Skip to content

Suffering in Italy: on being a woman at an asylum seeker center

Most pop culture depictions of Europe are about this supposed socialist paradise where everyone pays exorbitant taxes, works a couple of hours a day and still manages to have free healthcare. However, there is also another Europe, one we do not hear much about in English speaking news and it is the Europe that asylum seekers, mostly people from Africa and the Middle East encounter. A continent not of welfare and high living standards, but one of barbed wire detention centers.

Doctors without Borders released a report this week, From North Africa to Italy: Seeking Refuge, Finding Suffering. In the introduction, the reasons for the sudden influx of refugees:

Since last December, when popular uprisings and violent confrontations began to shake the Arab world, some 27,000 refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented migrants have fled by sea from North Africa to the southern Italian island of Lampedusa. Most of the boats that made the journey originated in Tunisia, but increasing numbers are coming from Libya. On April 19, 760 people landed in Lampedusa in one of the largest single landings the island has ever seen.

And the conditions they encounter upon arrival:

The conditions awaiting these refugees and migrants on Lampedusa generally fail to meet the minimum standards for the reception of vulnerable persons, leading to additional suffering and uncertainty. The reception centers themselves are substandard. There is inadequate separation between men and women. There is a lack of access to information about the rights of migrants and refugees and a lack of care tailored to the most vulnerable groups, including victims of torture and violence, unaccompanied minors, and women.[…]

Migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees fall into distinct legal categories with different rights. Many of those who left Libya or Tunisia in recent months have special needs for assistance and safety. These include particularly vulnerable persons, such as children, unaccompanied minors, pregnant women, the disabled, and victims of torture and violence, including sexual violence. However, they are all funneled into the same inadequate system and facilities when they arrive in Italy.

According to Italian law and the European Union’s directive for the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, women and children should be housed in areas where their safety is ensured. Women traveling alone at the reception centers told the researchers from Doctors without Borders that there was not such a thing as separation from men and they lived in constant fear for their safety. Women said they were too afraid to sleep, change clothes or even go to the toilet alone.

Some testimonies from refugee detainees collected by Doctors without Borders:

Tunisian woman, 67, Lampedusa, Italy, April 2011: “Yesterday night, a man followed me to the toilets. I pushed him, I ran away, and I screamed. Men jump over the wall and enter in our room. We are afraid at night; we cannot sleep. The police do not do anything.”

Tunisian woman, 35, Lampedusa, Italy, April 2011: “I don’t have a husband anymore; I have nobody to protect me. We left because we were not safe anymore, and here it is not better. Since we arrived in this center, we never relax, we are afraid of the men entering in our room. We do not change our clothes. We do not dare to undress because men are outside looking at us at the windows.”

Doctors without Borders conducted an initial mental health assessment of the new arrivals, which pointed to the risk of widespread depression and hopelessness in response to their uncertain future. The Italian government has so far, not provided any legal resources or information about their situation or future options. The refugees do not have a clear idea about legal procedures and they now face anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress disorder as a result.

An Eritrean woman detained at the center in Mineo told the researchers:

This place is not good. Here we are seven women, all from Eritrea. Yesterday a man came at 3am. He entered in the other girls’ room. He started to speak in Arabic. They screamed, so he left. They were so afraid that they came to our room and slept on the floor. We did not sleep, we waited and listened. We are afraid. I went to the police this morning to complain but they told me to come back, they are too busy. Men are drinking outside. There is no security here.

Unable to leave the center, unable to plan a future or seek other options, these women are left with little recourse except from sleepless nights and permanent fear for their basic well being.


  1. Eli wrote:

    Thank you for this, Flavia. The situation in Lampedusa (and in Manduria, and the other tent cities that have sprung up around Italy in lieu of humane facilities for refugees) is one of many awful chapters in the history of Italy’s migration policy, which for many years centered on treaties with the Qaddafi regime to keep refugees (largely from Ethiopia and Eritrea, but also from sub-Saharan nations) from crossing into Europe through Libya. Hundreds of thousands of people have been kept in Libyan prison camps funded by the Berlusconi government since 2003. Rates of sexual assault are dramatically high in these camps. About 15,000 asylum seekers have been left to die in the Sahara by the Qaddafi regime, thousands more have been repatriated to countries where they will most certainly face prosecution. All the while, Italy has been supplying Libya with the vehicles and equipment it needs to sustain this operation–including the donation of 1,000 body bags in 2003.

    I think it’s interesting to look at the ways that this policy is coming home to roost in Italy now that the collapse of the Qaddafi regime (helped in no small part by Italian military intervention) has allowed many detainees to escape and cross into Europe. While the sexual assault of migrant women in the temporary centers is a problem that has been larely ignored by the mainstream media, many voices on the right are trying to stir up panic by suggesting that the influx of refugees into Italian cities will result in the rapes of Italian women by African men. It’s the same old colonial shit, not even dressed up in new ways: black male bodies are violent, black female bodies are there to be violated.

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink
  2. Shamira wrote:

    The disgusting racism of the Italian migration policies is both disgusting and racist.

    Saturday, May 7, 2011 at 2:26 am | Permalink
  3. avto ru wrote:

    Nice topic – respect !

    Saturday, May 7, 2011 at 9:06 pm | Permalink
  4. Joji wrote:

    Many people believe that the government intentionally allowed the grotesque situation on Lampedusa to develop (letting overcrowding grow worse and worse rather than taking people to other camps as they arrived) so that the emergency could become a bargaining chip at the EU level.

    It’s also been shocking at the very local level to see how rapidly and effectively racism can be cultivated if someone has a political stake in it. I live in Pisa, a traditionally leftist city in traditionally leftist Tuscany, with a mayor supposedly from the center-left, but who over the past three years has implemented exactly the same zero-tolerance, anti-immigrant policies as hard-right mayors like Alemanno in Rome: a crackdown on street vendors used to legitimize police harassment based on color, constant bulldozing of gypsy camps, attempts to intimidate/bribe Romanian Roma into accepting “voluntary” repatriation. The two local newspapers have been instrumental in building public consensus for all of this, through daily headlines and editorials that equate immigrants and/or gypsies with crime and urban decay. In April word got out that the Italian government was trying to set up a camp near Pisa to hold hundreds, maybe thousands of people from Lampedusa. So far, Tuscany has managed to avoid having any actual CIEs (“identification and expulsion centers”) created on its soil, and the idea of an isolated, guarded tent city surrounded by barbed wire seemed like a first step in that direction, so human rights activists came to protest… but so did the city council and local residents, with banners of a different nature, claiming that Pisa’s hospitality was already stretched to the limit and it couldn’t be expected to take any more foreigners. The Berlusconi government changed its mind and decided to divide people up among various small centers throughout the region, but the mayor had managed to whip up such strong xenophobic sentiment that it blew up in his face: residents in another area weren’t even willing to accept the few dozen Tunisians who were going to be temporarily housed in a former hospital building. The association of local business owners quickly organized another protest, with slogans about how the nursery school was only a few hundred yards away (Tunisians apparently eat young children) and how this would ruin the tourist season (they also eat tourists). Someone broke into the building that night and vandalized the plumbing system so that it couldn’t be used.

    So they put that handful of young Tunisian men somewhere else, where they waited for a few weeks—in decent conditions but bored out of their minds, since unlike the refugees elsewhere in Tuscany, they were locked up like criminals—until they got their temporary permits and were able to leave.

    Compared to what’s going on in the big camps down South, this incident is nothing. Compared to the daily death toll in the Mediterranean, with the complicity of the Italian government and apparently also of NATO, it’s less than nothing. But on its own small level, I see it as part of the tragedy, because just a few years ago a public reaction like this—not just indifference in the face of a humanitarian emergency, but outright hostility—would have been unthinkable in my area.

    Thanks for writing about this.

    Monday, May 9, 2011 at 6:10 pm | Permalink
  5. Joji, I just came across this and my stomach turned inside out:

    Maybe you’ve seen it already, but I am leaving the link here for those who might have not.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 3:52 am | Permalink
  6. Joji wrote:

    Yes, that’s what I was referring to about Nato. And who knows how many other stories like this–or even worse, hard as that is to imagine–we’ll never hear because they left no survivors. Back in September a Libyan vessel with Italian officers on board opened fire on a Sicilian fishing boat that they apparently mistook for a boatful of migrants (at least that’s how the Italian Minister of the Interior “explained” it).

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 6:00 am | Permalink
  7. Ms. Rev. wrote:

    Thank you so much for writing about this.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 12:40 am | Permalink