Palermo today – City of Accommodation?

In 2015, the capital city of the Italian region of Sicily has officially declared itself a “city of accommodation” with the so-called Charter of Palermo. Even though such a declaration ought not be mistaken with the attainment of the goal and should be rather read as vision, Palermo symbolically stands for a multitude of European cities and municipalities which in this time of crisis in European migration and in asylum politics engage in emancipatory endeavors and draft new paths of cohabitation with refugees. The latter often ran counter to national(ized) stipulations, agendas, and legislations. What does this mean then, concretely, for people who have fled? To what extent can these cities make a new beginning possible for refugees, even though they formally do not have that right?

In March 2015, Palermo pledged itself to the “Charta of Palermo.” The city thereby avows itself to the freedom of movement as a human right and calls for the abolition of residence permits in the European Union as well as for a radical reorientation of European refugee and migration politics. At European level, the Charter is considered to be a landmark document for European municipalities, which professes to be in defense of human rights and citizenship in the place of residence.

“In the transitional period until the full implementation of the objectives of the “Charter of Palermo,” to abolish the residence permit will require breaking the link between the residence permit and the employment contract. It is necessary to create regular types of entry and actual opportunities to acquire permanent legalization by fulfilling secure and clearly demonstrable requirements […]. For migrants, having real access to personal rights, beginning with residence and the right to move, is an inevitable goal, that needs to be pursued through measures on many levels, not only European or national, but also in cooperation with local institutions and non-governmental organizations, in order to guarantee a peaceful cohabitation and the respect for different cultures as a resource.” 11Charta di Palermo, p. 4–5

In many Italian cities and in more and more cities around the world, rebellion and annoyance is growing against one’s own government and their legal exclusion of people, who – regardless of the respective national jurisdiction – arrive in cities and, out of necessity, also live there without papers. This is certainly not a new phenomenon but stands in continuity to inter alia the 1930s and 1940s when cities around the globe served as a safe haven for a multitude of individuals who fled Fascist persecution – even if for the most part ad hoc, thus unprepared and often only temporarily. Indeed, the city as refuge for stateless refugees has a long tradition in which also the Lithuanian Vilnius in 1939/40 constitutes an important part as a temporary safe haven for refugees from German and Soviet-occupied Poland.

Palermo’s efforts as a municipality grows out of this tradition and, regardless of putatively altered reasons of flight, it takes steps to create structures which will alleviate the conditions for a joint future for both the city as an inevitable location of refuge and the arrivees. Palermo thus attempts indirectly to take into account and think beyond the historical experiences of many cities of refuge, such as Vilnius.

Cities like Palermo could be called cities of small-scale resistance. Small-scale resistance constitute, according to Arthur Kaufmann, a legal philosopher from Munich who died in 2001, the moving force which calls for the continual rethinking and renewal of the law and the constitutional democracy and thus prevent its degeneration. Opposition and moral courage are called for, local activists, refugees, whistleblowers, migrant organizations and many more are called upon. “Small-scale resistance is the name of all those who call out abuses and wrong-doings not just out of self-interest.” 22https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/prantl-widerstand-nationalsozialismus-1.4534012 (22.07.2019)

Palermo mayor Leoluca Orlando and many local civil society organizations called for civil resistance against the Italian government especially by appealing against the so-called Italian Security Decree (decreto di sicurezza) from 5 August 2019. In practice, Orlando’s resistance consisted in disregarding the prohibition for municipalities to register a place of residence for migrants. Consequently, he gave the instruction to the head of the municipal registration office to ignore the Security Decree. This is a step towards a city of accommodation, that aims at citizenship in the place of residence and thus the right to free movement as well as social and political participation of migrants.

“Palermo acts like a lighthouse in the Mediterranean. A beacon of respect for the human rights of everyone. This is rooted and stratified in hospitality.” 33Orlando, Leoluca, cit. in: OMA, 2018: Palermo Atlas. Manifesta 12. Milano: Humboldt Books, p. 6.

Leoluca Orlando

The real impact of this city resistance – based to a large part on symbolic politics which is not to be underrated – on the lives of people who fled and on urban cohabitation in general stands as the central question behind the personal experiences of arrival and the efforts of refugees to build a new life in Palermo. For the question remains: to what extent can these cities make a new beginning possible for refugees, even though they formally do not have that right?

“Palermo is a difficult, wonderful city, full of hope. Today she is even internationally famous as a city of accommodation. But behind this facade, which is not just a facade, there are also problems. Not the same problems of racism and discrimination as in so many cities of northern Italy and European countries. But due to the political climate things are changing in Palermo as well. Nevertheless, there are still good opportunities in a network of solidarity for refugees to build a life. But: we have to continue to fight for the defense of rights that also belong to us, the rights of all. We all have the right to live in a society where diversity is a value. It’s nice to live in a city in which diversity is not a problem, but a common ethics, philosophy and a shared spirit.”

Giulia di Carlo, sociologist and mediator, Palermo on 06/12/2019

Palermo – City of Immigration and City of Minors

Palermo, the Sicilian capital city, is the city with the highest foreign population in Sicily. In January 2018, the province of Palermo, closely followed by Catania, reached its high point of around 36,000 foreigners. Even though Sicily still does not occupy the top place in the rankings of destination locations for migrants and refugees who came across the sea, Palermo is increasingly developing into a preferred destination. Thus, Palermo is not just a place of (transitory) refuge, but also of immigration: this is shown by the numbers regarding the demographics of immigrating people in Palermo. The largest group in 2018 are 7,213 Romanian immigrants, mostly women, followed by 5,455 from Bangladesh, 3,635 from Sri Lanka, 2,888 migrants from Ghana and 2,265 from Morocco. These numerically largest groups illustrate the diversity of migrantion from Europe, Asia and Africa. 44Busetta, Annalisa, 2019: Aspetti demografici, p. 5-7 in: Greco, Serenella/Tumminelli, Giuseppina (ed.), 2019: Migrazioni in Sicilia. Osservatorio Migrazioni, Istituto di Formazione Politica “Pedro Arrupe” – Centro Studi Sociali. MIMESIS EDIZIONI: Milano – Udine, http://www.osservatoriomigrazioni.org.

Palermo is an important place of accommodation for unaccompanied under-age refugees in Italy. According to the information from 2018, 90% among them were male and on average 17 years old. Looking at all of Sicily, almost all minors come from African continent. 55Castro, Maria Pia, 2019: Minor stranieri non accompagnati, pp. 193-194, in: Greco, Serenella/Tumminelli, Giuseppina (ed.), 2019: Migrazioni in Sicilia.Osservatorio Migrazioni, Istituto di Formazione Politica “Pedro Arrupe” – Centro Studi Sociali. MIMESIS EDIZIONI: Milano – Udine, http://www.osservatoriomigrazioni.org. The largest group of young refugees in Palermo comes from Gambia, followed among others, by Eritrea, Mali, Ghana and Tunisia. 66Ministero del Lavoro, 2017: La presenza dei migranti nella cittá metropolitana di Palermo, p. 5.

Arrival and immigration quarters of Palermo ©OpenStreetMap 2019
Arrival and immigration quarters of Palermo ©OpenStreetMap 2019

In June 2019, We Refugees Archive collaborated with Diawara B., Din S., Glory M., Fatima D., Ismail A., Kadija J., Marrie S., and Mustapha F. and together conducted a workshop, cinematic interviews, and city walks about their life in Palermo. Most of them came to Sicily over the Mediterranean in the last two to four years as minors from Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, and Somalia. Whether they can and want to stay in Palermo is still uncertain. Currently most of them live in the reception center CAS (Centro di Accoglienza Straordinaria) in Palermo or the so-called SPRAR (Sistema di Protezione per Richiedenti Asilo e Rifugiati) accommodations that provide a holistic accommodation in Palermo. They rarely describe the diverse motives for their migration as flight, even though the descriptions of their journey to Sicily resemble terrible experiences of flight that are well-known by now. They experience and value their support network in Palermo, meet with friends at the Ballorò quarters, have mostly learned the Italian language and graduated from secondary school. They experience a Palermo which, from their perspective, is much better than many other cities of the Italian north. Palermo for them is not a place of refuge, but rather also a possible final destination.

“My heart beats for Palermo. I have received so much from this city: my education, my studies and an open culture of reception and living together. This city has allowed me to become an active citizen who contributes to the development of this country. Thanks for that!” 55Interview with Ibrahima, Q. Kobena, the president of the Cultural Council (Consulta della Culture), which was brought to life with the Charter of Palermo in March 2015. Interview with Palermo on 13.6.2019. Ibrahima Kobena came to Palermo 10 years ago as a refugee and has a permanent residence permit.

Ibrahima Quattara Kobena on 06/13/2019 in Palermo

Imbrahima’s seemingly positive experiences of arrival and integration can be booked as a success story by him personally and on an official level. The emphasis on cultural adaptation does not stand for an open, heterogenous city but rather for an assimilation to a majority society which was expected of him, it seems.

Even Leoluca Orlando highlights the importance of culture as a connective element within Palermo as a city of accommodation. What is meant by this exactly and whether he instead refers to cultural activities and production remains unclear.

“Here – and this is an irreversible choice – there are no migrants, whoever arrives in Palermo becomes a Palermitan. Palermo is increasingly a role model in which culture is the defining element that relates people to one another. Coexistence is part of the normal routine, no longer and not only a special project. The only race we recognize here is the human race.”

Leoluca Orlando 88Orlando, L. cit. in OMA, Palermo Atlas. Manifesta 12. Milano: Humboldt Books, p.5.

Many current experiences of arrivees in Palermo, in contrast, attest to high, even unsurmountable barriers which are in place despite Palermo’s human rights declaration and have little to do with the efforts on an individual level. Diawara B. provided the We Refugees Archive team insights into his tireless but powerless fight for a legal right of residence despite the fact that he, as all refugees and migrants, is considered a Palermitan. Diawara’s residence permit for humanitarian reasons, which he had for two years, was not renewed due to the jurisdiction of the newly introduced Security Decree in August 2019.

“At the moment, I am without documents and there is nothing in Palermo that I did not do to integrate myself: I go to school, have learned the language, did social activities and artistic things, I really did everything. And yet I stand on the side of those who seemingly do bad things and are denied the documents, and I’m on this side, but I have done everything.”

Diawara B. on 06/11/2019 in Palermo

Two stories, two destinies in Palermo which make abundantly clear how much the individual fate is still dependent on the developments on national as well as European legislative level. In a network with other cities in Europe, Palermo needs to strengthen its resistance in favor of the rights of migration and mobility in order to carry into effect its vision of a “city of accommodation.”

    Footnotes

  • 1Charta di Palermo, p. 4–5
  • 2https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/prantl-widerstand-nationalsozialismus-1.4534012 (22.07.2019)
  • 3Orlando, Leoluca, cit. in: OMA, 2018: Palermo Atlas. Manifesta 12. Milano: Humboldt Books, p. 6.
  • 4Busetta, Annalisa, 2019: Aspetti demografici, p. 5-7 in: Greco, Serenella/Tumminelli, Giuseppina (ed.), 2019: Migrazioni in Sicilia. Osservatorio Migrazioni, Istituto di Formazione Politica “Pedro Arrupe” – Centro Studi Sociali. MIMESIS EDIZIONI: Milano – Udine, http://www.osservatoriomigrazioni.org.
  • 5Interview with Ibrahima, Q. Kobena, the president of the Cultural Council (Consulta della Culture), which was brought to life with the Charter of Palermo in March 2015. Interview with Palermo on 13.6.2019. Ibrahima Kobena came to Palermo 10 years ago as a refugee and has a permanent residence permit.
  • 6Ministero del Lavoro, 2017: La presenza dei migranti nella cittá metropolitana di Palermo, p. 5.
  • 8Orlando, L. cit. in OMA, Palermo Atlas. Manifesta 12. Milano: Humboldt Books, p.5.

Films 3

Chapters 10