The government decision came after damning reports by the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights, the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration, and IndieWatch, which documented how some asylum seekers faced lengthy detention in the facility, known as a “hotspot,” intended only for use to house asylum seekers and other migrants for short periods while they are formally identified. It also found degrading conditions and lack of protection for women and children. One family that applied for asylum was detained in the center for seven weeks.
A protest by detainees last week became violent when a large group of them gathered at the center’s gates, demanding to be let out to march to the town plaza. The guards refused. According to medical reports and testimonies collected by rights groups, aggressive police action to force the group away from the gates injured an 8-year-old girl and a young woman. A video seen by Human Rights Watch shows the girl distressed and in pain; a Tunisian man and the little girl both explain that she was hit with a police baton. At the same time, a group of detainees set fire to one of the dormitories.
Subsequently almost everyone in the center – predominantly Tunisian men – was transferred to the Italian mainland over the weekend. But two families, including the little girl and her parents, remained and lawyers filed urgent protection requests to the European Court of Human Rights. The court has already declared both requests admissible, according to the lawyer acting in the case.
It will take more than renovations and a new coat of paint to fix wider structural problems. If the hotspot system, set up by the European Union to improve identification and processing of newcomers, is to have any integrity, Italian and EU authorities have to ensure humane and dignified conditions and treatment for all.
As a general rule, asylum seekers should be held in open centers and not detained. And instances of violence, like that which caused an 8-year-old to scream in pain and fear, should be fully investigated and those responsible held to account.