one that demands a solution. “The situation in Rome is extremely worrying: there are too many asylum seekers left out of the reception system,” warned Carlotta Sami, spokesperson at UNHCR SouthEurope. “Thousands of regular migrants live in squats. The situation has only been getting worse over the years and it must be addressed. The eviction on Via Vannina has left 500 more people in the streets, including children. It is a failure of integration policy and a deprivation of human dignity, we have been asking the city to find a solution for too long.”
However, the city’s plans on immigration are still hard to decipher. Councillor Laura Baldassarre has spoken repeatedly of a hub like the one in Milan for first reception to be be established near Tiburtina station. But the plan has apparently fallen through following protests from some of the residents. Negotiations with the humanitarian groups, one of the first official acts by Baldassarre, were also interrupted suddenly after months of meetings to find a structural solution. But whether more evacuations will follow, or an actual collaboration between the city and civil society groups is in the works, is difficult to guess. Open Migration asked the City of Rome to answer some of the questions on migrant reception, but despite repeated requests, we never received an answer.
Cover image: people lined up for dinner on Piazzale Maslax with Baobab Experience (all images in this article by Francesco Pistilli).