The renewed arrivals of migrant boats in Lampedusa this month caused considerable agitation in Italy. Former Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni made clear that collective expulsions at sea – a common practice during his term of office – were the solution to this ‘invasion’. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) would disagree: it condemned Italy earlier this year for having violated migrants’ human rights when conducting expulsions at sea. Roberto Maroni is not in power anymore, yet his willingness to openly call for the reintroduction of practices that have been deemed illegal as a response to a few hundred people arriving on Lampedusa is indicative of a deeper crisis in Italy: the country’s unwillingness to respect the human rights and dignity of those arriving from abroad. This unwillingness is evidenced in the ongoing legacy of controversial pushback agreements, and in the reception conditions for asylum seekers which remain critically flawed.
Italy has declared migration emergencies almost every year for the past 10 years. A key consequence of this is that migrants’ human rights have been side lined by the focus on temporary remedies instead of long-term solutions. Far from unforeseeable emergency situations, these influxes are predictable consequences of a lack of legal entry routes for those forced to flee.
The response to the arrival of around 50,000 people last year in the wake of the Arab Spring, was the hasty declaration of a ‘state of emergency’. The ‘emergency’ was initially declared on February 12th 2011 until the end of the year in response to an influx of 5,000 Tunisian migrants fleeing political upheaval in Tunisia. It was renewed on October 6th 2011 to last until the end of 2012. It prompted the issuing of thousands of six-month ‘humanitarian’ temporary residence permits by ministerial decree and the subsequent ‘warehousing’ of thousands of people in reception centres. These emergency measures are far from real solutions. Worse still, they are coupled with other equally short-sighted solutions, primarily the aforementioned pushbacks of migrants on land and at sea.
While Roberto Maroni’s preferred expulsions at sea are not state policy anymore, recent evidence suggests that migrants are pushed back on a frequent basis without being given the opportunity to apply for asylum and accommodation. On a recent trip to Catania, Sicily I discovered that the reaction to a migrant boat arriving from Egypt to Catania on June 28th was the summary deportation of 53 North Africans during the night following their arrival. According to the Italian Refugee Council (CIR), there was evidence to suggest that some among them were Coptic Christians seeking to apply for asylum, yet they were denied this right. Two representatives from the CIR and a representative of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spent the day outside the building’s closely guarded gates waiting in vain for permission to talk to those arrived. In discussion with CIR staff, I learned that it was not an exception. The so-called ‘Praesidium’ consisting of the UNHCR, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the Red Cross and Save the Children is regularly denied access to boat arrivals in Sicily by Italian authorities, despite a formal partnership with the Ministry of the Interior.
Non Refoulement - the duty to not return refugees to situations where they might face threats to life or freedom - is the cornerstone of international refugee law: any case in which the Italian state fails to carefully examine claims to asylum before deportation to countries with at best mixed human rights records constitutes a grave violation of international law. It is therefore shocking that migrants in Catania were denied the right to apply for asylum. The Hirsi Jamaa and Others vs. Italy judgment of the ECHR in February this year condemned Italy for having pushed back migrants to Libya without giving them the opportunity to apply for asylum. Yet in spite of international criticism, these controversial push-back agreements have not been buried with the legacies of Berlusconi and Gaddafi, they have continued.
In April, at the initiative of new Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, a new Memorandum of Understanding on security was concluded between Italy and Libya. Although not all of its terms are known, it seems much like the previous Italian-Libyan agreement that facilitated the mass expulsion condemned by the ECHR. Amnesty International strongly criticises the lack of differentiation between migrants and asylum seekers in the agreements, and makes clear that “it can be ruled out that they can be applied in conformity with international standards of human rights.” Reinstated bilateral readmission agreements with Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are based on the flawed assumption that there are no reasons for which nationals of these countries might need to flee their regimes. They justify deportations without examining individual situations. While Egypt allows for the immediate repatriation of any national without a residence permit from Italy, Tunisia only permits the deportation of a few people per day. Both states, as well as Libya, cooperate willingly with Italy to curb irregular migration, including the control of their borders to stop would-be-migrants from departing.
Partly as a result of these policies, and also the relative diffusing of the political situation in the region, the first half of this year saw a huge drop in boat arrivals to Italian shores to around 3,500. Italy had roughly 50,000 arrivals in 2011, which can be attributed to the revolutions of the ‘Arab Spring’ - 23,890 people arrived from Libya and 24,854 from Tunisia. Most of those arriving (45%) were Tunisian nationals, followed by Nigerians and people from the Horn of Africa who had often been living and working in Libya until the war broke out.
Yet the deep-seated structural crisis which refugees and asylum seekers face in Italy cannot simply be explained by the number of arrivals. With the exception of 2011, numbers have been dropping steadily in the last few years, and the number of asylum applications are still significantly lower than in many other European countries including Germany, France, Belgium or Sweden. Italy is capable of treating arriving migrants with respect and dignity, however reception conditions remain the subject of fierce criticism at the domestic and international level.
It is still the case that migrants who are not stopped en route or immediately deported risk detention in a C.I.E. (Centre for Identification and Expulsion). Initially created to detain foreigners without a residence permit for up to 60 days in order to identify them and carry out their expulsion, this period was increased to 180 days in 2009. In August 2011, the maximum detention period was extended to a further 18 months under Berlusconi’s government, transposing the EU Returns Directive. Doctors for Human Rights note that the climate of tension and conflict within the centres has intensified in the last year, as indicated by a doubling of revolts and mass escapes. There are numerous reports about physical and psychological violence by guards and police agents, of poor sanitary and medical conditions, and of migrants self-harming and attempting to commit suicide. Subject to these conditions are not only recent arrivals, but also long-standing residents and heads of families in Italy, people known to be ‘undeportable’ for administrative reasons, and foreigners released from prison after having served a sentence.
At the end of up to 18 months of detention, only about half of the detainees are actually deported, and despite prolonged detention times, the C.I.E.’s ‘efficacy’ in terms of repatriation is continuously decreasing. Again, migrants’ rights and dignity are not being compromised for the sake of rendering an overwhelming situation more manageable; Italy is failing in the very basics of migration control and management. These changes have failed to bring ‘positive’ effects in terms of deportation rates, and yet have substantially aggravated the suffering of migrant detainees.
Many of those who apply for asylum in Italy also face hardship and difficulties, and often endure long waiting periods while their cases are decided, at times exceeding 12 months. About 1,800 are currently waiting in the ‘model’ reception centre at Mineo, which was opened in March 2011. Formerly a residence for US soldiers, the centre provides high-quality accommodation and has been referred to as a ‘five star prison'. Located 11 km away from the nearest village and 40 km away from the closest town, asylum seekers have nowhere to go to outside of the centre, which is surrounded by fields. One bus a day to the village of Mineo and 3,50€ daily living allowance do not permit for great excursions. The combination of months-long uncertainty about the future, the prohibition of working, the isolation, the lack of financial means and resulting condemnation to idleness is taking a heavy toll. Little more than three months after the centres’ opening, Doctors Without Borders had recorded 7 suicides attempts. Since then others have followed.
Mineo, where many asylum seekers are housed
Asylum seekers’ entitlement to accommodation and subsistence while his or her application is pending is written into Italian law, however due to a severe shortage of places in reception centres such as the one at Mineo, many end up sleeping in public parks, under bridges, or in abandoned buildings. Charitable organisations offer some relief, but their means are limited. In response to these degrading conditions, German courts have prevented or ruled against deporting asylum seekers back to Italy under the Dublin II procedure. According to EU law, the Member State an asylum seeker first sets foot on is usually responsible for examining their asylum application. The administrative court Stuttgart however ruled last month that “due to systemic shortcomings regarding the asylum procedure and reception conditions in Italy, asylum seekers risk being subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment if returned there.” It is not the first time such a judgement has been ruled. More than 40 courts have drawn similar conclusions in recent years, suggesting that Italy’s shortcomings are systemic rather than the result of a particular ‘emergency’ situation.
Even positive and humane responses to migrants at the community level have been hampered by inefficiencies in State policy. To deal with the 50,000 new arrivals, Italy allocated quotas of migrants to its regions in 2011 and made emergency funds available to provide for them. Due to bureaucratic hindrances, these funds were not paid out to the region of Calabria, which hosted some 35,000 migrants. The village of Riace, which has been praised internationally for the positive example it sets in terms of welcoming and integrating refugees into its community. After running up debts with local shop owners for one year, two mayors and an activist of Riace and neighbouring communities resorted to going on a hunger strike to demand the immediate payment of funds: the situation had become unbearable. After eight days, the assurance that funds up to 31 December 2011 would be paid out immediately convinced them to start eating again. To date, funds for 2012 have not yet arrived in the community, and the situation remains tense.
So what hope is there for migrants in Italy, and what, if anything, will the government learn from the most recent ‘emergency’? After visiting Italy last month, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks said: “The Italian government has been giving signs of a shift in policy, which suggests that there may be an opportunity to finally stop and reverse the erosion of human rights standards in the country. What Italy needs now is for these signs to be transformed into concrete, unambiguous policies and actions.” Italy has the chance to engage in foresighted, legislative action that moves towards long-term solutions, and towards renewed respect for migrants’ dignity and human rights. If the Italian government does not act when the emergency declared in February 2011 ends in December this year, thousands of people will find themselves without support and opportunities to integrate. Most of them will not be deported, and many will be unwilling to return to their countries of origin. They need real solutions to enable them to integrate, to work and to rebuild their lives. Recognizing this now and acting in a timely manner could prevent them joining the ranks of the many undocumented migrants who often face abuse and exploitation.