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.”
MSF reports that 45 percent of all detainees are transferred to CIEs from Italian prisons after serving their sentences. Mixing migrants who hold a criminal record with other types of migrants, such as foreign workers whose residency permits expired because of unemployment, creates a tense climate, according to MSF.
“We found women who had been trafficked and enslaved,” said Rolando Magnano of MSF Italy, “and also many asylum seekers who had gotten caught before they could file their application.”
Last year, a 49-year-old Tunisian woman took her life on the day of her repatriation. She had been living in Italy for 30 years.
Italy opened CIE facilities in 1998 to ease identification and repatriation of undocumented migrants. This coincided with soaring immigration from Africa, the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Last year, a stricter immigration law tripled the detention time from two to six months.
Some say these centers serve a political agenda rather than the practical purpose of containment.
“These centers are the shame of Italy’s law,” said Stefano Greco, a lawyer with the House of Social Rights, a non-profit organization in Rome. “It’s unclear what they are,” he said, “whether centers to detain people like prisons, or some other kind of center that our judicial system doesn’t recognize.”
The Italian government hasn’t established a set of rules to define and protect the rights of detainees. Unlike prisons, CIE centers don’t employ trained penitentiary police to deal with people under restricted freedoms.
In 2002, Italian judges were replaced with so-called “peace judges,” appointed professionals with legal training.
“After every hearing, I would leave with my stomach in knots,” said Greco, who used to provide legal assistance to Rome CIE migrants. “Besides not having a real judge to talk to, I had to defend my clients against a plaintiff from the Ministry of Interior, a policeman without the legal knowledge needed in a trial.”
Greco says CIE procedure often glosses over Italy’s legal protections for asylum seekers and refugees. Migrants don’t know they have rights under both the Italian Constitution and the Geneva Convention. Too often Italian police don’t read them their rights. Elkattani Abdelatif received an expulsion notice on his bus ride to Rome’s CIE. “They didn’t tell me anything, I couldn’t pick up my clothes, I couldn’t see a lawyer,” he said.
Abdelatif called his time inside the detention center the worst of his life. “I don’t really care if they release me or they send me back to Morocco,” he said. “I just want to get out of here.”
This article was updated to include the name of the Tunisian migrant Badis Barhumi.