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Violence erupts in a Rome detention center

Detained migrant says Rome's detention center is "worse than a prison."

Illegal immigrants wait to be sent to a temporary holding center for foreign nationals on June 13, 2005, in Lampedusa, Italy. Lampedusa Island, in the Mediterranean Sea between Malta and Tunisia, is one of the main gateways for illegal immigration from Africa into Europe. (Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

ROME, Italy — The alarm went off at Rome’s detention center for undocumented migrants. Tunisian migrant Badis Barhumi, who had tried to escape, hurried back inside to hide. The chief police officer on duty found Barhumi among other migrants and beat him down with a baton.

“We yelled at him to stop,” said Mustafa, one eyewitness who denounced the violence to a local radio station, “but he kept going.”

The incident soon ignited a revolt. Migrants started grabbing blankets and mattresses and setting them on fire. Another migrant called GlobalPost with an account of the violence: “They are setting bottles on fire and throwing them at the police, like Molotov cocktails,” said Elkattani Abdelatif, a detainee from Morocco. “Police are on the roof, the building is smoking, it looks like guerrilla warfare.”

Rome’s Identification and Expulsion Center (CIE) Ponte Galeria, has confronted discontent before. It is the largest center for identification and repatriation of migrants in Italy. Guarded by soldiers and barbed wire, the concrete building hosts more than 350 men and women in separate compounds.

“This is something that happens every time they sense change and are afraid,” said Amos Dawodu of the Italian Red Cross, the former sanitary director at the facility. “That’s what they do to communicate when they want something.”

On the night of the February riot, the Italian Red Cross, which managed social service and healthcare at the Rome CIE, was handing over control to a new organization.

The Italian Red Cross acknowledged the revolt but said it didn’t witness the beating.

“If that were the case,” said Francesco Rocca, head of the Italian Red Cross, “that would make the Red Cross an accomplice.”

According to a 2010 report by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), identification centers throughout Italy are plagued by scarce hygiene, crowded quarters and inadequate care for chronic illnesses like diabetes, hypertension and HIV. When MSF visited Rome’s CIE in the summer of 2009, migrants had gone without toilet paper, soap or towels for two weeks.

“This is worse than a prison,” said Abdelatif, the detainee. “I’ve seen people breaking their hands or feet or eating batteries and razor blades just to go to the hospital. The other day a Romanian guy drank a bottle of detergent, just to get out.”