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The Guardian | 08.02.2018

In an excerpt from her new book, Hsiao-Hung Pai talks to Adedayo, who has been living in the Cara di Mineo camp for more than a year

The camp is run by bad people. They work with the police and the mafia,” says Adedayo. Adedayo, a 29-year-old Nigerian man, has been living in the Cara di Mineo camp in Sicily for more than a year.

The notorious camp, which houses 4,000 asylum seekers, has become a lawless place, which is believed to have been infiltrated by Italy’s various mafia organisations. Conditions are tough inside and, as a result, some people have run away. But Adedayo says he would never do that: he believes in following procedures and does not want to fall out of the system.

At the same time, he understands why people run away – quite simply, it is difficult to survive in the conditions of the camp. “They don’t give us a cent. We have no cash at all … The camp doesn’t spend the government money on us. We have only two hours of Italian lessons each week, not enough to learn the language.”

Many of the camp’s residents have taken to begging in the streets of Catania and Messina to bring in some cash for their basic daily needs. Adedayo admits that he himself begs sometimes on his weekly visits to Catania. He sends some of the cash from the begging back to his brother and two sisters in Nigeria, who need his support. He is an orphan and he has always looked after his siblings – they are all he has.

“The only thing they give us every three days is a packet of cigarettes. But many of us don’t smoke, so we save the cigarettes and give them to the Bangladeshi men in the camp who organise selling them to tobacco shops. We then get €3 each time they sell the cigarettes … Then I spend some of this money on travelling to Catania in the car, which costs €5, and buying ingredients to cook some decent African food, because the food they give us at the camp is horrible, just the same old pasta every day.”

At Cara di Mineo, people’s movements are controlled: the gate opens at 8am and closes at 8pm, and you have to sign in and out each time you come and go. Adedayo and his roommates sometimes climb the fence to get out of the camp after 8pm. Even though all he can do is beg on the streets in Catania, he feels freer outside. “The camp is an open prison for us,” he says.

“In many ways, the life in Cara di Mineo is similar to the hardship back in Nigeria. Why did I flee to have this?”

The following morning, only three cars are going from Cara di Mineo to Catania at 8am. If you want to have a full day in Catania, you have to be an early bird. So Adedayo has to get himself out of bed at 4am, swallow a plate of spaghetti that his friend has prepared for him, and get in the car at 6am.

In a Tunisian cafe, he tells me how tough it has been in the camp. The food provided is so inadequate that many migrants try to cook their own on heaters. The camp management tried to stop that, as it consumed too much electricity. But what else can you do when the food is so poor?

The sharing of food from home is common. Groups gather in one room and, while some keep a lookout for staff, others do the cooking on the quiet. The amounts are always large enough to feed a group; they take comfort in sharing, and Adedayo particularly enjoys the meals with his fellow Nigerians.

We are a few yards away from the back streets where some of the African women sell sex. When he talks about his fellow Nigerian migrants, he shakes his head and says many of them, including underage girls, work in the sex trade. “Their parents or mothers joined the traffickers in deceiving the girls into going to Europe,” he says.

In many cases, mothers consent to the deception practised by traffickers and are completely aware of what will happen to their daughters when they arrive in Italy. “The other girls willingly choose to do sex work, to make an income for their families back home. Many of them were raped in Libya, on their way to Europe.”

Adedayo points ahead, to the street corner where he and other migrants gather to go out begging. His closest friend in the group is living in a shelter in Catania that houses up to 12 migrants. It is run by a mafia member who owns several other apartments that are used as shelters for migrants.

Adedayo describes how appalling the conditions are in this place, which lacks even water and electricity. His friend has to buy water from outside and boil it when he needs a shower. The mafia owner clearly wants to squeeze as much profit as possible from the migrants and is cutting costs on all the basic facilities. How can a place like this qualify for state funding to operate as a shelter?

Yet Adedayo and his friends often experience great humanity when they are on the streets. “Some people are good-hearted and give me money. One time, a woman offered me a roast chicken that would cost €3 to buy. ‘It is very kind of you,’ I said to her. ‘But, to be honest, I’d prefer if you gave me just €1, so I can go to buy what I like.’ She laughed.”

At other times, Adedayo and fellow migrants have come across aggressive local youths who tell them to stop begging in their town and to get out of the country. On one occasion, an Italian man propositioned Adedayo’s friend and asked for sex. And some people are scared of being approached by their group. “They fear black people,” he says with a bitter smile.

We sit down on a bench in a small park and Adedayo tells me that he has slept here many nights. Returning to Mineo cuts the day short and, as they cannot afford even the cheapest hostels, they go to this park and spend the night sleeping on the benches.

Life on the street as a beggar is a necessity for Adedayo. There is no room for sadness or self-pity; he knows that all he can do is carry on.

After all, what is this compared with his time in Libya? Those two years were the harshest that anyone could bear: in the background was a collapsed society where gun crimes were common day in, day out. Catania is gentle and kind by comparison.


Excerpt from Bordered Lives – How Europe fails refugees and migrants by Hsiao-Hung Pai (£9.99, PB, Jan-2018, New Internationalist)

 

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