04 March 2011

Turin: hunger strike at the detention centre

The tension is very high at the centre of identification and expulsion of Turin. After the fire that broke out last Sunday devastating a whole section and rendering unusable 30 of the 180 places available at the facility, now there’s a hunger strike on an indefinite basis. Once again the protagonists of the riots, just like in Gradisca and in Modena, are the Tunisians who were transferred from Lampedusa. We’re talking about 104 people, all men, over a total of 144 detainees. They come from towns such as Zarzis, Gabes, Ben Guerdane, Djerba, which were the areas mostly struck by the crisis of tourism following the fall of Ben Ali.

They started refusing food on Tuesday and today is the 4th day of the hunger strike. An entire section of the detention centre is adhering to the protest, more or less 30 young men. Yesterday evening already 3 people fainted, and were assisted by the medical personnel of the Red Cross. And this morning another two felt unwell. They’re all very tired, but they say they are ready to carry on with the protest until they are liberated.

For almost everyone it’s their first time in Europe. Their relatives wait for them in France. They belong to well integrated communities which offer strong ties of solidarity. From the callosity of their hands one can tell they are good people, who crossed the sea to roll up their sleeves. They don’t request documents from Italy, but only the freedom and an order by the authorities to leave the country, in order to continue the journey towards France, where they will finally be able to join their relatives who are ready to host and take care of them.

They’ve never been in prison and to find themselves behind the bars, under the surveillance of military and police, is a humiliation they can’t accept. “What’s this kennel? What’s this cage? We are not pit bulls! Let us out!”. Saif shouts to me in Arabic behind the bars that separate us. His eyes anchored to mine, his face red with anger, and his hands tight to the iron bars. He’s of my same age, 29 years old. He just called his friends in Tunisia, and he told them to write to Al Jazeera to report on their situation. In France Stéphanie awaits for him, a young lady he met on holiday in Zarzis. He shows me all the text messages on his phone. “Darling, I miss you, be strong, I’ll come to visit you”.

“We are free men, it’s a question of honour, of dignity, you can’t lock us in this jail for six months like animals. Even in Tunisia there are thousands of foreigners who are coming from Libya, but we didn’t arrest them! Give us back our freedom. We are heading towards France, we’ll leave Italy, give us only five hours!”

Amongst them there’s a minor. He’s called Basam and declares to be born on the 31st July 1994. He will turn 17 very shortly. By law he cannot be detained in a centre of identification and expulsion. The problem is that he never declared his age to anybody until today. He says he was afraid they would take him away alone, he felt safer locked up with his friends. The problem is that he has no proof of ID, and neither does his brother who lives in Milan with his Italian wife, have any documents regarding him. So now all there is to do is the x-ray of the wrist. A test which is normally done to verify the minor’s age. But even if they let him go, he says he will try again to join his uncles in France. Hoping that he won’t be sent back to Italy.

Yes, because at the border at Ventimiglia nowadays there’s a game of ping-pong being played between Italy and France, and the Tunisians from Lampedusa are the ball. Rome closes an eye to let them go beyond the Alps, and Paris organises raids to resend them back to the sender. In just a few days 7 have already returned to the detention centre of Turin. They caught Ahmed at the station in Nice, where he had arrived by train from Foggia. Along with him also Salim, Nizam and Basam, the seventeen year old, were pushed back to Italy. They caught them while they were still in some guy’s car, whom they had paid to take them on the other side of the border.

The numbers for now are still low, but this is only because the CIE are full and there’s no space to put those that have been pushed back. But the controls on the other side of the border have grown in number. Just in the prefecture of Alpes Maritimes, the border region with Ventimiglia, 301 Tunisians were identified. They all come from Lampedusa. And they’re risking to return there if there’s isn’t an agreement between Italy and France.

Because it’s clear to everyone, even to the police officers at the Cie in Turin, that it’s unlikely that any of the six thousand newly arrived will ever be repatriated to Tunisia. The reason is simple: they are too many to be identified in time. And the Tunisian interim government still hasn’t gained enough popular support - in Tunisia just like in Italy and in France – to face the political responsibility of a mass expulsion of hundreds or thousands of its citizens.

translated by Alexandra D'Onofrio