Deep in rural Sicily is Cara Mineo, one of the largest centres for asylum seekers in Europe. A former US military base, it is surrounded by orange trees and armed police. It looks oddly like a suburban housing estate in the middle of arid countryside, albeit one surrounded by high fencing. Full capacity is 4,000, and on the day The Irish Times visits, the number of residents is 3,080.
According to the centre's vice-director, Leucia Varasano, most of the current residents are from Nigeria, Ghana and Zambia. All arrived by boat. People are coming and going all the time, depending on how their status for asylum is progressing. At an orientation session, new arrivals are being asked to fill out a questionnaire, the answers to which, "will be used exclusively to improve the services addressed to the guests of the camp", according to the form.
One of the questions asked of these migrants is: “What difficulty did you find during your journey?” The choices are: “I didn’t have money to go on; I was robbed; I didn’t know where to go and I was alone; I was maltreated; I was forced to do things I didn’t want to do; I suffered hunger; I was imprisoned.”
Another question is: “Why have you left your country?” One of the answer options is: “Because of my sexual orientation.”
This is why Omo left Nigeria. “Lesbians are not approved of in Nigeria,” as she puts it. She loves football, and is the sole female player on the Mineo football team.
Also from Nigeria are friends Happiness and Bium. They arrived at the centre only two days previously with their husbands and children. “We left Nigeria because of Boko Haram,” Happiness says.
They left Nigeria 10 months ago for Libya. "In Libya the prisons are full, people are fighting and no one knows who are the organised army and who are the rebels," Bium says.
They also report that migrants from sub-Saharan Africa were being “pushed onto boats to get rid of them, because the prisons are full.” They both look dazed from their recent experiences.
Sam is from Ghana, and has been at Mineo for 11 months. He becomes very upset when he recounts the story of how he came to Italy, and has to leave the room at one point to recover himself. He left his home country as an economic migrant for Libya, where he worked for five years.
Victimised by rebels
Then he and a friend were targeted by rebels, demanding money. They didn’t have any. “If you don’t have anything to give them, you got attacked.” His friend was shot in the back and died in front of him.
Sam hid with friends. These friends arranged for him to be brought to a boat at night. He didn’t pay. He was terrified and traumatised. “We had nothing to eat. We were more than 24 hours without anything. We were weak.”
An Italian ship, operating under the aegis of the country's Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) humanitarian effort, spotted them. They put searchlights on the boat and stayed close by until first light, when all the migrants aboard were rescued.
Supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund