Specifically designed for the purpose of detaining non-nationals awaiting removal, the Bari Palese detention centre opened its doors in March 2006 with a capacity of 196 places. Yet, for the first year of its operations an average of 50 people were usually confined within it, and it was only in the summer of 2007, when migrant landfalls on Apulia’s coasts increased again, that the number of detainees multiplied (Rizzi and Accardo 2019). After being closed for a year and eight months (March 2016 – November 2017), the detention centre in Bari Palese reopened with a capacity of 126 men. Yet, the riots set off by detainees over time (the last one in December 2019) have progressively reduced the capacity of the centre, which is currently quite lower than that (the last update received by ASGI on January 14, 2020, indicates that only a detention unit is currently operating, with 18 men inside).
Located in the northern outskirts of Bari, in boulevard Gabriele d’Annunzio, the detention centre stands close to a complex of the finance police known as ‘la cittadella della guardia di finanza’ (literally, the finance police’s small city), as well as to the international airport Karol Wojtyla. The area where the facility lies was used in the late 1990s as a temporary ‘emergency reception camp’, where migrant people were placed in caravans while awaiting a response to their asylum claims (Rizzi and Accardo 2019). On July 27, 2003, around one hundred No Border activists decided to pacifically ‘invade’ the camp, which was enclosed by iron gates, and speak with the migrants inside. They found out that most of the 80 people confined there, who came from a number of different countries, had requested asylum, but had been confined for about two months (or more). Many were from war zones or countries internationally recognised for the systematic violations of human rights exercised on their citizens (e.g. Palestine, Somalia, Iraq). In other words, although the centre was regarded as a ‘reception centre’, it appeared to be operating as a detention facility. Activists also verified the existence of degrading living conditions and recurrent episodes of police violence. During the protest some migrants also managed to escape. In their 2014 Report on Temporary Stay and Assistance Centres, Doctors Without Borders - Italy dedicated an entire section to Bari’s ‘reception’ centre (see pages 163-170) where they described the critical conditions of the camp (e.g., the lack of information, legal aid and healthcare assistance) and the violations of fundamental rights suffered by the people inside, which also included minors.
In 2006, the new detention facility opened. In line with the national trend of outsourcing immigration detention centres’ management and service provision to organisations with a humanitarian background, the centre was initially run by the ‘Misericordie d’Italia’, a Catholic Association. Yet, soon after one year, the management was taken over by ‘Operatori Emergenza Radio’, a small NGO with no experience in the field of immigration, which maintained its role until 2013. Afterwards, it was the turn of the Consortium ‘Connecting People’, a key player in the Italian migrant detention and reception market. Connecting People was in charge of the centre’s management and service provision until March 2016, when the facility was closed as a result of a fire set by detainees to protest against the inhumane conditions of their confinement. When the renovated detention centre reopened in November 2017, the management was entrusted to the social cooperative ‘Costruiamo Assieme’, which however was soon replaced by Badia Grande, the current managing body. As in the case of the other Italian detention centres, this latter organisation won the tender based on the most economically advantageous bid proposed. Their economic offer for the supply of goods and services inside Bari’s centre was indeed of 4,132,226.51€ excluding VAT, which corresponded to 17.7% less than the bid base price.
Like other Italian detention facilities, Bari’s centre resembles a prison ‘where everything is thought of in terms of the risk of self-inflicted injuries or generalised violence’. As the National Ombudsman put it in his 2018 Report: ‘during the visit the delegation found that the structural configuration of the IRCs (Immigration Removal Centres) appeared to be in no way different from that of a prison environment: with bars, sometimes high metallic gates dividing the residential sectors (IRC Turin) and screens (IRC Bari).’
The main building of the CPR (current acronym for Italian detention facilities) consists of a central hallway with ﬁve sections on each side. Three of these are used for administrative functions, while the remaining seven host the men detained. This whole complex is closely fenced by an unbreakable glass barrier, called “emergency perimeter fence”. Again, the area is also surrounded by a six-metre high security wall made of reinforced concrete, which obstructs visibility. Military personnel patrol the area 24/7. On the inside, the lodging complex is made up of seven units spreading out of the central hallway. Each unit is made of seven 279 square feet rooms with four beds each, housing a maximum of 28 detainees and kitted out with shared lavatories, living rooms and courtyards. Detainees’ living spaces are decorated with no removable objects, and all mattresses, blankets and sheets are made of fireproof material. Decaying toilets and basic room décor represent the rudimentary interiors, with tables and benches bolted to the floor and caged televisions hanging off the living room ceiling. Various units and centre’s spaces were damaged over the time due to prisoner riots. For instance, in February 2016, two subsequent revolts led to the closure of the centre for a year and eight months (until November 2017).
Due to security reasons, any object that, according to police judgement, can possibly be “misused” to inﬂict self-harm or threaten safety inside the facility is forbidden (e.g., lighters, mirrors, laces, bra underwires, and even pens). Although there is a room for the school, often used for other activities (e.g., cineforum), there are no sport dedicated areas, and no areas for social activities. No means of escape from the courtyard is guaranteed by the enclosure of four metre iron railing and the CIE building walls on the remaining sides.
The people confined inside Bari’s centre, as in other Italian detention centres, come from a range of backgrounds. The Observatory on migrants’ administrative detention and asylum seekers’ reception in Apulia, mentions that while the population initially included mainly migrants who had just landed on the Italian shores, over time the number of people with long-term residence in Italy has increased. As reported indeed by the same Observatory, in 2013, when the number of detention facilities was drastically reduced elsewhere in Italy, Bari’s centre started to operate as a sort of ‘hub’ for illegalised migrants coming from all over the country. This evidence was corroborated by a recent visit of the advocacy campaign LasciateCIEntrare. It is also noteworthy that in the last few years a considerable presence of people with a criminal background was registered, many of whom came directly from prison. The Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI) has also documented the presence inside the centre of unaccompanied minors, who are unlawfully confined for quite long periods while the procedures envisaged for their age assessment, as required by law, take place. Overall, as research has documented, ‘as in other Italian pre-removal centres, detainees in Bari are not accommodated according to their legal status or their risk profile, but rather according to what the management perceive as the main ethnic and racial dividing lines’. The management of inter-detainees conflicts and tensions, a main problem in Bari’s centre due to its overall security layout (as gathered both by research and Doctors for Human Rights Italy), is mostly left to them, and the staff intervenes only in cases deemed ‘serious’ (e.g., self-harm and riots).
Activists, human rights actors and detainees have denounced the poor living conditions, including the absence of any meaningful activity (see here and here) in this facility. The indiscriminate use of psychiatric drugs, the detention of minors (although prohibited by law), the lack of safeguards for people seeking asylum, the psychological and physical abuses suffered by all detainees were some of the reasons that exacerbated people’s distress, while also fuelling their protests. As Erminia Rizzi and Yasmine Accardo recall, it was July 29, 2007 when about one hundred people begun to protest against the ‘reception’ that Italy was reserving them. While some of them went to the main exit of the centre, others uprooted the CCTV cameras and used the cables like ropes to climb over the high wall separating them from the outside world. Overall, thirty-two people managed to escape, four people were arrested and several others were injured, these latter including detainees but also staff and police officers.
Violations, abuses, and degradation have been structural features of Bari’s detention environment, since its inception, evident in videos shot with smuggled mobile phones, as well as in the acts of resistance of those within. Dramatically, the Observatory reports that, ‘in the sole 2012 59 hunger-strikes were recorded for demonstration purposes; 5 grave episodes of facility damages; 3 brawls among detainees and 50 acts of self-harm.’ These acts also spoke of the sense of abandonment felt by detainees, ‘thrown into a highly securitised and somewhat remote space, far away from the gaze and the attention not only of civil society, but also of the staff itself’ as Campesi noted. Experiencing immigration detention as very afflictive, some people, like Igor, convincingly argued that ‘prison was much better’: healthcare, sanitary conditions and food (among other things) in prison were indeed of remarkably better quality compared to the ones provided in Bari’s centre. As research demonstrated, the ‘permanent curtailment of the self’ is another crucial factor in detainees’ psychological stress, also for those with previous experience of imprisonment. As an interviewee put forward, ‘Inside the area is a mess. They do not let you sleep. They wake up, scream, do not sleep. I feel psychologically a bit dazed here. Prison is another thing, is quieter’.
Thanks to these protests, as well as to the initiative of the association Class Action Procedimentale that presented a popular class action, for the first time in Italy, in 2011 a civil court appointed an expert to ascertain the living conditions inside a detention centre. Specifically, the president of the civil court of Bari ordered a preventive technical assessment to verify if ‘the state, the condition, the organisation of Bari’s identification and expulsion centre’ was apt to ‘ensure the necessary assistance to detainees and the full respect for their dignity’. The Municipality of Bari and the Apulia Region also joined the claim as a third party. As a result, on March 9, 2014, Bari’s court ordered the renovation of the centre within the peremptory term of 90 days in order to guarantee the minimum human rights standards (see the order here). Yet, in the following months nothing changed and the facility continued to operate as usual, while the detainees inside continued to protest.
It was not until March 2016 that the centre was closed for renovations, and even then, the decision to do was taken not because of the court's order but rather due to riots by those detained to denounce the unbearable living conditions they endured. In August 2017 Bari’s civil court, following the popular class action initiated in 2011, recognised the right to compensation for the damage to the image and historical-cultural identity of the Municipality and the Province of Bari for the ways in which foreigners were treated in Bari’s detention centre (see the sentence here). However, as noted by Rizzi and Accardo, this ruling provided no response to the violations of human rights nor to the demands to shut the centre down. And indeed, in November 2017 the centre reopened again.
In August 2018 activists from the campaign LasciateCIEntrare managed to access the centre and monitor its conditions (here the report). They found 79 men of different nationalities including Tunisians, Moroccans, Nigerians, Albanians, Bosnians, Gambians, Senegalese, one Sri Lankan, one Ethiopian and two Libyans - distributed in four sections (two sections were unusable). Among these people, they found men with serious healthcare issues and/or facing mental health challenges left without proper assistance, asylum seekers whose legal rights had not been safeguarded, and even cases of people who should not have been detained (for instance, one man who was formally married with an Italian woman). Moreover, detainees reported difficulties in obtaining information about their rights, communicating with lawyers and, overall, accessing to effective legal representation. Some of them were also found to be in a dazed state – with shining eyes, thickened lips and mumbling – raising questions about whether they had been administered psychiatric drugs. It was noteworthy that, over the years, LasciateCIEntrare has repeatedly reported episodes of police violence against detainees inside Bari’s detention centre.
Following yet another episode of protests and related police brutality against detainees in Bari Palese in December 2018, the Association for Legal Studies on Immigration-ASGI issued a public notice in which they argued that ‘the situation come about in Bari has determined a situation of such inadequacy of the CPR, to the extent that it has brought about inhumane and degrading living conditions for all detainees.’ extent that it has brought about inhumane and degrading living conditions for all detainees.’ In the face of such conditions, a new riot broke out in December 2019 and resulted in the fire of the remaining detainees’ living units, which were the ones still in use. The majority of migrants detained were transferred to the newly reopened CPR of Gradisca D’Isonzo and Bari’s centre is now hosting about 18 people, who are held in the sole detention unit still operating (update received by ASGI on January 14, 2020).
[the above is constantly updated]