When visiting Rome a few days ago, the European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker praised Italy’s implementation of the hotspot approach as a model for other European countries on how to manage the current refugee crisis. As I argued before, the Italian ‘roadmap’ on migration has paid its political dividends at the expense of human rights and legality.
The practices within the so-called ‘hotspots’ have received wide condemnation among human rights activists: fingerprinting takes place, even with the use of force; people are kept for periods much longer than the Italian legislation would allow; and the living conditions go from poor to appalling. In December 2015, for example, the humanitarian health organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) decided to leave the centre of Pozzallo, in southern Sicily, because “undignified and inadequate reception conditions” made it impossible to care for their patients.
However shameful, it could be argued that this situation could be addressed by better resourcing and management of the existing centres. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg: the whole hotspot approach is engrained on practices that many deem illegal by both national and international standards.
The Italian system of migrants’ reception – as defined by the country’s laws and regulations – is complex. It involves a number of state and non-governmental actors and a multi-tier classification of centres, each one with a specific name or acronym. Regional variations, short-term changes of function, closures and re-openings are the norm, rather than the exception. Within this, the recently established hotspots are not mentioned in any law, but have simply been added to the picture as part of a political agreement between Italy and the EU.
In practice the ‘hotspots’ are only the entry point, used for an initial, quick screening. Those who are deemed ‘economic migrants’ should be expelled or taken to the CIE (Centres of Identification and Expulsion). ‘Genuine’ asylum seekers or those in need of humanitarian protection should be transferred to a Hub, CDA (Centri di Accoglienza – i.e. reception centres) or CARA (reception centres for refugees). These are, in theory, short-term arrangements before being moved to the SPRAR: the integrated system of reception and support run by third sector organisations in partnership with local authorities; a complex galaxy of hundreds of centres and projects scattered all over Italy and including some examples of best practice as well as much less inspirational ones. As a matter of fact, the number of people hosted in so-called ‘emergency structures’ (CAS – Centri di Accoglienza Straordinaria) are the majority, as indicated by the official data. Relocation to other European countries remains, to date, a dream reserved for only a handful of migrants.
Indeed, the whole system has been based on emergency approaches and temporary measures for a very long time. Asylum seekers are often kept in a limbo for several months, sometimes up to 18, before their applications start to be processed. Although centres such as the CARA are meant to be ‘open’, they can be miles away from any town or village, so migrants live totally isolated, with a lack of information, interpreting services or psychological support – as repeatedly reported by Italian NGOs such as Borderline Sicilia, ASGI and many others. In some cases, people simply give up and decide to leave the centres, bypassing the official system and trying to join friends or family somewhere else in Europe by their own means and off-the-radar. In this way, the destiny of these asylum seekers becomes not very different from those who have been identified as economic migrants.
Every now and then the gates of the CIE are ‘inexplicably’ left open
As discussed in a previous blog entry, the hotspots filter people largely on the basis of national and racial lines. Most black Africans – the vast majority of those entering Italy by sea these days – are seen as coming from ‘safe’ countries and thus, by definition, economic migrants. The widespread violations of human rights, persecutions and violent conflicts in many of the areas of origin do not seem to count.
Migrants from countries who have signed a bilateral agreement with Italy – for example Nigeria, Egypt, Morocco – can be taken straight to the CIE detention centres for the repatriation of ‘clandestini’ (irregulars). The idea is that local consuls should regularly visit the CIE and identify their citizens before the repatriation process can begin. This is much easier said than done; particularly since most migrants do not hold documents or, if they do, these are not necessarily accepted as genuine. It comes as no surprise that the complex and expensive process of repatriation involves only very small numbers of people each month.
What happens to the others? Some are left in the CIE for a very long time, after which, in some cases, they manage to ‘escape’. As reported by local activists: “Every now and then the gates of the CIE are ‘inexplicably’ left open. So migrants can run away undisturbed – thus freeing-up a few more places for the new arrivals.”
The majority of economic migrants, anyway, never go through the CIEs. Following their identification, most receive a letter (‘foglio di via’) notifying their ‘deferred expulsion’. The document, only written in Italian, demands that they leave the country, by their own means, in about six days. It is not clear how people who travelled for months across a continent, often with no knowledge of Italy or the Italian language, now left with little or no money, are expected to do this. The official line is that they should catch a train or coach from Sicily, head north to the capital Rome – specifically the international Ciampino Airport – and simply fly back home. It is a surreal proposition no one believes in. Italian news channels have caught police officers on camera admitting that virtually none of the migrants who receive these letters would ever contemplate going back to their country of origin. Interestingly, no one is even trying to enforce any of this.
What happens in practice is dramatic
What happens in practice, though, is equally dramatic. Up until very recently, migrants were left outside major train stations. The presence of these relatively large groups – which, in some cases, staged public protests – raised the negative attention of national media and local residents. So, over time, the police forces have started taking smaller groups to out-of-sight local stations. In other instances, as reported by many locals, migrants are put in a police van which wanders across the countryside, stopping every few miles to abandon small groups of people in the middle of the road – with no information on what to do and how to continue their journey.
It is difficult to know exactly what happens to these migrants, but anecdotal evidence indicates that most try to continue their journey through central and northern Italy and, after that, northern Europe. Many do this with the support of networks of smugglers, most of which are also migrants. Others, at least for some time, end up living on their wits in Sicilian towns or the countryside.
It is a well-known fact that Sicily’s agricultural sector is now able to survive only thanks to the large number of migrants employed in exploitative, largely illegal conditions (as reported for example, by Catholic organisation Caritas). Traditionally these migrants were third country nationals who entered legally on a short-term visa, but it appears many of those arriving more recently, smuggled through the sea, are now joining the ranks.
One may wonder what is the sense of such a complex, expensive and highly bureaucratic system which, in effect, does not manage to stop the flow of so-called ‘economic migrants’, but rather hinders them for a while, humiliates them and then releases them into the local territory, largely undocumented. But that is exactly it: the current implementation of the hotspot approach is not just rife with illegal practices, it is a large scale machinery that takes migrants – human beings – and turns them into ‘illegals’. The only meaningful purpose of the letters of ‘deferred expulsion’ seems to be that of certifying and notifying people’s illegality. No one is even really trying to send them back to their countries of origin. In effect, most are free to stay, provided they are first deprived of rights, including the rights to work, to welfare, to be visible.
A recent independent documentary (in Italian, but worth watching even if just for the images) describes the hotspots as an ‘illegality factory’ (‘fabbriche di clandestinità’). This term, however, could be easily applied to a large part of the current system of migration management. This ‘factory’, however, is producing human, social and legal externalities which may soon backfire. Italy may be seen as a model in Brussels right now, but for how long?
The ESRC-funded research project EVI-MED (‘Constructing and evidence base of contemporary Mediterranean migrations’) is being undertaken by Middlesex University working closely with NGOs and academic partners in Italy, Greece and Malta. In Sicily, the fieldwork is conducted with Borderline Sicilia.
Tags: asylum, discrimination, economic migrant, EU, Europe, European Commission, European Convention on Human Rights, government, human rights, immigration, Italy, law, legal, migrant crisis, migration, refugees, research, Sicily