It is hard to imagine how desperate things would have to be to take a sewing needle and fishing wire and stitch one’s own mouth shut. But that is exactly what more than a dozen migrants, who are being held in Ponte Galeria immigrant reception center on the outskirts of Rome, did last week as a sign of protest. “They are just asking for a response to end their desperation, to be reunited with their families in countries in the world where the governments are more democratic to guarantee their rights,” wrote two migrants known only as “Adil” and “Lassad,” trying to explain why they and others resorted to such a drastic step. They claim that they have been kept incarcerated in poor conditions for more than two months with no word on their asylum applications.
The migrants had come to Italy in October and November by way of Lampedusa on perilous fishing boats. Many of them spent weeks in relative captivity at the hands of human traffickers before setting sail from the coast of North Africa. The journey, which cost them each several thousand dollars, lasted two to three days in boats carrying five or six times their capacity. Most of the migrants didn’t eat or drink for days before the journey to avoid the need to urinate or defecate, which could only be done over the side of the vessel. Many stood during the entire journey. Once on Lampedusa, they were crowded into already-full detention centers and processed. Thanks to Italy’s strict anti-immigration Bossi-Fini law, even those who are eventually granted political asylum face criminal charges for illegally entering the country. Despite the risk, more than 4,000 refugees, irregular migrants and asylum seekers came through Lampedusa in 2013 alone.
Most of the men and women who don’t meet the requirements for political asylum are deported back to their countries of origin. Those who are given asylum are granted relative freedom and a small stipend to set up a new life. The men like Adil and Lassad, who ended up in Rome’s Ponte Galeria detention center, are the ones who say they fall through the cracks. The detention center was designed for short stays, but most of the migrants can spend eight or nine months there while their applications are stuck in Italy’s burgeoning bureaucratic red tape. They live in small cells with mattresses on the floor. Recent torrential rains in Rome flooded the only area where they are allowed to go outside. Many have no local language skills and no legal advice. “They’ve been left in complete uncertainty, no one has explained anything to them,” Gabriella Guido of the migrant rights group LasciateCIEntrare told an Italian television station after visiting the men who had sewn their mouths shut. “This is the only form of protest they have.”
Italy has faced staunch criticism of its treatment of migrants and refugees since a video showing workers spraying naked men for scabies emerged late last year. The degrading conditions and seeming blind eye to human suffering caused the European Union’s home secretary to threaten sanctions against the country. “We have already started investigations on the deplorable conditions in many Italian detention centers,” she said after the video emerged. “We will not hesitate to launch an infringement procedure to make sure EU standards and obligations are fully respected.”
Last October when a migrant boat capsized off Lampedusa’s shores, killing more than 300 people—including nine children and a woman who had given birth on the trip and whose baby was still attached to her umbilical cord—the European Union promised $41 million to help Italy better receive the flow of refugees. But Italians believe the real solution lies in Europe’s acceptance of refugees and the recognition that most people who come through Lampedusa don’t want to stay in Italy. “This is a European problem,” Italy’s Prime Minister Enrico Letta says. Malmstrom has also put pressure on other European nations to take some migrants to ease the pressure on Italy. She has also suggested that Europe as a whole evaluate its current immigration policies and consider granting humanitarian visas so qualifying asylum seekers can reach Europe without risking their lives or ending up in detention centers. “We do need to open ways for more regular migration,” she said during a bilateral meeting with Letta recently. “We need to change our policy on immigration. This restrictive approach has shown its limits.”
The protest did not fall on deaf ears. Last Thursday, two of the youngest protesting refugees were released from detention and a third was moved to a center where his wife and children were being held on Friday. On Saturday, 13 of the protesters in Ponte Galeria ripped out their stitches and began to eat again, but they promised to sew their mouths shut again if they are still detained without word by the end of the month.
Caption: Pyotr Pavlensky, a supporter of jailed members of female punk band "Pussy Riot", looks on with his mouth sewed up as he protests outside the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg, July 23, 2012. Migrants on the island of Lampedusa have sewn their mouths shut to protest their treatment.