Frustration and sadness as Italy migrant centre closed

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AFP |

“I found a family here, I worked with the parish priest, I helped with mass, I went to school,” said Nigerian Anthony Ehikwe, one of the hundreds of migrants being expelled from Italy’s second-largest migrant center. “And now I do not even have the time to say goodbye.” Italian authorities are this week removing migrants from the reception center at Castelnuovo di Porto, just north of Rome, after far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s tough anti-migrant decree became law.

“You can change immigration policies but you can’t just throw people out into the street like that,” said an angry Riccardo Travaglini, mayor of this town of 9,000 people. “Here, we’ve done a lot to welcome people and, within a few hours, they decide to dismantle our community,” he said. The new law, which came into effect in December, ends two-year “humanitarian protection” residency permits a lower level of asylum status based on Italian rather than international law that were awarded to 25 percent of asylum seekers last year.

Pope Francis visited in 2016, celebrating mass and famously washing the feet of 11 migrants of different religions. “It will be difficult to rebuild all this somewhere else,” said Ehikwe, 27.

The Italian Refugee Council has said it was “seriously concerned” by the new legislation which “will put thousands of people outside the law and only a very few can be repatriated.” “I do not think it’s about security because sadly in a few months we will see the effects of this chaos they are creating on purpose,” said the center’s legal advisor Rosanna Just.

“The only result is that they destroyed something that worked very well.” The law also reorganizes asylum-seeker management by closing large reception centers like Castelnuovo, which Salvini says are expensive and breeding grounds for criminals.

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Migrants and asylum-seekers were given 48 hours notice of the center’s closure, and on Tuesday the authorities began the evacuation of 500 people, including 120 women and 14 children. Some have been taken to reception centers elsewhere in the country, while others have preferred to head for Rome on foot before they are taken away.

Pope’s Visit

“After having accompanied them, sometimes for years, on a path of integration, we had to tell them that they have to go, without even knowing their destination,” said Just. “The children were attending school, some (of the migrants) even had work and from one day to the next it’s all taken away,” she said.

Dozens of the town’s Italian’s residents on Tuesday protested against the closure of the center, which opened in a very different political climate 10 years ago. Pope Francis visited in 2016, celebrating mass and famously washing the feet of 11 migrants of different religions. “It will be difficult to rebuild all this somewhere else,” said Ehikwe, 27.

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“I’ve been living here for two years, I don’t know where I’ll be sent, I don’t know what will happen,” said Ehikwe, a Roman Catholic who fled religious persecution in Nigeria, making the treacherous crossing of the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy. “This is a common sense operation that will save Italians six million euros ($6.8 million) a year without taking anyone’s rights away,” Salvini said on Wednesday.

© Agence France-Presse

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