The Hotel Belvedere is on a hillside a kilometre or so south of the Sicilian town of Corleone. The north-facing rooms have expansive views of the town below and the valley below that. The Belvedere shut its doors to tourists in late 2013 after a couple of decades of business; one of its last reviews on TripAdvisor described it as ‘totally empty’, with a ‘stale’ continental breakfast and ‘towels thin enough to read through’. A few months later, the hotel’s fortunes changed. Reopened in 2014 under new management – a co-operative that also runs care homes in Sicily – the hotel became an ‘extraordinary reception centre’ for migrants, one of about 3000 in Italy.
About 65 men, mostly from Gambia, Nigeria, Mali, Ivory Coast, Bangladesh and Tunisia, occupy the Belvedere’s twenty-odd rooms, waiting anything from a few months to several years for an asylum decision. The Italian state, with the help of EU funds, pays the co-operative €30 to €35 per person per day to run the centre, which adds up to about €15,000 a week.
Last week, some of the men living in the centre in Corleone wrote an open letter to the local authority asking for an improvement in living conditions and for the asylum process to be sped up. M., from West Africa, who contributed to the letter, told me about the conditions in the hotel where he’s lived for half a year. ‘There is only water sometimes. They turn on the water two times a day, in the morning and evening for two hours. There’s no hot water.’ The men boil water on an outside gas stove when they want to wash. ‘There’s no heating either,’ M. said. He has a woollen blanket he bought in Palermo. Some of the men buy electric heaters but others can’t afford them. ‘It gets very cold at night.’ Hot food is served three times a day but many of the men refuse to eat it. ‘They said there was no pork in the food,’ M. told me, ‘but we found pork.’ Instead people cook food they’ve bought themselves on the gas stove outside.
‘But the big problem,’ M. said, ‘is waiting for documents. In the week, there are some Italians who work here giving out the food, if you ask them something about your documents they don’t respond or sometimes they get angry and threaten you. They say: if you ask, you won’t get them.’
Even with liberal estimates of the centre’s outgoings – water, electricity, food, staff costs, €2.50 a day ‘pocket money’ paid to the migrants – it would seem the co-operative is making a tidy profit. The centre is taking €100 per room per day (the same price as a hotel in town) at full occupancy all year round, and the mains water is switched on only part of the time.
Judith Gleitze from Borderline Sicily, a monitoring group working on the island, said that ‘there’s no oversight on how the money is spent, or the conditions in the centres.’ The local prefectures give out the contracts to run the centres, but do not inspect them, according to Borderline. There’s a lack of transparency too; the names of the businesses running the centres are not published by the prefecture. ‘Some of the business running the centres are making a great deal of money out of the migrants living there,’ Borderline says. ‘The substandard conditions at the centre in Corleone are a common occurrence – there are in fact far, far worse centres across the island.’
The extraordinary reception centres were set up by the Berlusconi government in 2011 in response to the large numbers of people coming to Italy from North Africa during the Arab Spring. The centres, intended as a temporary measure, were often set up in inappropriate buildings: gyms, army barracks, stadiums, nightclubs. More recently, however, old hotels, often in isolated spots in the countryside, have been used, much to the rancour of the right-wing Italian press. ‘Luxury hotels, villas and swimming pools: the good life for illegal immigrants in Italy,’ Il Populista, the mouthpiece of the anti-immigration Lega Nord, complained in August, with an old photo of the Belvedere’s swimming pool (it’s now empty). ‘Migrants refuse 3-star hotel’ Palermo Today reported in 2015, when a dozen Nigerians wouldn’t move into the Belvedere, protesting that it was too isolated.
M. pointed out of his bedroom window to a distant hill: ‘There I work as a shepherd in the summer. I move sheep around those hills for fifteen days, sleeping outside. It’s hard work and I never did it at home. I make €20 a day when I do it.’ The dramatic view from M.’s window stretches almost to the coast. It gave the hotel its name and the tourists who used to stay there must have appreciated it. But for the new residents it's mostly a reminder of how isolated they are. The bus to Palermo costs €8.50 return, a significant sum for the men living here. Often, they’ll club together and pay for one of them to travel to the city to buy food and other items. ‘Whoever is brought to these centres directly from the port,’ their letter says, ‘thinks that Sicily is made up only of forests, that’s how remote these centres are … We are young and want to continue to live our lives, not waste them away waiting here.’