Law & politics

Remembering the refugee crisis

Alessio D'Angelo Middlesex UniversityTwelve months on from one of the deadliest shipwrecks in modern times, MA Migration, Society and Policy Programme Leader Dr Alessio D’Angelo says we need to re-think the role memory should play when dealing with the ‘refugee crisis’.

Almost exactly a year ago, on the night of 18/19 April 2015, over 800 migrants died in the Mediterranean’s worst shipwreck of modern times. An Egyptian-flagged boat was travelling between the north of Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa when it launched a distress call. Tragically, the boat capsized after colliding with the Portuguese merchant ship which had come to its rescue. Many of the people on board, mainly African and Bangladeshi migrants, and including young children, were locked in the hull. Only 28 young men survived and just 58 bodies were recovered – all the others are still technically ‘missing’, most unnamed. Operations to recover and try to identify them will start only this month, as recently confirmed by the Italian government.

As the anniversary of the disaster approaches, it is important to remember the people who lost their lives that night, and with them all the others who died and went missing at sea over recent weeks, months and years trying to reach Europe.

Migrants arriving on the island of lampedusa - Photo by Sara Prestianni/Noborder Network (Creative Commons 2.0)
Migrants arriving on the island of Lampedusa – Photo by Sara Prestianni/Noborder Network (Creative Commons 2.0)

Never again

With international migration constantly in the news, a call to remember it may appear paradoxical. However, by looking at the way in which the ‘refugee crisis’ is handled by European governments, it is clear that what happened in the past has had very little impact on the decisions made in the present. Indeed, as far as deaths at sea are concerned, the expression ‘never again’ seems to have lost its meaning.

In October 2013, another shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa caused the death of over 360 people, mainly migrants from Eritrea, Somalia and Ghana (155 were rescued in an operation led by the Italian coastguard). The event caused outrage throughout Europe. Cecilia Malmström, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, said: “Let’s make sure that what happened in Lampedusa will be a wake-up call to increase solidarity and mutual support and to prevent similar tragedies in the future.” In other words: ‘never again’.

Hundreds of individual deaths every month are quickly forgotten

Soon afterwards, the Italian authorities launched the search and rescue operation Mare Nostrum. It ended after about a year, with Italy unwilling to bear all the ‘burden’ of the rescues any more and with other European states unwilling to contribute. The British government, in particular, argued that search and rescue acted as “a pull factor for illegal migration”. Eventually, Mare Nostrum was replaced by the FRONTEX-led operation Triton; much narrower in scope and with a stronger focus on policing and border control than its predecessor.

The number of deaths at sea has continued to grow (a detailed record of this grim toll is available through the IOM’s Missing Migrants project). However, because the mainstream narrative of the refugee crisis lives in an eternal present, hundreds of individual deaths every month are quickly forgotten. It takes a large-scale disaster, many deaths ‘today’, to generate new outrage and a new step-change.

59 migrants are rescued by the crew of Peter Henry von Koss as part of Frontex's Operation Poseidon - Photo by Kripos_NCIS (Creative Commons 2.0)
59 migrants are rescued by the crew of Peter Henry von Koss as part of Frontex’s Operation Poseidon – Photo by Kripos_NCIS (Creative Commons 2.0)

Turning the screw

Indeed, by the time the tragedy of April 2015 occurred, even David Cameron had to admit that the idea of scaling down search and rescue operations “hasn’t worked”. Angela Merkel, for her part, declared that “images of drowned people are incompatible with the values of the European Union” – a very telling, if unintentional, choice of words. The EU cannot cope with the images: with the visual representation of deaths at sea; with the resonance of large scale tragedies happening too close to its own shores and for which Europe can be blamed directly. Trying to close the borders and ensuring that the tragedy is made less visible, externalised or outsourced (most recently, to Turkey) is the leitmotiv of the European approach to the refugee crisis.

This is indeed the way in which the EU institutions responded to the April 2015 shipwreck: an emergency summit led the way to the new European Agenda on Migration (13 May 2015). The document aimed to identify a new set of strategic actions “that look beyond crises and emergencies and help EU Member States to better manage all aspects of migration”. In reality, most of the Agenda was clearly focusing on the here and now. Presented as an urgent and ground-breaking action to prevent further “human tragedies”, the agenda increased the funding to Frontex to prevent ‘illegal entries’ and introduced the new idea of the ‘hotspot approach’ “to swiftly identify, register and fingerprint arriving migrants”. Once again, the memory of what caused the crisis appears completely lost in the nature and objectives of the political interventions. The largest post-war humanitarian crisis in Europe is treated as a matter of security.

It is a vicious circle that can be broken only by giving a new role to the memories of the refugee crisis.

Whether what we are witnessing is a constant cycle of tragic memory losses or a conscious mechanism in which every new short-term humanitarian outrage is used to justify a further turn of the screw is hard to say. What is clear is that actions are put in place without learning from the past and – consequently – with no sense of future. We are witnessing this right now on both sides of the Mediterranean: in Italy, where the ‘hotspot approach’ – as discussed in an earlier blog – continues to produce illegality without considering its short and long-term effects; in Greece, where the deal with Turkey, announced as a turning-point, has very soon shown itself to be hard to implement, inhumane and very likely illegal. It is a vicious circle that can be broken only by giving a new role to the memory and memories of the ‘refugee crisis’.

Photo by Jordi Bernabeu Farrús (Creative Commons 2.0)
An Italian navy ship arrives at the port of Pozzallo, Sicily – Photo by Jordi Bernabeu Farrús (Creative Commons 2.0)

Untold stories

A few weeks ago – during one of the interviews undertaken for our research project EVI-MED – a local Italian activist shared with me several dramatic stories of migrants who risked their lives trying to reach the shores of Sicily. The story of the young man who lost track of his family members when disembarking from a ship and spent weeks trying to make contact again. The stories of the young migrants who were not recognised as minors and were therefore denied support by the Italian authorities. The story of the father who was not allowed to remain with his wife and child because – after fleeing a war and crossing the Mediterranean – could not produce a marriage certificate. The stories of the women who were victims of violence countless times during their journey. “One of the tragedies within these tragedies – observed my interviewee – is that many of these stories are getting lost, ignored or unrecorded. We must ensure that somebody works to keep their memory.”

The challenge of ensuring that the stories and voices of migrants and refugees are effectively remembered is all ahead of us.

Remembering the refugee crisis should mean remembering the individual and collective stories of those who have been crossing the Mediterranean over the years. It should mean looking at the present through this lens and with an historical perspective, considering the root causes of the crisis, looking into the grievous mistakes which have been made and learning from them to completely rethink local, national and European approaches. Over the last few months my colleagues and I have met many of the activists, NGOs, researchers and journalists who are working painstakingly in Italy, Greece, Malta, Hungary and across the rest of Europe trying to contribute to this process. The challenge of ensuring that the stories and voices of migrants and refugees are effectively remembered, becomes part of the mainstream narrative and inform the decisions made by European leaders is, however, all ahead of us.

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’.

Law & politics

Italy’s ‘illegality factory’

Alessio D'Angelo Middlesex UniversityMA Migration, Society and Policy Programme Leader Dr Alessio D’Angelo is a member of the Middlesex team working on ‘EVI-MED – Constructing an Evidence Base of Mediterranean Migrations’, an ESRC-DFID project. In his latest blog post, he argues that the Italian ‘hotspot’ approach to the migrant crisis may soon backfire.

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.

Photo by Jordi Bernabeu Farrús (Creative Commons 2.0)
An Italian navy ship arrives at the port of Pozzallo, Sicily – Photo by Jordi Bernabeu Farrús (Creative Commons 2.0)












A complex classification

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.

From migrants to ‘clandestini’

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.”

Photo by Neil Weightman (Creative Commons 2.0)
Migrants are allegedly being left in the Sicilian countryside to fend for themselves – Photo by Neil Weightman (Creative Commons 2.0)

A surreal mechanism

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.

The ‘illegality factory’

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.

Law & politics

Italy’s migrant crisis – the hotspot approach

Alessio D'Angelo Middlesex UniversityMA Migration, Society and Policy Programme Leader Dr Alessio D’Angelo is a member of the Middlesex team working on ‘EVI-MED – Constructing an Evidence Base of Mediterranean Migrations’, an ESRC-DFID project. In his latest blog post, he reports from Sicily where the ‘hotspot approach’ has dramatically altered the landscape of Italy’s migrant crisis.

Over the last few months the so-called migrant crisis in the Mediterranean has been described in terms of ‘chaos’. These or related terms have been used with particular regard to the situation in Greece, which – according to the official statistics – saw nearly one million sea arrivals between January 2015 and January 2016. The ‘chaos’, however, is not in the numbers.

Reception crisis

This is, on the one hand, a crisis of international and European politics – the diplomatic stand-offs of the last few days show it quite clearly – and on the other, it is a reception crisis. As anybody who has been in the field would confirm, describing the reception system in Greece as under-resourced and disorganised is an understatement.

Shall we then hope that efficient and effective reception systems are implemented as soon as possible across the Mediterranean? It depends on how one defines effectiveness, of course. Certainly my visits to Sicily over the last few months have made me increasingly careful about what I wish for.

Since September last year the island – the main point of arrival for migrants and refugees in Italy – has seen the relatively rapid implementation of the so-called ‘hotspot approach’. Initially identified as a way forward in the European Commission’s ‘Agenda on Migration‘ (May 2015), this approach is at the centre of the ‘Roadmap Italiana’ recently produced by the Italian Ministry of Interior. The first Italian hotspot was opened in the little island of Lampedusa on 21 September 2015, followed by Trapani (20 December 2016) and Pozzallo (19 January 2016), and more are planned for the coming months (see Fig. 1). In the main these are not new facilities, but a rebranding of existing reception centres, following some minor refurbishment, and with a much bigger role played by European agencies such as Frontex and EASO.

Italian hotspots
Fig. 1 – ‘Hotspots’ in Italy (existing hotspots are marked red; planned hotspots are marked green)

The hotspot approach

So what is a hotspot? The official documents do not provide a very detailed description, but the general idea is to create designated ‘areas of disembarkation’ were migrants are screened, identified, and fingerprinted (against their will, if necessary). “Those claiming asylum” – explains an EU factsheet – are “immediately channelled into an asylum procedure”, while “those who are not in need of protection” are returned to the countries of origin. The devil is in the detail, and several human rights associations have been denouncing the hasty methods used to separate ‘real’ asylum seekers from those who are ‘just’ economic migrants.

One of the main tools used in the Italian hotspots is the foglio notizie (information sheet). It is a very short questionnaire, collecting some general personal details and, crucially, asking migrants what is the reason of their arrival. The questionnaire provides a number of tick boxes – family reunion, work and asylum are some of the options available, though different versions are used in different centres and, it appears, at different times. If, for any reason, you tick ‘work’ among your options, you are automatically classified as an economic migrant.

People do not fully understand why they are completing the questionnaire

“It is ridiculous,” explained one of the local activists I met earlier this month. “Several of these people do not even fully understand why they are completing the questionnaire and proper interpreting is not always available. We know of many refugees who select ‘work’ because they want to show their willingness to integrate economically, and for that reason they are denied the right of asylum.”

Communication networks among migrants work very fast, so many new arrivals are now extremely wary about any piece of paper which is placed in front of them. However, the foglio notizie is only one of the selection instruments. Interviews also take place, though even most of the lawyers working in this field are unable to provide a clear account of how these work. Also in this case, different practices are implemented at different times and in different places.

‘Blatant violation’

At the end of the day, everybody knows what the main criteria used to distinguish ‘real’ asylum seekers from the economic migrants is: the country of origin. Those who come from countries considered safe – more precisely, those who are deemed to be from those countries – are automatically classified as economic migrants and receive a document notifying their respingimento (rejection). The problem is, there is not such thing as an official list of ‘safe countries’. Nonetheless, if you are from countries such as Nigeria, Sudan, Gambia, your chances of being rejected are extremely high. This affects a considerable part of those who get into the hotspots, since the vast majority of the 154,000 arrivals in Italy in 2015 were from sub-Saharan African countries and, unlike in Greece, only a few thousands were from Afghanistan or Syria (largely recognised as ‘proper’ refugee countries). This, as explained to me by Professor Fulvio Vassallo, from the University of Palermo, “is a blatant violation of the right of asylum as an individual right, as defined by the international conventions”.

So going back to the initial point, is this system effective? Again, it depends on how effectiveness is defined. It certainly serves many of the intended purposes.

The rapid adoption by the Italian authorities of the ‘hotspot approach’ followed months of tensions with their European partners and EU institutions around the inadequate implementation of the Dublin Convention, particularly with regard to fingerprinting. If before the hotspot approach many migrants were able to get through Sicily – and indeed Italy – without being fingerprinted, this has now become extremely difficult. At the same time, the arrivals of refugees have become increasingly less visible. The chaotic, mass arrivals of little boats on touristic beaches – among the defining images of Greece these days – are simply not happening in Sicily. True, the numbers are much lower, but the coordinated efforts of the Italian coastguard and Frontex now intercept virtually every boat well before they can see the Sicilian shores. Migrants are taken on board and, in most cases, moved straight to the hotspots.

59 migrants are rescued by the crew of Peter Henry von Koss as part of Frontex's Operation Poseidon - Photo by Kripos_NCIS (Creative Commons 2.0)
59 migrants are rescued by the crew of Peter Henry von Koss as part of Frontex’s Operation Poseidon – Photo by Kripos_NCIS (Creative Commons 2.0)

Politics first

Thanks to the implementation of the hotspots – and with the worsening of the Greek front – the Italian government is not seen any more as one of the weak links in the European migration system (at least for now). Indeed, the fact that the mechanisms of international resettling are not working at all, is allowing the Interior Minister, Angelino Alfano, to blame the rest of Europe for not being able to stick to the plan. An interesting, though pointless, turning of tables.

As pointed out by the activists of the Italian NGO Borderline Sicilia, the ‘Roadmap Italiana’ has dramatically changed the reception system in Italy (and in many more ways that is possible to condense into this one blog entry). However, this was done without passing any new law. The complex Italian legislation around refugee reception has remained unchanged. “The Roadmap is a political agreement between the Italian Government and Europe which has bypassed and superseded the law”. It is a political agreement aiming first of all to resolve political problems. The human dimension of the migration crisis is secondary; human rights are simply collateral. In this respect, it is quite effective.

More details about the implementation of the hotspot approach, the management of refugee arrivals across the Mediterranean and other emerging findings from EVI-MED will follow in the coming weeks.