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How to Fix Italy’s Migrant Reception Centers

Men linger in the shade of a building
Migrants linger at the Cara Mineo reception center in Mineo, Sicily, on April 21, 2015.  © Alberto Pizzoli/Getty

This year has seen a revival of the debate on immigration. In Italy, where waves of migrants are arriving as they flee intolerable circumstances in their home countries, recent scandals combined with the dramatic influx of new arrivals make it necessary to closely monitor the conditions of the facilities hosting these migrants and the reception procedures they use.

On May 25, Medici per i Diritti Umani (MEDU, or in English, Doctors for Human Rights) submitted to the Italian Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry on Detention and Reception Conditions of Migrants a report that does just that. The report examines conditions at the CARA (Reception Center for Asylum Seekers) of Mineo in the province of Catania. The CARA of Mineo, located 40 kilometers from the Sicilian town of Catania, is Europe’s largest reception center for migrants. Since November 2014, a MEDU team has been operative inside the CARA of Mineo every week, collecting testimonies and providing medical and psychiatric assistance to asylum seekers who are victims of torture or inhuman and degrading treatment. Our presence there is part of the project ON.TO., which works to stop the torture of refugees along the migratory route from sub-Saharan countries to North Africa.

While carrying out its activities, the MEDU team—made up of a coordinator, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and a cultural mediator—observed significant problems which, in the majority of cases, are intrinsic to this reception model. The center at Mineo is overcrowded (it hosts between 3,200 and 4,000 persons against a maximum capacity of 2,000) and remotely located. There are waiting times of up to 18 months to complete the process for the recognition of international protection, rather than the 35 days mandated by law. Asylum seekers are not enrolled with the National Health Service (in contrast to Italian norms), nor supplied access to psychological or legal support services. Degradation, lawlessness, and episodes of violence are the norm.

All of these conditions have a deleterious effect on the wellbeing of the migrants. Amid such conditions, the relationship that develops between facility employees and the migrants hosted there is severely imbalanced. Asylum seekers are forced into passive, dependent roles, and the CARA’s size makes it difficult to identify and care for people with mental disorders and trauma. These types of guests, who make up a large portion of the CARA’s population, require an approach centered on the individual asylum seeker and his or her personal needs.

MEDU strongly believes that the best way to provide a reception system that is respectful of human dignity is to enlarge and strengthen the existing Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees (SPRAR), which has been operational in Italy since 2002 and which provides for an integrated set of reception measures and services, well beyond the provision of accommodation and food. Near Mineo there are some reception centers that display characteristics of the SPRAR model, namely the Extraordinary Reception Centers (CAS) in the province of Ragusa. These centers are smaller, holding a maximum of 80 people, and are more evenly distributed geographically. Since October 2014 MEDU has been active inside the CAS system and has noted that asylum seekers within have a greater chance of being identified as victims of torture and are more readily integrated into the hosting territory.

MEDU believes that any reception model aimed at providing adequate reception and rehabilitation should employ small- and medium-sized centers that host a maximum 50 to 80 individuals each. Ideally, these centers would be evenly distributed across the provinces, each of them equipped with at least one psychologist and one cultural mediator, with a staff that’s provided courses to keep their training current. This model would reduce waiting times and allow employees to more quickly identify and assist the most vulnerable asylum seekers. A smaller, more widely distributed system of centers would also help the hosting territory build a network of social relations throughout the region, facilitating the development of asylum seekers’ autonomy by improving their access to existing health care and psychological, social, and legal services in the area.

Adequately monitored by an independent authority, such a model could go a long way toward better serving Italy’s migrants. By coupling these centers with an integrated plan that creates stronger coordination with local service providers and institutions, the country can empower migrants and, at the same time, benefit the citizens who already live here.

MEDU is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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