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Victoria Canning, Author provided

Occupying Turin: refugees breathe life into abandoned buildings of Olympic village, but authorities want them out

Arriving at the Olympic Village in Turin, the stage for the 2006 Winter Olympics, it is easy to guess which buildings have been maintained as student houses and youth hostels, and now house refugees. The peeling blue and grey paint is visible evidence of Olympic enthusiasm turned to detachment.

Since 2013, four of the seemingly unkempt towers which stretch across this side of the city have been occupied by up to 1,400 people from around 30 countries.

Italy faced the sharp end of the 2008 global financial crisis. As a result, welfare was stunted and unemployment in some regions has surged. So it is, perhaps, understandable that there are limited financial resources to provide support for new arrivals. But concerns about Italy’s response to refugees extend beyond the financial. In the face of rising numbers of migrants, Italy has struggled to maintain humane conditions for these people.

Indeed, at the end of 2015, Médecins sans Frontières announced that it would cease work in migrant reception centres in Pozzallo, Sicily and the southern province of Ragusa, as a protest against the authorities’ failure to improve conditions. Centres are often overcrowded, unsanitary and provide little legal advice or options for activities.

In other areas of Italy, EU efforts to reduce migrant intakes include increasing deportations from so-called “hotspots”, and in some cases, riot police have been dispatched to deal with xenophobic violence against refugees, who are blamed for crime.

One of the occupied buildings. Author provided.

The occupation of Turin’s Olympic Village is not exempt from such problems: since January 2015, authorities have been trying to evict refugees – a case which remains at court. An informal border surrounds the four buildings; police maintain watch from 8am to 8pm, and the marines patrol the area four times a day.

But this is more like a sideways glance than heavy surveillance; especially compared with the scrutiny faced by migrants in other European countries including Britain and Greece.

Peaceful coexistence

But despite the legal challenges to the occupation in Turin, and moments of spontaneous unrest, there seems a mutual tolerance between the police and local government, the students and hostellers, and the refugees. Broadly speaking, these neighbours coexist peacefully. Problems that arise between refugees and local residents of each building are discussed and resolved in meetings held every month.

Unlike the Afghani, Syrian, Pakistani, Kurdish and Iraqi refugees arriving in Greece, most of those in Turin have fled North and Sub-Saharan Africa. This reflects Italy’s own geographical position, sandwiched between Northern Europe and North African countries such as Libya, the target of NATO airstrikes in 2011.

The people who we spoke to were from Chad, Algeria, Libya and South Sudan: countries caught in revolution or at war. Most have made their way to Turin through the Central Mediterranean route, from Tunisia or Libya to southern Italy. More than 100 lives have been lost on the route this year alone.

Yet within the four damp-ridden buildings of Turin’s Olympic Village, refugees have managed to develop two small shops selling African and Italian foods, a pop-up barbershop complete with multiple mirrors and music, a Senegalese restaurant, and perhaps most impressively “La Scuola” (the school): a classroom stocked with books, a chalkboard and mismatched tables and chairs.

La scuola. Author provided.

People come here to socialise and learn Italian – a pastime that refugees teasingly suggest we might want to take up ourselves, as we struggle through conversations with pigeon phrases.

Tolerance, acceptance and rights

As migrant rights researchers and activists based in Britain and Greece, it doesn’t escape our attention that this kind of autonomy would not necessarily be possible for refugees elsewhere. As the EU begins to deport migrants from its shores under a new deal with Turkey, Greece continues to bear the greatest responsibility for those who arrive in Europe seeking a new life. As a result, the number and size of refugee camps across Lesvos, and the occupation of public spaces and abandoned buildings in Athens, are on the rise – as is the policing of such spaces.

The occupation of public buildings is formally illegal under Greek Law. These “illegal” settlements are tolerated by authorities to some extent; it serves their purpose to conceal the state’s stunted response behind the vital support offered by local and international activists who work there.

But the new plans, following the agreement of the EU-Turkey deal, include that all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands from March 20, 2016 will be returned to Turkey as well as the evacuation of all camps on the Greek islands, something that demonstrates how quickly the state can become intolerant of such initiatives.

Indeed, a similar phenomenon can be observed in “the Jungle” of Calais – an informal camp for migrants and refugees. The area has been allowed to grow and then partially demolished several times over the course of the last decade, much to the distress of those who are living there.

And British laws against squatting are even more restrictive. Refugees’ occupation of state-owned territory would be a short story in Britain, more likely to end with a prison sentence, deportation – or both – than a school and a hair salon.

A mutual tolerance of shared spaces has made it possible for refugees in Turin’s Olympic village to find some modicum of stability in their daily lives. It is by no means ideal; tolerance is not acceptance, nor does it guarantee support or the observance of human rights. But in the face of increasingly restrictive border controls, the growing hostility of the European public and the continual erosion of refugee rights, it’s astounding to witness what the residents of Turin’s Olympic village have accomplished.

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