Our fingerprints are here, so this is our home – a self-organized fight for human rights

DSC_0285 “Welcome, you are our guests, come in!” A tall man of about 30 years asks us to enter his room, the one next to the entrance, and to make ourselves comfortable, without claiming an explanation as to who we are or why we are there. It’s a stunning openness we encounter at our arrival at “Socrate Occupied”, an old high school building occupied by a group of self-governed refugees in Bari. It was not easy to find the building, despite the squat’s website pointing out the address – with the explicit hint: “Of course fascist, nazi, racist, omophobic and everyone like them are NOT WELCOME!” The building is located in a quiet alley in between residential buildings, just off a lively street with shops and restaurants. The websDSC_0280ite asks visitors not to park in the private street so as to keep up good relations with the neighborhood. In fact, the atmosphere seems to be quiet and peaceful. The façade of the building is painted with an underwater world, or a world drowning in the sea. The man who had asked us to enter his room introduces himself and after a few minutes two more residents join us. They insist on inviting us for a coke and we start a conversation. The old school is inhabited by about seventy refugees who have occupied the building about four years ago in order to obtain the right not to sleep in the streets or in a military camp. Our hosts tell us that they all hold a refugee status, but that it is almost impossible for them to find jobs and they do not receive support from the Italian government.

This is also the reason why another group of refugees we get to talk to later on, just recently occupied  the former convent Santa Chiara in Bari which had been vacant due to renovation. The atmosphere is different here, the refugees still fear being expelled from their new home and are ready to defend it against unrequested guests. Although the building lacks almost everything, including electricity and water, it is at least a place to live in.  DSC_0269

During our talks to the refugees both at the old school and at the ex-convent, it becomes repeatedly clear that there are massive shortcoming in terms of the “second receptivity” of refugees in Italy. Whereas the rate of acceptance for applications of asylum in Italy is relatively high, integration into society after being granted the asylum status is extremely difficult. In a country DSC_0287with an unemployment rate of more than 12% and a youth unemployment of about 40% it is very hard for refugees to find regular work and consequently they engage in black work or live in the streets. “If we had a job, we could benefit from Italy, and Italy could benefit from us. Like this, nobody benefits,” they tell us. Most of the refugees we talk to would prefer to go to another European country in order to escape the deficient circumstances in Italy and finally find proper employment. But due to the Dublin regulation it is impossible for them to officially stay in another European country for more than three months, let alone work there. “Our fingerprints are here, so this is our home”, one of the refugees at the former convent Santa Chiara tells us, “we’re here to stay”. Nevertheless, many of the refugees have repeatedly travelled to other countries and stayed there as long as they were not discovered by authorities and sent back to Italy. Our host at Socrate Occupied, for example, spent several years in Sweden, a few years in Great Britain and a couple of years in the Netherlands. After ten years as a refugee in Europe he has still not arrived in a new life. “This is no life”, he says.