Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Moussa Balde: A Chronicle of a Death Foretold



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5 Minutes

Guest post by Gennaro Santoro (translation: Fabi Fugazza). Gennaro is a specialist in immigration law, Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights (CILD). Founded in 2014, the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights (Coalizione Italiana per le Libertà e i Diritti Civili, CILD) is a network of 41 civil society organizations. CILD aims to defend and promote civil liberties and rights guaranteed by the Italian Constitution and by international law, and to fight civil rights abuses and violations through advocacy, public education and legal action. This is the final post of Border Criminologies themed series on 'Detention And Migrant Confinement in Italy at Times of Covid-19' organised by Francesca Esposito and Giulia Fabini.

The video frames of the beating of a young man in Ventimiglia show an act of unprecedented violence; a 23 year old man being beaten with bars and a woman's voice in the background repeating 'He's gonna kill him, he's gonna kill him'. However, Moussa Balde did not lose his life because of the xenophobic attack he suffered, but instead while in the care of the Italian state. At the age of 23, while in solitary confinement at the Centro di Permanenza per il Rimpatrio (CPR) (denomination used for Italian detention centres) Brunelleschi in Turin, Moussa committed suicide by hanging himself with a sheet.

Locked up due to “illegal” immigration status

One wonders why a person who has suffered a violent crime ended up in a detention centre for illegalised foreigners to begin with. The question arises as to whether Moussa’s prognosis and physical and mental condition justified such a decision. At the moment of one’s arrival into a CPR, a verification of their “compatibility with life in detention” is imposed by law. This assessment should be carried out by a relevant local health agency, but it is often performed by a doctor hired by the centre's managing body. Amongst the many contradictions evident in the operation of Italian CPRs, there is indeed also the issue of the healthcare provision which, like everything else, is entrusted to private contractors.

The privatisation of detention

Immigration detention which - it is worth remembering - is not imposed for the commission of a crime, but for a mere administrative irregularity, according to the Italian Constitution - must be ordered or, in any case, subject to validation by a judge. However, this complex task is instead, for illegalised foreigners, entrusted to a non-legal judicial substitute: a Civil Justice of the Peace. As if limiting the personal freedom of foreign nationals was something which should be treated with less gravity.

The Code of Civil Procedure (Article 7) provides that the Civil Justice of the Peace has jurisdiction "for cases relating to movable property of a value not exceeding five thousands euro, when the law does not attribute them to the jurisdiction of another judge" and for other specific matters (road fines, etc), including the validation of the limitation of the personal freedom of illegalised foreigners. Matters of minor importance.

Last week, Open Migration published a summary of the last report on Italian detention centres published by the National Guarantor of the rights of persons deprived of their liberty. After the death of Moussa Balde, I shudder to re-read the passage on the death of two other young migrants last year: A.E. in Caltanissetta, and E.V., in Gradisca d'Isonzo. In both cases, the young men fell ill and required medical attention. However, the care provided in the centres was not sufficient and both died. The Guarantor wisely observes that, beyond the outcome of the criminal proceedings related to the individual cases, what is missing is a connection with the National Health System. Also, the Guarantor highlights the absence of adequate health observation rooms within the centres. Such rooms would be needed in order to stop detaining, deprived of assiduous supervision and health care, those people who ask for or need immediate medical intervention.

Reading these words written by the Guarantor sent a shiver down my spine, as the death of the 23-year-old looks suspicious: it was clearly foreseeable and should therefore have been avoided. Locking up a very young man after he was the victim of serious aggression and placing him in isolation without adequate health supervision, means, if not directly contributing to his death, at the very least, not having done anything to avoid it.

It will be up to the courts to clarify the individual responsibilities in this specific case, but it is clear that administrative detention does not provide, in both abstract and concrete terms, the minimum standards to guarantee the safety of its "guests" (a euphemism used in the Italian detention context to refer to detainees), as required by the law.

In Italian prisons, health care is provided by the National Health System and those at risk of suicide are subjected to the greatest surveillance, i.e. the person is visually observed constantly and is continuously subjected to medical examinations, psychological care, etc. This is because it is in isolation that most suicides occur. All the safeguards (not only in the field of health) available in the criminal justice system are completely lacking in detention centres.

According to the law, one should only end up in detention if there are no alternatives. Actually, in Moussa's case, there probably should not have been any expulsion order to begin with - which is the prerequisite for detention in CPRs - because he was the victim of a violent crime and therefore deserved a residence permit. Or, at least, he should not have been detained because of his physical and psychological condition, which were not compatible with confinement. But if there is no one to actually check – from a medical and legal point of view – compatibility with life in detention as is required, deaths like the one of Moussa can and may recur endlessly. At least as long as our society continues to lack the courage to challenge administrative detention.

For its ineffectiveness (less than 50% of the people detained in the last 20 years have actually been repatriated) and, above all, for its costs both in financial terms and concerning the disrespect for human dignity (and life), it’s time to invest in alternatives to irregularity and detention, as we have long reiterated at the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights (CILD). This means focusing on the involvement of foreign nationals rather than on the top-down imposition of incomprehensible rules and measures such as detention in CPRs, with the aim of developing effective immigration management systems that, at the same time, respect the rights of migrants. The idea behind the alternatives to detention is not to detain by default while waiting for a result - repatriation - that will probably never come, but to explore together with the person all the options available to them in order to ensure that they make an informed and sustainable decision. Because forced repatriation is not the only option.

Often the people who end up in detention are vulnerable people who may be exposed to serious human rights violations if returned to their countries of origin. In other cases, what has led people to “irregularity” is a combination of bureaucratic complications, legislative changes and language barriers, which does not imply that the person is not entitled to obtain a residence permit to remain legally on Italian territory. Finally, a foreign national who is unable to remain in Italy may decide to voluntarily return to their country, receiving support to ensure that voluntary return is a sustainable choice in the long term.

Unlike detention and other coercive measures, alternatives based on cooperation with the migrants involve promoting humane, effective and affordable migration management, as well as more sustainable and convenient outcomes for the whole community: foreign nationals, host communities and governments.

Not taking into consideration these alternatives means that what the Guarantor writes in the preface of the report on CPRs, that when the migrant enters these non-places he/she "stops being a person with his/her own human totality to be preserved in his/her intrinsic dignity, social, cultural, relational and religious dimension to be reduced exclusively to a body to be detained and confined", will continue to occur.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Santoro, G. (2021). Moussa Balde: A Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/06/moussa-balde [date]

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