In Italy, the first ‘hotspot’ for screening migrants and asylum seekers opened last September on the island of Lampedusa. Seven months later, critics say the system is excluding migrants from official reception systems and encouraging them to disappear into the informal economy.
In a small square in the Sicilian town of Caltanissetta, a group of 14 Nigerian men dressed in identical dark blue tracksuits and flip flops are passing around a mobile phone and desperately trying to call home to let their relatives know they are alive, but destitute.
They were rescued from the Mediterranean by the Italian coastguard less than 48 hours ago.
“New clothes and shoes: this is all they gave us before leaving us,” says Chucks Elioku, 26.
“We haven’t eaten since we got here. We slept outside, on the floor,” says another of the men, who declines to give his name. Lying on a bench, one of them whispers that he is suffering from malaria and typhoid: “I am sick… my entire body feels cold… Why did we not receive any assistance?”
“They rescued us to abandon us.”
“They rescued us to abandon us,” says another.
After disembarking from the coastguard vessel on Lampedusa, the men were taken to a ‘hotspot’ that opened on the Italian island in late 2015. There, they were fingerprinted and asked a handful of questions about their nationality and reasons for coming to Europe. Activists and NGOs have reported that new arrivals are routinely given multiple-choice questionnaires that give them limited options for answering that question, including: to work; to be reunited with family members; or to claim asylum.
Elioku and the 13 other Nigerian men said they had come to work and were rapidly deemed to be economic migrants, as were more than 3,000 of the 5,254 migrants who entered Italy in the first six weeks of the year (nearly 20,000 migrants and asylum seekers have now arrived in Italy but up-to-date figures for how many have been classified as economic migrants are not available).
The men were all issued with a deferred refusal of entry order, which gives them seven days to leave Italy by their own means from Rome’s international airport, hundreds of kilometres away, across the Mediterranean. They were then transported by boat to the town of Agrigento on Sicily’s southwest coast and left there to fend for themselves. They boarded a train without tickets in an effort to head north, but the conductor ordered them off at the next station: Caltanissetta.
This is how they ended up in the middle of Sicily with only a few more days to remain in the country legally before they join the ranks of Italy’s “clandestini” (undocumented migrants).
A means of exclusion
The European Union began implementing the hotspot system last September, first in Italy and then on the Greek islands, with the aim of distinguishing between asylum seekers and economic migrants at key points of arrival. The more rigorous approach to screening and fingerprinting new arrivals was framed as essential to the success of a relocation scheme that was supposed to distribute 160,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece to other member states over two years. In practice, relocation has been moving at a glacial pace and migrant rights groups and NGOs argue that Italy’s four functioning hotspots – in Taranto, Trapani, Pozzallo and Lampedusa – are being used primarily to ensure that those identified as economic migrants are quickly excluded from the reception system and any possibility of applying for asylum.
Italy lacks the capacity or the necessary readmission agreements with countries of origin to detain and return large numbers of economic migrants, as was envisioned by the EU when it came up with the approach. Instead, migrants are instructed to return themselves, but given no means to do so.
Fulvio Vassalo Paleologo, a lawyer and academic who runs a legal clinic at the University of Palermo, says that he and his students are providing free legal assistance to around 80 migrants who are appealing against the refusal of entry orders. Among them is Bach, a Gambian in his early twenties, who we meet on the premises of the Arci Porco Rosso association, one of the local NGOs trying to help the stranded migrants.
“I arrived on the island of Lampedusa on 20 October. When they asked us why we came here, we were afraid, still terrified by the sea and nobody wanted to answer,” Bach recalls. “We met UNHCR (the UN refugee agency) but we couldn’t apply for asylum.”
Other migrants issued with refusal of entry orders recount similar stories: that while UNHCR officials gave them information about applying for asylum, their pre-identification as economic migrants by Frontex and police officers prevented them from lodging claims.
“The hotspot system has been implemented in a hurry,” says Paleologo. “There is no defined legal basis. At the national level, every country gives some orders to their police force, while asylum rights are constitutionally guaranteed at the international level. We should react with schemes based on laws, not on orders given to the police.”
The system doesn’t work
Paleologo points out that the hotspot system has not even worked to the advantage of the minority of arrivals to Italy who are considered eligible for asylum. Only 530 asylum seekers have been relocated from Italy to other member states, according to the latest figures from the European Commission.
He notes that some asylum seekers, mostly Eritreans, have been detained at the hotspot on Lampedusa for weeks after refusing to give their fingerprints. Unwilling to wait months to be sent to a country not of their choice, they want to continue their journeys to northern European states where most have relatives.
“Relocation doesn’t work [and] nor do the expulsions,” Paleologo adds. “To do mass returns means investing hundreds of millions of euros and nobody knows today who in the EU is ready to spend that.”
While Bach and others await final decisions on their appeals, they are entirely dependent for their needs on local groups like Arci Porco Rosso, which runs an informal day centre where migrants can meet up and make use of a free WiFi connection. A few minutes’ walk away, another association offers free Italian classes for two hours a day.
In Palermo, migrants are being hosted by a religious community called Hope and Charity that used to provide shelter mainly to homeless people. The charity’s three centres near the railway station have now reached their capacity of 1,000 people. “Every one has to take responsibility and welcome them,” says Brother Biagio Conte, the leader of the community, who worries that the situation is getting worse by the day.
In the first three months of the year, migrant arrivals to Italy increased by around 80 percent compared to the same period in 2015. One outcome of border closures in the Balkans and deportations from Greece to Turkey could be that even more migrants and refugees will use the Central Mediterranean route between Libya and Italy to reach Europe.
Erasmo Palazzotto, member of parliament and deputy leader of the left-wing party “Sinistra, ecologia e liberta” (Left, ecology and liberty), says there are limits to what local residents and civil society groups can do “to compensate for the failures of the government and the reception system.”
“They give clothes [and] basic necessities, but if nothing is done, the next months are going to be catastrophic, and we are afraid that we’re going to face a humanitarian emergency as never before,” he told IRIN.
Palazzotto was recently charged with investigating the implementation of the hotspot system for a parliamentary commission. His conclusions are clear: the new system is encouraging migrants to go underground. “If we look at the figures from last year, at how many migrants arrived in Sicily and where they were from, between 30,000 and 40,000 persons could be deemed economic migrants with the new hotspot system and then disappear. Even if we all opened our homes, it would never be enough.”
Plans to open a fifth hotspot in Porto Empedocle are due to go ahead in the next few weeks, while discussions about where a sixth and final hotspot will be located are ongoing.
*Debarge interviewed migrants in Sicily between October 2015 and March 2016