Migrant crisis: Waiting game in largest European holding camp

Mineo camp, the new home for those migrants who survive perilous crossing to Sicily

African and Asian migrants play soccer at a migrant detention center in Mineo. This former residential base for American naval personnel in Sicily now mainly houses migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. Lynsey Addario/The New York Times

African and Asian migrants play soccer at a migrant detention center in Mineo. This former residential base for American naval personnel in Sicily now mainly houses migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. Lynsey Addario/The New York Times

 

It is a bit like when you are driving through the Irish countryside on a quiet Sunday. You are in the thick of rural life when you come around a bend and find hundreds of cars parked in tight against the hedge - the local GAA club is clearly strutting its stuff.

The “Cara” di Mineo, 50 kilometres outside Catania, is reportedly the largest migrant holding camp in Europe. It is not so much in the middle of nowhere as in the middle of intensely cultivated Sicily, surrounded by acres of orange, lemon and other fruit trees. Round a bend on the little country road and all of a sudden there are two kilometres worth of parked cars - we and the rest of world’s media, it seems, have arrived at the Cara di Mineo. Cara, incidentally, stands for Centro Accoglienza Richiedenti Asilo whilst Mineo is the nearby town up on hills.

The actual camp has a totally surreal look to it, somewhere between a latter day Boys ‘ Town and a film set. The camp was actually built by the USA military in the ‘60s as a residential compound for its personnel. So there you are in the middle of deeply rural Sicily and you suddenly find a whole little town of neatly built solid houses, with properly paved roads and footpaths, with a couple of adjacent football pitches. The only thing missing is the cast of Desperate Housewives.

Waiting

Except that the place is full of really desperate people, not housewives and that it is entirely surrounded by a robust 12 feet high wire fence. Sam Beckett would have found much food for thought at this place. Inside the camp there is a desperate sense of waiting not so much for Godot as for your “documenti”, for an asylum granted or some sort of “permesso” that will allow the migrants to move on, to travel in search of friends, family or the road to Northern Europe.

In the meantime, young men - Banghladesi, Eritreans, Gambians, Nigerians and many other nationalities - walk up and down the camp’s roads and spill out onto the small country road around the camp. Sometimes a big group of them just walks up the road for a bit and then turns round.

Sometimes, they stop at the camp’s Checkpoint Charlie to have their camp ID checked. The man in the little hut at the front gate writes down their names with beside them the words “IN” or “OUT”, which means that they are either intending to go to Catania or some such place or that they have just come back from Catania or wherever.

Football

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Inside the camp, pastimes appear to be few and simple. If guys are not walking up and down the roads, they stop to watch some of their fellow inmates play football on one of the camp’s two very dusty, dirt pitches. Some of them can play a bit too and take their football very seriously. One or two are working out on their own, going through routines similar to those of professionals during a pre-match warm-up, perhaps hoping that football may represent a way out of here.

17-year-old Jacob Sadi from Cameroon this week told daily “La Stampa” that he had been a promising youth team player who had been called up for a trial with a club in Tripoli in the summer of 2011. Jacob’s parents had moved to Libya in 2005 when his father found a job there. Problem was, of course, that 2011 was the summer that Col. Muammar Ghedaffi fell. Then 13-year-old Jacob got caught up in the conflagration, waiting in a hotel before “military” men came to take him and others away, telling him that they were going to Tunisia. Instead, he found himself jammed onto a boat people vessel and packed off to Lampedusa.

Jacob has survived and even flourished, to a certain extent, now studying in a Hotel Training Institute but his father is dead and he has not seen or heard from his mother since 2011. His story is emblematic and is one repeated by many of the inmates of the Cara di Mineo. Namely, things were going, if not fine well at least tolerably, until Libya collapsed.

Mustafa

We came across Mustafa from Gambia about five kilometres down the road from the camp. He was waiting for a bus to Catania. He broke off his chat with us to flag down a passing bus but, for whatever reason, it did not stop. That happens all the time, he said. Some drivers see a black man and they do not want to stop.

Mustafa had been a metal worker in Libya until the Ghedaffi regime fell. Within months, he had lost his job. In the autumn of 2011, he reluctantly climbed into rickety dinghy and made the crossing. He says he was one of the lucky ones, he got picked up. Now he works as a seasonal agricultural worker in Rosarno, Calabria and he had come back to the Mineo Cara where he had first arrived to try and sort out his “documenti”. For the time being he feels stuck in a sort of “limbo”

Amin, also from Gambia, says that all this waiting around, doing nothing is “doing my head in”:

“Look at me. I am 21 but I look like I am 41 years old. This waiting and waiting. I go to bed tense and I wake up tense...”

In reality, Amin looks 21 not 41 but there is no denying his sense of unease and frustration.

“I will get out of here one day”, he says, as if trying to persuade himself more than anyone else.

Frank from Nigeria points out that the average waiting length at the Cara is 15 months. With a big grin, he says:

“I still have my dream...I want to go to Canada”

In the meantime, he has left his wife behind him in Nigeria. One day she will come and join me, he says. Out at the Cara di Mineo, the only thing not missing are hopes and dreams.