Opened in April 2011 to accommodate around 600 Tunisians landed on Italian shores in the aftermath of the so-called ‘Arab spring’, Palazzo San Gervasio was soon converted into a temporary Identification and Expulsion Centre (April 21, 2011), the terminology used at that time to indicate Italian detention centres. Closed in June 2011 thanks to the reporting made by militant journalists and activists, the facility reopened in January 2018, after the entry into force of the Minniti-Orlando Decree (Law Decree 13/2017) which mandated the expansion of the Italian immigration detention estate in order to increase deportations. Currently named as Accommodation Centre for Repatriations – CPR, Palazzo San Gervasio can now hold up to 32 men for 180 days (Law Decree 113/2018). Yet, renovation work is under way in order to increase the centre’s capacity to 152 places, as established by the government.
Located on the Statale (highway) 168, four kilometres away from the village of Palazzo San Gervasio, in the province of Potenza (Basilicata) near the border with the Apulia region, the centre is a former brick factory that was confiscated from the local mafia (the owner was a boss of the Sacra Corona Unita) and entrusted to the Council. For about ten years, from 1999 to 2009, the building, which was initially made of a warehouse and a parking area on the front, was used by the local population to accommodate migrants who worked seasonally, under very exploitative conditions, for the local agricultural market, more specifically harvesting the local San Marzano tomato (on the story of the centre see here). Thanks to the efforts of a local committee made up of civil-society actors and associations, and with the financial and material support provided by the Council, Province and Region, over the years various renovations have been carried out at the facility. Bathrooms, services, and water pumps were built, and tents were purchased to host migrants. Notwithstanding these efforts, and the conspicuous funding allocated from 2000 to 2009, particularly by the Basilicata region (the last one of 190 thousand euros), in 2009 the Council decided to close down this reception camp. The official motivation was that it did not comply with existing sanitary regulations.
Finally, in April 2011, as a response to the ‘North-African emergency’, regarded by the Italian government as a ‘state of humanitarian emergency’, as declared by the Presidency of the Council of Ministers on February 12, 2011, the abandoned building was appropriated by the Ministry of Interior and immediately reopened as a governmental centre for the accommodation of asylum seekers (CARA), to house the numerous Tunisians who, in that month, were disembarking in Lampedusa. Yet, after a few days it was transformed in a ‘Centre for Accommodation and Identification’ (CAI), a new type of hybrid facility. In spite of its official name, migrants ‘accommodated’ inside the centre, which was actually a tent city run by the Red Cross, were not allowed to move freely and go out at their will. Yet, it was only April 21, 2011, when the centre was officially converted in a temporary (until December 31, 2011) detention centre by the Prime Ministerial Ordinance 3935, which actually had a retroactive validity (detainees had indeed begun to arrive to Palazzo San Gervasio three days before, on April 18). Within a few days a metal cage about 5 meters high was erected around the tents (hence the name ‘aviary’ given to the center), and a three-meter wall was built externally.
The new detention centre was taken over by ‘Connecting People’, a consortium of social cooperatives already in charge of the management of other detention centres in Italy (such as Gradisca d’Isonzo and Brindisi-Restinico). Notably, the centre management was outsourced through a private negotiation, and in the absence of a regular public tender process.
In spite of the protests and mobilisations organised by solidarity movements and the local population, no one was initially able to access the facility, including human rights associations, journalists, political representatives and even lawyers. On April 1, 2011, indeed the Minister of Interior, Roberto Maroni, with the Circular 1305, had prohibited access to migrant centres, including immigration detention centres, to anyone except the UNHCR, IOM, Italian Red Cross, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, Caritas and all the associations with on-going projects with the Ministry of Interior inside these same facilities. As the result, until June 2011, about sixty migrants were confined inside Palazzo San Gervasio and hidden away from the public's sight. It was thanks to mobilisations organised by local activists as well as by a journalist inquiry realised by Raffaella Cosentino, who remarkably managed to get access to the facility and came into possession of a video shot by the migrants confined, that the unbearable living conditions to which detainees were subjected, finally came to light. Because of this evidence, in June 2011 the centre was cleared out, in order to be renovated and its security improved, while all the migrants were transferred to Bari detention centre or even deported back to Tunisia. Moreover, the Public Prosecutor’s office of Melfi opened an investigation on the case.
The removal of migrants silently took place on the eve of a demonstration in front of the facility, which had been organised by several groups and associations, including Cgil, Arci, Legambiente, Forum of the third sector, Libera and Acli, to demand the closure of the detention camp. Another protest had simultaneously been organised in the city of Potenza by the Basilicata Migrant Observatory.
After several years of renovations work, the centre was finally reopened in January 2018, upon the entry into force of the Minniti-Orlando Decree (Law Decree 13/2017). The facility began operating before its renovation was actually completed. Engel Italia ltd, based in Salerno, is the company dealing with the extraordinary management of the facility (for an overall value of 750 k euros) while waiting for the conclusion of the European tender procedure establishing a contract for good and services provision worth 6.200,000 euros for three years. Yet recently, a new journalistic scandal led to the initiation of an investigation from the Public prosecutor’s office of Potenza for several violations, among which abuse of office and mistreatment. Unlawful acts, such as inappropriate administration of heavy psychotropic drugs (e.g rivotril) and violence acts against the detainees, have been indeed reported as chargeable to some staff members. Overall, as Gervasio Ungolo argues, the CPR has strongly affected “a small community (Palazzo San Gervasio) that for decades has been struggling to solve the problem of seasonal migrants working as tomato harvesters.” In his words, it has transformed this village in a sort of “national human landfill.”
[the above is constantly updated]