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ANALYSIS

IMMIGRATION

How Italy’s Cara Mineo became a refugee ghetto

Armed guards patrol the perimeter of Italy's biggest migrant centre, the focus of a fierce debate over whether the country should open large "hotspot" camps to process new arrivals and stem the flow of people across the continent.

How Italy's Cara Mineo became a refugee ghetto
Cara Mineo is Italy's biggest holding centre with over 3,000 refugees. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

The grisly murder of a local couple and subsequent arrest of an Ivory Coast man from the Sicilian centre sparked an outcry in a country tired of being on the frontline of Europe's largest refugee crisis since World War II.

The vast complex, a former US military base with streets evoking American suburbia, currently shelters just over 3,000 asylum seekers – down from nearly 4,000 in the past, but still too many, critics demanding its closure say.

“How do you control 4,000 migrants? The centre becomes a town in itself, which doesn't help integration,” said Anna Aloisi, mayor of the nearby town of Mineo, perched high above the centre.

Beyond 10-foot razor wire fences, migrants divided by ethnicity and religion live in 403 yellow and pink houses, sleeping several to a room on foam mattress, eating in the canteen or cooking over small electric stoves in their back gardens.

The community is cut off from the rest of the world: for miles around, there is nothing but fields, orange groves, dust.

“There's talk of prostitution, of drug trafficking, there is certainly a lively black market,” Angela Lupo, a legal adviser for the Italian Council for Refugees (CIR) told AFP.

“The residents sell clothes, food, cigarettes and phonecards at bazaars dotted around the centre, there's even an illicit restaurant and a migrant-run taxi service. The controls are few and far between,” she said.

Adawiah, a 23-year-old from Ghana who filed his request for asylum nearly 12 months ago, pleaded to be released from the limbo he lives in: “We make the life we can, we have a message for Italy, 'You must do more, quickly, please.'”

Fear, jealousy, anger

Revelations that organised crime groups had infiltrated the centre's management left the government red-faced and minister Maria Elena Boschi promised parliament this week the camp was under review and closure was an option.

Countries such as Britain, France and Germany have urged the EU to set up further centres in Italy and Greece to fingerprint migrants and help separate asylum-seekers fleeing war from those motivated by economic reasons.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker this week detailed a plan under which Italy would open five so-called hotspots in its southern regions. But critics say human rights are at risk and the big camp model is not the answer.

“Mineo is a town of 5,000 people, but many of them are elderly and there are few youngsters. So the arrival of coloured migrants, all of them young, who hang around doing nothing, often make the townsfolk afraid,” said mayor Aloisi, a member of Italy's New Centre Right party.

Elderly men sitting on benches in the town's cobbled square watch silently as Nigerians and Gambians barely out of their teens stroll past to a betting shop. Residents of the centre get 2.50 euro ($2.80) a day pocket money.

Maurizio Nalfo, a local who works for the forestry service but has not been paid in months, said the asylum seekers weren't seen as the problem by residents, “It's politics which creates the disparity between Italians and migrants.”

It's a familiar tale, echoed across recession-hit Italy. “The citizens see the migrants are taken care of, have a hot meal, a roof over their heads, when they struggle to have a hot meal themselves, it sparks jealousies, anger,” Aloisi said.

The centre's director Sebastiano Maccarrone, 51, who previously worked at the infamous reception centre on the island of Lampedusa – closed in 2013 due to the dire conditions inside – insisted he has everything under control.

But CIR says many residents see little of the services which state funding should ensure – Italian lessons, legal help, medical care – and can only play football while waiting for their paperwork to be handled, which can take two years.

As the crisis intensified across Europe, Pope Francis called last week for Christian parishes to take in refugees — a sentiment applauded by those in favour of doing away with unwieldy centres, as well as the migrants themselves.

“We don't have job, we don't do anything, we stay all day in the camp,” said Nigerian Bright Aghama, 31, a regular at the centre's church, which has been situated some distance from the site's makeshift mosque.

Bright, who has been in the centre for over a year, said despite the daily struggle with boredom and uncertainty over the future, he was grateful for “a place where I can lay my head, where I can have peace of mind.”

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POLITICS

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

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