Huddles of young men in flip-flops and Crocs, mainly from sub-saharan Africa, sat around the reception centre courtyard. Some played on listlessly their phones, others meandered around. Some just stared into space. There was little to do; the football pitch at the centre, a former special-needs school, was cracked concrete with solitary shoots of grass poking through. Even the football itself was worn and saggy; as deflated as the attitude of many living there. Speaking to Giulia, one of the cultural mediators working in a clinic at the centre, I discover that in many cases, new arrivals will stay here for at least three months whilst they wait for their asylum application to be processed.
The men are free to come and go. But that doesn’t really make their situation much better; the centre is on the industrial outskirts of town, surrounded by shaggy, overgrown, and vacant plots. Even if they walk in to town, there are limits to what they can do. Beyond the occasional ‘Ciao, come stai?‘ they speak little Italian. Often, they will have spent most of their money paying to get on a boat. And, until their applications are processed, they can’t work to earn any more. At least, not officially; Giulia informs me that local criminal gangs will often exploit migrants and put them to work picking fruit or vegetables, or funnel them into the sex trade.
‘There is this idea that they’re coming here to claim jobs, or to claim benefits,’ Giulia tells me, ‘but many of them arrive and have literally no idea where on earth they are.’
Overhead was a clear blue Sicilian sky, its expanse stretching down to meet the Mediterranean on the horizon; the same sea which these young men had crossed to get here. Many of the men arrive in a state of shock, and with symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Whilst currently lacking a psychologist, the staff at the clinic strive to make the men at the centre feel safe; many of them tell stories of torture and abuse in Libyan prisons. One such individual was Ali, from Somalia.
Ali spoke a bit of English, and the clinic staff suspected that he might have once worked for the Somalian government. During my time at the centre, Ali had a permanently vacant expression on his face, a pausing and pensive pattern of speech, and a slow, hunched shuffle. Much of this is due to the amount of suppressive medication he is taking; when he first arrived in Italy, Ali had frequent and violent psychotic episodes. On one occasion, he was found hovering over two sleeping roommates, clutching an iron bar. He didn’t attempt to attack them, but for everyone’s safety he was moved to a more isolated room in the centre. But, in addition to being clearly traumatised, he’s also quite obviously lonely. He would keep coming to sit on the small, wobbly plastic garden chairs outside the clinic, purely for company. I sat with him for a while, neither of us saying anything. For my part, I didn’t really know what to say. How do you strike up conversation with someone who has likely experienced more trauma in the few months of their life than I am ever likely to face?
After sometime, Ali eventually mumbled a few words in English, and a ‘Ciao’, limply squeezing my hand before slowly shuffling away.
By the time we arrived at the port, the weather had changed dramatically. The sun still beat down, but a strong wind whipped around us. Several of the gusts threw me off balance.
‘They’ll come ashore on big ships like that‘ shouted the young doctor, the wind stealing every other word. A large, grey naval vessel moored in the port towered imposingly above us. ‘Then, they are triaged; if they’re in need of urgent medical care, they’re send to the local hospital. The others are sent down to the tents you see over there, where they can stay for up to five days whilst being processed‘
The tents are, in fact, enormous white marquees lashed to the concrete. Inside, atop the scuffed wooden flooring, are rows upon rows of folding cots; a simple metal frame, covered with a thin blue material for a mattress. I estimated roughly 500 cots per marquee, tightly butted up together. At least the tents provide a little shelter from the wind. When migrants first come ashore here, they are barracked in these tents whilst they are processed; identification, security checks, treatment of scabies. Contagious skin conditions, and gastro-intestinal problems are common among those being brought ashore, as are petrol burns, the doctor informs me, from accidents on board their small vessels in which they leave the coast of Africa.
As we move to leave the marquee and return to the blustering wind, I spot something on the floor. Someone has etched what appears to be a chessboard, or a checkers board, into the wooden floorboards. It strikes me as oddly, and uniquely, human. A scratched, rudimentary reminder that for all the numbers, statistics, and rhetoric about ‘swarms’, these ‘migrants’ are just normal people, forced to leave their homes for any number of shitty reasons. In my time at the reception centre, that is all I saw. Normal people, some of whom have passed through deserts and endured torture, wanting a better life.
I point the chessboard out to the young doctor. He seems unmoved.