The Ponte Galeria detention centre in Rome was one of the first centres opened in Italy for the purpose of detaining non-nationals awaiting removal, particularly those whose expulsion by escort to the border or refoulement was not immediately executable. Since opening in 1998, right after the adoption of law 40 (the so-called Turco-Napolitano law), Ponte Galeria became the largest Italian immigration detention centre, with a capacity of 300 people, 188 men and 112 women (Galieni and Guido 2019). At the present the facility can hold up to 125 men and 125 women for a maximum period of 180 days (Law Decree 113/2018). Notably, Ponte Galeria is the sole Italian centre where women can be detained.
Located in a southwest Roman suburb (“Fiera di Roma”), outside Rome’s ring road and close to Fiumicino International Airport, no road signs indicate the isolated site where the detention centre lies, which is difficult to reach without private transportation. Adjacent to the ‘S. Gelsomini’ police complex on Portuense road, the facility was built where five large containers of the Italian Civil Defence had been placed to operate as a first reception centre. Following law 40, article 12, Ponte Galeria was initially referred to as a ‘Temporary Stay and Assistance Centre’ (CPTA), a denomination that exposed the security-humanitarian nexus characterising the Italian approach to migration control.
Until February 2010, Ponte Galeria was run by the Italian Red Cross. Subsequently, several private sector organisations have been in charge of administering it, providing basic assistance to detainees (e.g., food, cleaning), psychosocial and medical care, legal advice, and cultural linguistic mediation. The list includes: the Social Cooperative Auxilium (March 2010 – December 2014); the consortium composed of the French company GEPSA and the Italian cultural association Acuarinto (December 2014 – September 2018) and, finally, the Social Cooperative Albatros (September 2018 – present). It is important to note that these private entities have been selected through a public tendering process, in which contracts are assigned on the basis of the most economically advantageous bid (according to decree 21.11.2008 of the Ministry of Home Affairs). Therefore, over the years, the services and formal resources available to detainees have drastically decreased. For Lassaad, a Tunisian man who had been confined in Ponte Galeria, the implications of this system are obvious: ‘You realise that you’re in a kind of concentration camp, a concentration camp that exists because each life has a price - the one paid to those who keep us inside’.
Architecturally, Ponte Galeria resembles a prison: it is composed of several buildings surrounded by high walls and fences, and there are CCTV cameras everywhere. Military personnel patrol the outside areas, while an inter-force police unit – composed of policemen, carabinieri and finance police – is in charge of maintaining order and security inside the centre.
Within the institution, men and women detained in separate areas, located on opposite sides. Each living unit consists of several sectors with two dormitories and an open-air concrete square 70 m2 large. Sectors are divided by a large central corridor and surrounded by fences that, over the years, have been made higher and, in the case of the men’s unit, are now covered with plexiglass to prevent escapes.
The men’s living unit re-opened in June 2019 with tightened security measures, after being burnt down by the detainees in December 2015, during a protest following an episode of police violence. In the meeting that Border Criminologies held in May 2019 with activists and civil-society groups based in Rome, we heard numerous concerns about the strict security measures that were to be implemented that included the prohibition on men using their mobile phones, to prevent the organisation of protests, as well as further restrictions on their (already very limited) movements around the centre. As predicted by these solidarity organisations, shortly after the men’s unit reopened, new mass escapes and riots have been taking place as a result of this harsh detention regime. These matters have been further confirmed by the Regional Ombudsman Stefano Anastasia, in his declarations to journalists.
As research has documented, the population of those confined inside Ponte Galeria, as in other Italian detention centres, is extremely heterogeneous. Asylum seekers, recently arrived migrants lacking documentation, visa over-stayers, people brought up or even born in Italy but who are not recognised as citizens (i.e., Italian citizenship law is largely based on the right of blood), stateless persons, former prisoners and even EU citizens subject to an expulsion order for security reasons all end up together behind the high fences of this facility. Nationalities also vary substantially. For instance, among the 1,665 men and women confined in Ponte Galeria from January 1 to December 20 2015, the largest groups were Nigerians (434; 26%), followed by Albanians (163; 9.8%), Tunisians (151; 9.1%), Romanians (144; 8.6%), Moroccans (112; 6.7%), Algerians (99; 5.9%), Chinese (73; 4.4%), Georgians (64; 3.8%), Egyptians (55; 3.3%), and Ukrainians (48; 2.9%) (Commissione Straordinaria per la Tutela e la Promozione dei Diritti Umani, 2016). In 2018, after the men’s living unit was burnt, 661 women were detained inside the facility, these latter being predominantly from China, Nigeria, Russia and Eastern Europe (Regional Ombudsman’s Report).
In the meeting that Border Criminologies held in Rome in May 2019, before the reopening of the men’s living unit, participants claimed that recently the majority of women at Ponte Galeria have been long-term Italian residents with criminal records and/or previous expulsion orders. There are also many women, especially those from Ukraine, Georgian and Russia, who have been working as cleaners and care workers in private households, where they have often being exposed to harsh and exploitative working conditions. This evidence was corroborated in November 2019 by L., an Indian woman who used to work as a domestic worker in southern Italy, who had been receiving between 650 and 750 euros per month for working 24 hours a day without days off. L. had been arrested and taken to Ponte Galeria after she was the victim of a robbery: on her way to the house of the old woman she was caring for, a man assaulted her with a knife, snatching her gold necklace and cutting off her fingers. Alerted, the carabinieri arrived on site and, once L. had received treatment in hospital for her injuries, they decided to bring her to Ponte Galeria because she lacked regular documentation. It was the first time L. had been stopped by Italian police, and she had no previous expulsion orders. E., a Nigerian woman who had come to Italy to visit her husband’s brother was placed in Ponte Galeria even though she said she had provided her Spanish visa to the police. She was still waiting to know when she could go home: ‘I told to police, this is my document, please control. But them ‘I don’t care, I don’t care’’.
Women detained at Ponte Galeria have frequently been victims of gendered violence, as previous research (see also here) and reports have highlighted. Yet, only a few have access to some forms of protection. In the summer of 2015 a case involving sixty-six Nigerian women brought such issues to light, and received vast attention from the media, activists, politicians and academics. This case was also the focus of a Report by the Council of Europe Group of experts against human trafficking (GRETA) which raised serious concerns regarding the identification and treatment by Italian authorities of victims of trafficking among migrants and asylum seekers. These women were detained either immediately or soon after landing on the coast of Sicily, without being provided with any information about the possibility of seeking international protection. Upon arrival at Ponte Galeria, they were collectively identified by the Nigerian consul. Having been victims of abuses and gendered violence in Nigeria and during their journey to Italy, these women all filled a request for international protection inside Ponte Galeria and a network composed by NGOs operating inside the centre (e.g., BeFree, A Buon Diritto), lawyers (e.g., Rome’s Legal Clinic on Migration and Asylum, ASGI), activists (e.g., anarchist groups, LasciateCIEntrare) and ordinary people was created to support their claims. Most of the stories told by these women to the asylum commission that interviewed them, presented elements for being classified as ‘potential victims of trafficking’ (GRETA 2016, p. 19). However, only thirteen of them obtained protection, while another twenty were deported to Lagos on September 17th 2015.
This case reveals the human rights violations taking place inside Ponte Galeria. Sadly, it is certainly not unique. Since opening in 1998, Ponte Galeria has been the site of extensive violence and abuse. The first person to die in the centre was Mohamed Ben Said, a 39-year-old Tunisian man who had been taken to Rome’s detention centre after having served a prison sentence for a minor crime. On Christmas night of 1999, after 14 days of confinement, Mohamed Ben Said was found dead, probably due to negligence in medical care and an excess dose of psycho-pharmaceuticals drugs administered by the health staff of the centre. Although he had complained of health problems for days, he was never taken to the hospital. On the night he died, his fellow detainees sought help for hours but the doors of the living unit were closed from the outside and no staff member arrived (Rivera 2019). Mohamed Ben Said was married to an Italian woman, but his marriage certificate was found only after he passed away.
On May 7th 2009, Nabruka Mimuni, a 49-year-old Tunisian woman who had spent most of her life in Italy, decided to hang herself in the toilet of her dormitory. The night before, she had discovered that she was going to be deported back to Tunisia, where she had neither relatives nor friends. Two months earlier another death had shaken up the centre, i.e., that of Salah Soudani, an Algerian man who was found dead after needlessly seeking medical attention. The obscure circumstances of his death have never been clarified by the authorities (Galieni and Guido 2019).
In addition to these tragedies, evidence has highlighted the recurring violations of rights taking place inside Ponte Galeria. Inadequacy of lawfulness assessment of detention and poor quality of judges’ and lawyers’ performances, scarcity of information concerning migrant’s rights and procedures for enforcing them, insalubrious living conditions, inadequate healthcare, excessive security restrictions (e.g., there is a ban on a vast number of items and all caps must be removed from the bottles), poor quality of the food, lack of activities and alienation, neglect of situations of vulnerability (such as people facing mental health challenges or with experience of torture and gender violence), and episodes of police violence have been reported by different actors. For instance, Doctors for Human Rights Italy (MEDU) have produced several reports – in 2005, 2009, 2010 (see also the related graphic novel), 2012 and 2013 – that, overall, demonstrated the inadequacy of Ponte Galeria in safeguarding migrants' dignity and fundamental rights. According to the authors:
‘The conclusions of this research on Ponte Galeria CIE confirm what has been pointed out in MEDU previous reports, a facility genetically unable to safeguard the dignity and fundamental rights of the persons, besides being ineffective and costly. The same remarks can be extended to the CIE system on the whole, as objectively, systematically and consistently shown by the most meaningful investigations carried out both by independent and institutional stakeholders in the course of the years.’ (MEDU, 2012, p. 19)
Acknowledging this evidence, even the Prefect of Rome, Giuseppe Pecoraro, in 2010 declared that Ponte Galeria was an old, unsafe facility, unable to guarantee the respect of human dignity and that, as such, should be closed down.
The oppressive and pathogenic qualities of Ponte Galeria environment have also been highlighted by academic research, which has shown how the scarcity of resources, activities, and information creates a distressing environment for detainees, which enhances feelings of powerlessness and frustration in professional actors willing to assist them. Men and women confined inside this facility exist in a state of extreme precariousness and abandonment. Their permanent state of uncertainty amplifies their vulnerability and suffering:
‘Ensnared between a thwarted present and an unimaginable future, detainees faced a daily struggle to preserve a sense of self and meaning for their lives. The state of “waithood” and suspension they were forced into, permeated by an ever-present fear of unexpected and disruptive changes to come, such as deportation, was burdensome and, over time, put a strain on people’s ability to cope and resist.’
Compounding matters, there is no fair access to legal representation within Ponte Galeria. Instead, detainees are provided with the contacts of a restricted number of lawyers, usually the same professionals. To address this situation, associations have tried several times without success to issue the detainees with a complete list of immigration attorneys, as they claimed in the meeting that Border Criminologies held in Rome in May 2019. Despite being paid for by the State (gratuito patrocinio), evidence suggests that several lawyers ask detainees for money too.
In the face of such a scenario, it is not surprising that protests, mass escapes (265 people run away in 2011), acts of self-harm, hunger strikes, and riots occur regularly inside Ponte Galeria. In December 2013, for example, several men from Maghreb sewed their mouths shut in protest at the length of their detention, as well as at the lack of legal and health assistance provided. Women, for their part, have also used music, paintings and grafﬁti to challenge the depersonalisation of the detention environment. These acts of resistance have mostly been supported by No border activists, who often gathered in the forecourt in front of the centre to communicate with and offer solidarity to those detained inside. On some occasions, men climbed on top of the centre roofs to communicate with the activists outside, and their cry, ‘Hurriya’ - which in Arabic means ‘freedom’, has become the main motto of the battle against immigration detention.
[the above is constantly updated]