Guest post by Mario Badagliacca, a photographer based in Rome, Italy. Mario is currently working on long term projects on migrants’ and migrant communities’ daily practices and adjustments within the migration process. He was recently awarded a 2014 Audience Engagement Grant by the Documentary Photography Project of Open Society Foundations to partner with the Archive of Migrant Memories (AMM) ‘on their campaign to collect, archive, and share testimonies of migrants held in Identification and Deportation Centers throughout Italy.’

Although foreign nationals in Italy are detained within the Identification and Expulsion Centers (CIEs) under the status of ‘guests,’ their stay in these contentious structures corresponds to a ‘de facto’ detention, as they are deprived of their freedom and subjected to a regime of abuse and coercion. These Centers aren’t prisons but very often resemble them, with distinctive features such as high levels of security, barbed wire fences, barking dogs, and militarized personnel. These features make CIEs largely off limits to Italian civil society and journalists, as well as families of the detainees, who are left alone and in distress. Some progress has been made recently, but journalists and activists still face major obstacles in promoting human rights and raising public awareness of these places.

Male sector, Ponte Galeria, Rome. The number of migrants held in the Center can vary from 120 to 200 inmates. (Image: © Mario Badagliacca 2014)
 
A variety of individuals are detained in Italy. Under Italian law, detention can extend to a maximum of 18 months. Often, detainees are migrants who’ve been living in Italy for many years, along with their families, and whose children were born in the country. After losing their jobs, they cannot renew their residence permits, and, if stopped by the police, may be detained for repatriation to their countries of origin. The number of families divided by this mechanism is high. Potential asylum seekers may also be detained when they fail to ask for political asylum. In addition, former prisoners, after serving their sentences, are again locked up in CIEs in order to be expelled from Italy.
 
Over the past few years, I’ve been collaborating with the Archive of Migrant Memories (AMM), a based-Rome association formed in 2008. AMM brings together a group of migrant and non-migrant volunteers, researchers, and media operators committed to a participatory method in recording current migratory processes and registering their traces in the collective heritage of national and transnational memory. AMM operates at two main levels: research (aimed at documenting and archiving written and oral testimonies), and audiovisuals (aimed at producing audio and video documentaries).
 
In Bari Palese, a checkerboard made with bottle caps. One of the devastating effects of the detention in Italy's CIEs is the alienation and inactivity that's often caused by the inability to understand the reasons behind one's detention. (Image: © Mario Badagliacca 2014)
 

During this last year, AMM, in partnership with the campaign ‘Close down CIEs,’ has started collecting testimonies and life stories of migrants held in Italy’s CIEs. The main goal of this work is to denounce the violations of human right inside the CIEs while also documenting a collective memory about migrations in Italy, both for migrants and Italian society.

Ponte Galeria, Rome. After a system of gates, the CIE's male sector is organized into several blocks along a main space used by the police as a 'safety zone' in order to control the detainees. (Image: © Mario Badagliacca 2014)
 

I started this work almost four years ago, in the expulsion Center of Rome―Ponte Galeria―and the center of Bari―Bari Palese. It was very difficult to work on this project since journalists and activists were denied access to the Centers until three years ago. When I was finally granted access, I was kept under strict and constant supervision. The first times I visited, staff were highly directive. They escorted me around like I was on a kind of ‘safari,’ pushing me to speak with detainees who were ‘more controllable’ and close to staff. In the last year, however, the Center staff have become more keen to have journalists visit the centers, softening their approach to supervision.

Residential unit of the male sector, Bari Palese (Image: © Mario Badagliacca 2014)
 

During my first time in a CIE―in Ponte Galeria in the center of Rome―I felt as if I’d just stepped into a non-country, a painful limbo where human rights were suspended and violence ruled. I felt disoriented. The people appeared lost in confusion, pain, and fear. From a visual point of view―as well as psychologically―it was very hard for me to explain where I was. This is because when I arrived at Ponte Galeria, I was thinking I’d find something similar to a regular prison. Whereas the CIE in Bari looks like a prison, with large corridors and big iron doors with small windows through which you can communicate with the prisoners, Ponte Galeria in Rome is different. The male and female units are organized in two separate outdoor spaces. After a system of gates, you arrive in one of these two units, each organized into several blocks, where the migrants sleep, which are surrounded by iron cages. The main space, alonside the blocks is a used by the police as a ‘safety zone’ in order to control the detainees, especially during the riots. At night, all parts of the centre are locked down until the morning. When I arrived at Ponte Galeria, women and men were walking or sitting around these spaces, like shadows.

Male sector, Bari Palese (Image: © Mario Badagliacca 2014)
 
Inside the building, the situation is often very tense. But I’ve found something that surprised me. Although the men often riot and seek to destroy the residential blocks, setting fire to everything, the women respond by making the places where they live beautiful. Thus, the female blocks of Ponte Galeria are filled with colored paintings decorating the walls.
 
Female sector, Ponte Galeria, Rome. Dozen of woman are held in the Italian CIEs, almost all of them from Eastern Europe. (Image: © Mario Badagliacca 2014)
 
The detainees are often nervous in the presence of ‘outsiders’ such as myself, so I spend as much  time as I can talking with them before to start to shoot photos. They need to talk because they don’t have contact with the society beyond the steel bars of the CIE, seeing only some of their family or acquaintances, if they have any. Indeed, activists, lawyers, or journalists are often the only contact they have. A second challenging aspect of detention that I’ve observed is that for detainees, time never passes. Indeed, one of the devastating effects of their confinement in CIEs is the alienation and inactivity, mainly caused by their inability to understand the reasons behind their detention, along with a lack of things to do.
 
Medical room of Ponte Galeria, Rome (Image: © Mario Badagliacca 2014)
 

Despite some successes, journalists and activists still face major obstacles in accessing CIEs. At present, I continue to implement my photographic project of Italy’s CIEs, along with a new multimedia project involving some of the migrants who’ve been held in the centers. I also continue to work in partnership with the AMM to collect the stories of detainees, as well as to organize events in Italy and abroad in order to sensitize people to the issue of migrant detention through the involvement of opinion leaders, journalists, lawyers, and activists. This is because CIEs are a political problem. In Italy, the right-center political party is using migration issues as part of a xenophobic and populist agenda to implement stricter immigration laws. The left-center hasn’t yet proposed alternative ideas on how to manage migrations in Italy, but is trying to reduce the length of detention (from 18 months to 3 months). As of yet, they’re not proposing to close the CIEs down.

See more of Mario’s work, including ‘The Gate of Shadows’ project, by visiting his website.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Badagliacca, M. (2014) Photographing Italy’s Identification and Expulsion Centers (CIEs). Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2014/11/photographing/ (Accessed [date]).