19 January 2012

The CIE’s Arab Spring: 580 escapes in 2011

Hunger strikes, self-harm, arson, escapes and out-and-out riots. 2011 will be remembered as the hottest year of the Italian Centres for Identification and Expulsion (CIEs). The rebels are the young Tunisian men who landed in Lampedusa and ended up in the thousands of CIEs after the agreement between Rome and Tunis of April 5, 2011. In the face of their inability to gain legal recognition for their right to travel, they decided to get it back with the only means left to them: their bodies. The same bodies that were exposed to the bullets of the Ben Ali’s police regime during January’s revolution in Tunisia. The bodies with which they crossed the sea and are now trying to jump over the cages where they have been locked up, risking a trip to hospital with broken bones from beatings, or to prison on charges of assaulting a public official.

The analogy with the popular uprisings overseas is not at all artificial. Those who have had the opportunity to personally meet the young Tunisians who landed in Italy last year will have seen that, apart from a small minority of former prisoners escaped from Tunisian prisons, most of these were young people who participated in the protests. Whether from the working-class districts of Tunis (Mallasin, Hay Nur, Jebal Ahmer, Kabbariya, Hay Tadhamun) and Sfax, or from the poor rural midlands of the south (Zarzis, Mednin, Tataouine, Gafsa, Gabes), none renounced the revolution. On the contrary, several said they had found the courage to leave only after the revolution. In other words, only after having learned first-hand that rebellion is right. Against a regime or against a border. And for that reason too, on the back of the collective delirium following the end of the dictatorship, they left in the thousands, roughly all those who had always dreamed of doing so. With the same two words in mind that the square would repeat like a mantra during the revolution hurriya and karama. Freedom and dignity.

To live a decent life, a man or a woman needs a job, a prospect, and must be free to move and find his or her place in the world. The freedom and dignity which the young people believed in to the point of putting their lives at risk in the sea, and continued to believe in when they decided to revolt against the deportation machine, burning and destroying the CIEs’ facilities, or destroying their own bodies, cutting their veins, swallowing glass and pieces of iron to end up the hospital and avoid deportation.

And all those who condemn the physical violence often used by inmates against the police and against the detention facilities of the CIEs should instead think about the institutional violence of the whole machinery of expulsion. We spoke of it throughout 2011. Of how once our country’s Constitution enshrined the inviolability of individual freedom, and today has become normal to lock up a young person guilty of travel inside a cage for a year and a half. Young people who would never have dreamed of embarking towards Lampedusa undocumented, if only their passports had had at least some value for our embassies abroad. If this had been so, they would all have boarded the first low-cost flights to Milan or Paris.

But it is not so. In the globalized world, mobility is power. And only the citizens of the richest states have full access. Those who have the wrong passport can forget about seeing the world. Unless they decide to rebel. And maybe we should do this too. Starting with overthrowing our aesthetics of the border. And seeing that the largest mass movement of disobedience against the border has been moving on those boats for the past twenty years. And that this should be encouraged, until the day where you can freely move between the two shores of the Mediterranean.

Below is a chronological list of riots and escapes in the CIEs of Italy in 2011. The protests have involved all the centers, particularly in the months of August and September, when parliament approved the law that changed from 6 to 18 months the limit of detention inside CIEs. Based on information gathered by Fortress Europe, the number of escapees in 2011 is at least 580. An unprecedented number as far as we can remember, to which are added dozens of people injured and arrested. Of the losses caused by the riots at detention facilities there are no official estimates, but it is easy to imagine that they are of the magnitude in the range of millions of Euros, considering that whole sections were devastated and burned during the riots in Turin, Rome, Milan, Gradisca , Brindisi, Modena, Bologna, not to mention that a reception pavilion in the Center of Lampedusa was completely destroyed by arson.

The swiss-cheese award goes to the CIE of Rome, from which 191 inmates escaped during the months of August and September. In second place is the CIE of Brindisi, where 140 managed to escape, followed by Trapani (79 escapees from the CIEs of Milo and Vulpitta), Turin (59), Modena (35), Bologna (20) and Cagliari (2). Finally, although technically not a CIE, or perhaps more so as we're talking about a place of illegal detention, remember the 54 Tunisians who managed to escape from the hangar at the port of Pozzallo, Ragusa.

The figure of the 580 escapees is anything but negligible compared to the numbers of the deportation machine. Considering the total of 3,600 Tunisian nationals repatriated from Italy in 2011, the number of evasion represents 16% less deportations to Tunisia. And the figure is still significant even when compared with statistics from around the CIE system, considering that on average (figures from Caritas Migrantes 2009) 11,000 people transit through the CIEs each year, of whom about 4,500 are then actually repatriated by force.

That said, let’s not kid ourselves. For the 580 escapees of last year there is little to celebrate. Living in Europe without papers is hard. The fear of being stopped by police while going to visit a friend or just as soon as you step out of your city. The impossibility of signing employment contract or a lease. The more fortunate can work in black, and for those who have lost fortune’s address, they can push drugs. It is an ordeal from which
most of those who now have a residence permit have gone through, in this country of amnesties that is Italy. Including those (almost all) that arrived in Italy by plane or bus with a tourist visa. The wait for documents sometimes takes months, sometimes years. Sometimes it never ends, and then fortress Europe becomes a trap. A maze in which it is much easier to enter than to exit.

translated by Camilla Gamba