In the shadows of Europe's southern shores, where the spotlight often dims on the human plight of arrivals, lies a harrowing reality obscured by bureaucracy and indifference. On a chilling Saturday night, a young boy ended his life within the confines of Italy’s Pre-Removal Detention Center, Ponte Galeria, just outside Rome. Ousmane Sylla, barely 22, etched his final thoughts with the ash of a cigarette, drawing his own face as a prove of existence, yearning for a homeland and a mother's embrace. His story, from a lone minor's arrival six years prior to the haunting echo of suicide, epitomises a system fraught with institutionalised brutality and despair. As his final words fade against the cell's cold walls of a European detention center, his story illuminates the dark truth of a migrant's existence – a narrative of neglect, confinement, and ultimately, a plea for humanity in the face of bureaucratic callousness.

The spectacularisation of arrivals of boats loaded with humans on the southern coasts of Europe do not go hand in hand with the visibility of the conditions and the experiences that mark their lives after the landings. Little consideration continues to be shown to the various forms of institutionalised violence that undocumented women and men suffer in the contexts of arrival, precisely in the places where they seek protection. 

Last Saturday night, February 3rd, a young man committed suicide in a Pre-Removal Detention Center (CPR) in Italy. Ousmane Sylla, almost 22 years old, took his own life hanging himself in the CPR of Ponte Galeria, on the outskirts of Rome.

“The Italian military doesn’t understand anything except money. I miss Africa a lot and my mother too, she doesn't have to cry for me. Peace to my soul, may I rest in peace”, he wrote with the remains of a cigarette on a wall of the cell.

After landing in Italy alone as minor six years ago and moving between different Reception Centers in these years, Ousmane received an expulsion decree in October 2023 and was locked up in the CPR of Trapani, in Sicily, but when a fire broke out in the facility on January 22nd he was transferred to Rome. 

Under the old laws, Ousmane could have left the CPR on January 13, but the Piantedosi Decree, launched by the far-right government last May, extended detention before repatriation for up to 18 months. 

The CPRs, introduced in 1998 and managed by private companies, are administrative detention centers where migrants subject to an expulsion order are held waiting to be repatriated, but the numbers of repatriations remain very low, at around 23-25%.

“Ousmane was sad, he wanted to return to Africa. He felt homesick and cried often”, the operators of the facility state. Other testimonies recall his desire to hug his two younger brothers again. The boy continually repeated that he wanted to return to Guinea, also according to the psychologists who met him, but the lack of an agreement between Italy and the country of origin meant that his repatriation was in fact impossible, and therefore his prolonged detention particularly useless. 

The Prosecutor’s Office is now investigating for incitement to suicide, but the case of Ousmane Sylla is unfortunately far from being isolated.

At least 14 people have committed suicide inside these facilities in the last 5 years, including one woman.

There are 10 CPR all over Italy, among them one has a women section (the CPR of Ponte Galeria) and two are currently under judicial investigations due to their inhuman conditions (the CPR of via Corelli in Milan and the one of Palazzo San Gervasio).

Migrants can be detained in these facilities for several reasons, for instance not having the necessary travel documents, for identification and screening purposes, or as a prelude to deportation, but not for committing a crime. Despite this, most examples of immigration detention resemble incarceration on penal grounds, with far less procedural protection compared with that little available in the criminal justice system. 

Violations of basic rights have been documented in all CPRs, despite the restricted access for civil society organisations. Testimonies recount sleeping rooms measuring 20-24 m2 for up to 7 detainees, spoiled and expired food, toilets and showers without doors, lack of healthcare even in serious conditions, moldy mattresses without sheets, broken heating, cockroaches, lack of recreational spaces, drugs systematically administered with the aim of keeping them sedated and severe beatings from the police officers.

Many fell ill, as diseases spread easily for the overcrowdings and the disregard each inmate breathes. Alongside the physical and material violence, there are just as many indirect forms of domination, proper of the inherent violence of the current European migratory system: the subtle forms of coercion that sustain relationships of domination and exploitation. “Do you think these animals deserve a medical examination? They have to go back to the jungle”, said a doctor in the Milan’s CPR to an operator accompanying an inmate to the clinic.

Several organisations have reported the precise costs of these facilities, showing how much they are expensive for taxpayers and ineffective, apart from being inhumane, but still the Meloni government recently proposed to extend such detention facilities and build one CPR in each region of Italy. 

The reason behind their existence, indeed, is not the repatriation system, rather the political message they send: the criminalisation of the migrant only for their choice of migrating.

CPRs are inhuman places characterised by institutional violence and a structural state of exception. The message they convey is that migrants, especially from certain nationalities (as more than half come from Tunisia, followed by Egypt and Morocco), are undesired, inferior, therefore what happens to them is unimportant. Essentially, CPRs are places of internment and relegation to sideline people considered to be intruders, only for lacking valid permits, rendering them illegal and ultimately undeserving of dignity.

The humiliating and alienating conditions in which migrants are detained, without even the small but significant possibility to access the button to switch on or off the lights, usually lead to acts of self-harm, riots, and disorder. Suicide too is, at times, an extreme act of self-determination, to remind one’s own willpower and escape a de facto non-existence. 

A revolt broke out in the CPR of Rome immediately after Ousmane’s suicide, 14 men were arrested and transferred to prison. Now, with the Piantedosi Decree, they risk up to 6 years.

As we at the Euro-Med Monitor claimed at a session organised by the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances that the current EU migratory architecture in all its dimensions fundamentally relies on the dehumanising border governance tactics in order to reduce and discourage arrivals from the Global South, with little consideration for fundamental rights.

Migrants are subjected to a variety of tools designed to put them at risk. From the authorities’ abdication of responsibilityfor saving lives at sea, as occurred in Greek waters on 14 June 2023 when the Adriana capsised leading to the death of more than 600 people, and the systematic abuses in third-states with which the EU or individual Member States have agreements, to administrative detention in secret off-record facilities or repatriation centers. 

The growing disappearance of migrants on their way to or inside the EU is a form of racialised state violence, as most EU States choose not to prevent migrants’ deaths. The recent suicide of Ousmane Sylla is one of these: a murder of state.