Editor’s Note: An edited version of this article appears in Il Post.
As she stands outside a supermarket in central Rome asking strangers for money to buy food, S (who needs to remain anonymous for safety reasons) often remembers her ten days in Ponte Galeria.
She would rather be begging on the streets, she thinks, than back in the country’s only immigration detention center for women during the pandemic.
On March 9, as Italy went into nationwide lockdown, outside assistance for the 40 women detained inside Ponte Galeria was suddenly cut off, according to nonprofit organizations who previously provided them with legal support and counselling.
Authorities initially grounded deportation flights, but after the first lockdown ended in May, many external organizations found they were still unable to access the center. Without these groups advocating on their behalf, the detained women faced a heightened risk of deportation — even if they had been trafficked and had the right to residency, migrant rights groups say.
This could even be considered illegal: Deporting trafficked women can violate the 1998 National Law on Migration, which offers protection to women and men trafficked to Italy, says Martina Millefiorini, a legal operator at Roma Tre University.
At least 136 women were deported from Italy in 2020, according to data obtained by The Fuller Project from Italy’s Ministry of the Interior. More than half of the women were deported after lockdown started, on March 9. Many of these women had lost access to anti-trafficking associations who often acted as their first point of contact to lawyers specialising in cases of trafficking and sexual abuse. Dozens of other women traumatized by years of discrimination and violence have found themselves completely isolated inside Ponte Galeria Detention center, immigration experts say. And those like S, who are released from the detention center but not deported, are still stuck in limbo.
For so many women to have been deported at a time when they’re deprived of outside support is deeply concerning, says Salvatore Fachile, a lawyer and researcher specializing in human trafficking and migration in Italy.
“It’s shocking that the state can be so wickedly efficient with these demographics — like women, who are particularly vulnerable — and who have rights that they are not able to exercise.”
The Ministry of Interior did not respond to dozens of requests for comment about when organizations would regain access to the detention center.
Advocates say they first became concerned about the situation inside the detention center as soon as Italian authorities announced the lockdown. Within a week, on March 16, a Tunisian woman was hospitalized after drinking bleach in an act of protest over the living conditions, a migrant rights group reported. Fearful of catching the coronavirus, other women refused to leave their dormitories, they added. The following week, a watchdog for the center blogged that four women had started a hunger strike.
Most women in Ponte Galeria come from Nigeria and Tunisia, although others have travelled from Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America. Research by Francesca Esposito, Emilio Caja and Giacomo Mattiello at the University of Oxford’s Border Criminologies project shows many were likely trafficked into prostitution or forced into criminal activities after making it to Italy, only to be detained by Italian police.
In November last year, authorities sent S to Ponte Galeria. After a decade in Italy, she applied for asylum but was arrested at the police station because she had previously received an expulsion order.
Inside the detention center, S found herself confined to a stark, whitewashed dormitory. Guards confiscated her smartphone, and she spent every night lying awake, stifling sobs.
The prospect of deportation to Nigeria was terrifying, and one that S feared could cost her her life. In Benin City, she had been subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), and violence had trailed her into adulthood.
“I was scared of going back,” the 45-year-old says through an interpreter. “Some [people] were threatening my life. They always threatened to kill me in my hometown.”
Studies suggest the majority of Nigerian women in Italy have the right to asylum or legal protection, says Millefiorini, referencing the high rates of trafficking and FGM among the population. “[To deport them] is definitely a systemic violation of their rights.”
Immigration lawyers believe there’s long been a lack of political will to provide support to undocumented women, or to assist their requests for legal protection. “The government has always demonstrated a disinterest in the rights of trafficking victims,” says Fachile. “The state has only one priority, which is to repatriate them.” The absence of civil society organizations inside Ponte Galeria enables the authorities to further their own interests uncontested, he adds.
“A few months ago we thought we could use [COVID-19] as an opportunity to ask for migrant rights. But all we received from the government was a total wall on their decision [to close down access to detention facilities],” agrees Yasmine Accardo, spokesperson for the Italian migrants’ rights nonprofit, LasciateCIEntrare.
In a suburb southwest of Rome and minutes from Italy’s busiest airport, Ponte Galeria can house up to 80 women at a time, each for a maximum of three months. The number of women detained has dropped during the crisis, though it continues to fluctuate week by week. On November 20, there were six women in the detention center, according to Italy’s National Guarantor. Two weeks later, one woman from Peru remained in detention, said Sara Foi, of Lazio Crea, a company that provides administrative and management support to the region where Ponte Galeria is based. At least 222 women have been detained there since the start of the year, confirmed the Ministry of the Interior.
Ten miles away in the center of the city is Roma Tre University, home to the pro bono legal clinic which represented S and secured her release. Here, lawyers and law students have provided free legal support for undocumented women and men for almost a decade, often speaking to their clients for days — or even weeks— to understand the train of events that led them to Italy.
Many referrals to the legal clinic came through human rights groups, anti-trafficking associations and social welfare organizations such as Be Free and A Buon Diritto. The organizations entered Ponte Galeria’s women’s unit on different afternoons, often setting up a makeshift office in a room behind the coffee machines (Editor’s Note: The Fuller Project’s interim global editor recently appeared on a non-partisan radio show presented by Be Free’s director of international projects, Loretta Bondi).
The last time Be Free entered Ponte Galeria was March 4. After Italy’s first lockdown ended on May 18, representatives of the anti-trafficking association say they requested authorization to resume services inside the detention center, but seven months later and the Ministry has yet to approve their entrance. From July 3, A Buon Diritto was allowed to access Ponte Galeria on Friday afternoons, but says its staff members have only entered the women’s unit on three occasions since — each time to interact with a woman Ponte Galeria’s staff had identified as particularly vulnerable. All three of the women they spoke with have since been released.
“Not having all these organizations inside [Ponte Galeria] is a loss for all of us,” says Marina De Stradis, legal/protection officer for A Buon Diritto. “Of course, we are concerned for these women.”
The case involving S underscores the dangers women face inside Ponte Galeria, adds Millefiorini, the legal operator at Roma Tre University. Even with a doctor’s note confirming that she had been subjected to FGM, S was detained and prepped for deportation until lawyers could intervene on her behalf.
The risk that she might be deported was high, says Millefiorini. “Just for being trafficked [Nigerian women] have the right of asylum but sadly the territorial commission and the tribunal often don’t have the same view.”
With the lawyers’ support, the tribunal agreed to process S’ application, and after ten days in detention, they allowed her to return to her home in Rome.
Today, S is still waiting for her asylum request to be approved. Without a residency permit, she’s still not allowed to get a job.
But through it all, she’s hopeful. With lawyers on her side, she no longer feels alone. “They always tell me they are working on my papers,” she says.
“I believe they will get them for me.”