If I Immigrated Illegally to Italy, I Wouldn’t Be Treated Like This

For migrants into the European Union from Africa and parts of the Middle East, Italy is a common destination, seen as an easy entry point due to its prime location. As boats filled with migrants desperate for better opportunities close in on Italy, many capsizing before they ever reach shore in the “sea of death,” migrants are often apprehended by law enforcement. Many make their way to the island of Lampedusa, which hosts an immigration processing center filled with squalor and harsh conditions.

“An October investigative report on the Lampedusa holding center by L’Espresso news magazine documented people being made to eat and sleep on the ground, covered only with paper blankets in the freezing weather, children catching head lice, and stray dogs being allowed to wander about, urinating on the refugees’ clothes and luggage,” notes publication ANSAMed.

Sometimes those conditions are even worse than usual, as was revealed with a video showing male migrants being disinfected and hosed down in cold water, over protests that they had already undergone disinfectant treatment, abusive treatment that appalled human rights activists around Europe and the world. This degrading incident was, according to the person who brought the video to the media, par for the course at the facility, where people are treated every three days for scabies — a parasitic infection they acquired at Lampedusa itself, and didn’t bring in with them.

Lampedusa’s mayor even went so far as to compare the privately owned and operated Lampedusa immigration detention facility to a concentration camp, stressing the growing anger about conditions at the site, and by extension, immigration detention facilities across Europe, where people endure conditions like poor lighting, inadequate food and water, lack of access to health care and other indignities. Meanwhile, Italy’s legislature called for an investigation and concrete action plan to address the problems at Lampedusa and prevent the recurrence of such incidents. The rapid public response must undoubtedly be credited to the rapid spread of the video, which forced the government to be accountable for conditions on the Italian island.

Italy, responding to denunciations of conditions at Lampedusa and its handling of migrants previously, had pledged to reform its practices, but as this video shows, little if any progress has been made on this front. The video seems to suggest that the nation made an empty promise, not expecting to be held accountable with hard video evidence showing that it hadn’t come up with a concrete approach to humanely handling the large numbers of immigrants who cross Italy’s borders each year. This incident is shameful for Italy, but also for the European Union in general, as such treatment of detainees is by no means limited to Lampedusa.

Many of those same detainees on Lampedusa were survivors of a shipwreck that claimed the lives of hundreds of migrants, a not uncommon event near the shores of Italy. In describing the conditions they endured along the way to the island, they paint a harrowing tale of abusive smugglers, human traffickers and other criminals involved in the brisk and growing trade in human lives across the Mediterranean. These individuals demand high sums for smuggling people across the water, but aren’t heavily invested in ensuring their charges reach the other side safely. Thus, many migrants were thrust from one nightmare into another.

Human rights advocates note that while Lampedusa’s immigration detention facility is designed to hold around 250 people waiting on the processing of asylum requests, it often holds four to five times as many people, far too many for the facility to accommodate comfortably. The result is extremely unhealthy and dangerous overcrowding that leads to stress, the spread of disease and acutely uncomfortable conditions like lack of beds and severe restrictions on available food. Advocates have repeatedly called for better processing of immigrants and transfers to facilities on the mainland to alleviate overcrowding, but they haven’t been heeded, and their cries are being renewed in the wake of this latest horror.

Will this video be the spark that ignites a serious discussion on the degrading abuse of migrants in the EU? Let’s hope so, though it’s infuriating that it came at such a high cost to human dignity.

But it also raises other uncomfortable questions and issues, for the fact of the matter is that there are white people living undocumented in Italy and the EU in general as well, and we wouldn’t be treated that way. Were I to enter the EU without a visa, were I to overstay a visa, were I to otherwise violate immigration law, I  might be caught up and detained, but I wouldn’t be subjected to dehumanising, horrific abuse. I’d be processed quickly, my deportation would probably move smoothly, I’d have people advocating for me.

I say this not because I’m proud of it — just the opposite, in fact — but because it’s a fact. It’s a gross, glaring, foul fact that needs to be confronted head-on. Imperialism and racism are alive and well in the EU, where some migrants are determined to be more valuable than others, where some are persecuted and abused and treated like garbage, where others are given relatively lenient and friendly treatment.

No one should endure conditions like those at Lampedusa. Everyone should be able to access the same level of care, respect, and honour that I would get as a white person. Because it shouldn’t be about the colour of the detainee’s skin, or the nationality of origin, but the fact that the detainee is a human being. Whether immigration detention and strict anti-immigrant policies should be a thing at all is very much debatable (notable here too is the fact that as a white person I’d have an easier time securing permission to live legally in the EU), but one thing though be up for debate: all people deserve to be treated humanely.

I owe much of this piece to Flavia Dzodan, who initially alerted me to the Lampedusa video.