TURIN, Italy – Very few of the 100 people who attended Moussa Mamadou Balde’s funeral knew him well, if at all. But they came to the Taiba Mosque to pay their respects to a young man chewed up and spat out by one of Europe’s worst immigration systems.
Aged just 22, Balde killed himself in the night between the 22nd and 23rd of May this year, 13 days after being mercilessly beaten by three men outside a supermarket in an unprovoked, racist attack that was filmed and posted online. The level of violence on display shocked Italy, but shortly after being taken to hospital to be treated for his wounds, Balde was moved to a police station and then, the closest deportation centre.
There he was confined to a 4m by 5m isolation cell in Turin, at one of nine such repatriation centres (CPRs) across Italy where undocumented people are held pending deportation. It was a dark and horrible end to what had seemed like a life full of promise in Italy – Balde had arrived in the country five years previously, learned Italian, acquired a middle school diploma and was in the process of applying for asylum, his lawyer told VICE World News.
His death was the sixth to take place in a CPR since 2019, and prompted fresh anger at a system which locked up the victim of a crime due to his immigration status, but not – so far at least – the men who attacked him.
VICE World News has spoken to Balde’s lawyer, migrants rights advocacy groups and politicians who all painted a picture of an uncaring system which denies people their rights with little accountability.
The details of Balde’s story are troubling. Balde arrived in Italy in 2016 and settled in the province of Imperia, on the France-Italy border. “He was perfectly integrated in Imperia. He regularly frequented a community centre called La Talpa e l’Orologio and regularly took part in anti-racism demonstrations,” said Gianluca Vitale, Balde’s lawyer.
While awaiting a response to his asylum application Balde travelled to France looking for better work opportunities but was sent back to the Italian city of Ventimiglia – a transit location for migrants trying to cross the border to France – by French authorities. While he was outside the country, Balde was summoned for his asylum hearing and missed it, so once he got back to Italy he received a foglio di via, an order to leave the country within 15 days or risk deportation.
“Moussa being given a foglio di via was problematic,” Vitale said. “According to the legislation he should have been given another opportunity to attend his asylum hearing.”
His new status as “undocumented” closed all doors for Balde in Ventimiglia. Unable to work, he became homeless. On the 9th of May, while begging outside a supermarket, he was attacked by three white men who accused him of stealing. The attack was filmed by a witness and the video went viral, causing widespread sympathy for Balde.
“Nobody knew where Moussa was after seeing the video and many of us [lawyers, activists, etc…] started wondering whether it was possible that they would have taken him to a CPR,” said Vitale.
On his arrival to the CPR, without any mental health assessments following the attack, Balde was placed in an area of the centre called Ospedaletto (little hospital) over concerns he had scabies. “In the end it was a simple psoriasis,” Vitale said. “It is impossible for them [the managers of the centre] to take ten days to verify whether he had scabies or not.”
Vitale said that for the first ten days of Moussa’s detention in the Turin CPR, officials denied Balde was there at all. “We repeatedly contacted the managers of the CPR, made multiple requests for information and we were always told nobody in the centre matched Moussa’s description. Then, thanks to insider sources it was revealed that he was in the centre and I visited him,” he said.
During his incarceration, Balde was never asked to give a statement regarding the attack upon him and was never told that as a victim he was entitled to live, study and work in the country while he legally pursued his attackers.
Vitale was finally permitted to meet Balde on the 20th of May, two days before he died. “Not enough time to sue for the attack outside of the supermarket,” Vitale said.
“We know there is an open criminal proceeding regarding the attack but even I don't have access to the name of the public prosecutor. His attackers are still walking free.”
Gepsa, the French facilities management company that runs Turin’s CPR, did not respond to a request for comment regarding Balde’s stay in the centre, or questions about why he was kept in the Ospedaletto for 12 days.
The Ospedaletto is a bleak place and human rights advocates had warned of its terrible conditions before Balde’s death.
Composed of 12 cells, also commonly called “chicken coops”, the Ospedaletto is a separate block, far away from the rest of the centre. Guards do not stay there, and have to be called by a button. A group of lawyers, including Vitale, from ASGI, the Italian Association for Juridic Studies on Immigration, visited the centre shortly after Balde’s suicide and published a report on its living conditions called “Turin’s Black Book”.
The report describes the Ospedaletto as “bare cells forgotten by the sun, with sanitary facilities reduced to a minimum, a chair and a table fastened to the floor and cement everywhere. The cell doors lead into a courtyard of a few square meters, enclosed by railings and closed by a canopy. There is only a partial view of the sky. Here, in the CPR, people walk along the edge of a precipice.”
The director of Turin’s CPR and a doctor are now under investigation for incitement to suicide and homicide over Balde’s death.
There are many in Italy who are determined to change the fate of those in the CPRs following Balde’s death. The centre in Turin is now facing two lawsuits, one from the family of Balde – represented by Vitale – and another lawsuit filed by the Association Frantz Fanon, a group of psychologists promoting mental health support for migrants in Italy.
Daniela Fonzi, a city councillor for Turin’s third municipal district is trying to change the name of a garden located outside the CPR in honour of Balde. “His death hits even harder because he was the victim of an attack, he needed to be helped and protected but instead he suffered a further injustice,” Fonzi told VICE World News at Balde’s funeral.
Balde’s death prompted indignation from a number of politicians. MPs and Senators from various parties such as Erasmo Palazzotto, a Deputy from the Italian Left party, Anna Rossomando, vice president of the Senate from the centre-left Democratic Party, and Marco Grimaldi, a councillor from the Liberi Uguali Verdi (Free Equal Green) political coalition, were among those calling for the closure of CPRs. Protests also took place all over the country and a campaign called Moussa Matters was launched to raise awareness on the precarious conditions of undocumented people in Italy.
This was not the first time someone has died in the Ospedaletto of the Turin centre. In July 2019 Faisal Hossain, a 32-year-old man from Bangladesh in urgent need of psychological support was found dead in cell number ten of the Ospedaletto. His medical records stated that Hossain was fit to remain in the centre, despite him being “confused, disoriented and unable to speak.” Hossain remained in the Ospedaletto for five months until he suffered a heart attack.
In the rest of Italy’s CPRs, the situation is no better. Last year Vakthang Enukidze, 37, lost his life in the CPR of Gradisca D’Isonzo, in the province of Gorizia, north east Italy. A day before his death Enukidze was separated from another man he had been arguing with. Witnesses interviewed by MP Riccardo Magi, said that Enukidze was dragged on the ground and repeatedly hit on the head by ten police officers.
His autopsy revealed that his death was caused by a “pulmonary edema” – a build-up of fluid in the lungs making it difficult to breathe – but a criminal proceeding for homicide was launched by the Gorizia prosecutor against a group of people whose names are being kept private.
Italy’s National Guarantor for Detainees Rights, an institution created in 1997 to campaign against human rights abuses in prisons and places like CPRs, puts out an annual report after visiting every centre in the country. The Ministry of the Interior’s Department for Freedoms and Migration must provide comments on any irregularity brought up in the report within 30 days.
In the latest report by the Guarantor’s office, published in April, there were more than 35 irregularities to which the Department for Freedoms and Migration had to answer. The Guarantor raised concerns about a lack of transparency in the centres, as during the inspection visits migrants told the Guarantor about incidents such as self-harm, self-mutilation, suicide attempts, fires, revolts and damages to the buildings which are never registered, despite being commonplace.
The report Turin’s Black Book also claims that self-harm episodes and hunger strikes are a daily occurence, citing the story of a young Tunisian man who was taken to a hospital for self-harm five times in just 11 days.
A video obtained by campaigning group LasciateCIEntrare and seen by VICE World News filmed in 2020 in the CPR in Gradisca D'Isonzo, shows a young Tunisian migrant with numerous cuts along his arm as he panics and begs to be helped outside of the cell he is in. The cleaning staff can be heard telling the young man, “I actually hope you manage to escape from here. I will be happy for you.”
In most CPRs people have their phones taken away from them and are only allowed a few monthly phone calls to their families. In some centres migrants are allowed to keep their phones but only after having their cameras broken, to prevent them from filming the conditions.
Yasmine Accardo, a spokesperson for LasciateCIEentrare, told VICE World News that “many of the migrants who are released from the CPR with their papers, are afraid to denounce them despite the mental and physical damage they suffered from administrative detention. The governmental body that grants them papers is the same one that they would need to sue for what they went through. Understandably, many are scared by this process.”
Accardo says the outsourcing of the centres to different private companies makes it difficult to get accountability. The Guarantor’s report also states that different rules apply in different centres.
Vitale, Balde’s lawyer, said that local health authorities are supposed to collaborate with CPRs and help decide who is fit to stay and who is not. But “in Turin’s CPR, it’s the doctors of Gepsa [the company running the centre] who decide whether people are suitable to live in the centre or not,” he said. “CPRs are places with very few rules.”