Closed borders in the Balkans and the EU-Turkey deal have drastically reduced arrivals of migrants and refugees to Greece, but arrivals to Italy have continued at a similar rate to last year. The key difference is that fewer are able to move on to northern Europe, leaving Italy’s reception system buckling under the pressure and migrants paying the price.
So far this year more than 100,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. During recent summer months, as many as 10,000 migrants have disembarked from rescue vessels in a week.
After the chaos witnessed at the height of last year’s refugee “crisis”, the EU’s hotspot system, introduced late in 2015, was supposed to impose some order in the arrivals process. Above all, it was designed to rapidly weed out so-called economic migrants, who could be swiftly deported, from those with the right to remain and apply for international protection.
The new approach was also designed to facilitate the relocation of asylum seekers from the overwhelmed frontline states of Italy and Greece to other EU member states that had agreed to take in 160,000 people over two years.
But the relocation scheme has been an abject failure. By mid-July, only about 3,000 people had been relocated, and just 843 of them from Italy. In addition, many of those identified as economic migrants cannot easily be returned to their home countries due to the lack of readmission agreements.
At the behest of the EU, all new arrivals are now fingerprinted, meaning they can’t apply for asylum in another EU country without the risk of being returned to Italy under the Dublin Regulation.
This, combined with tighter border controls being implemented by Switzerland and France, means the number of asylum seekers in Italy’s reception system has doubled since last year, to 140,000.
An “impossible” situation
Yasha Maccanico, an Italian researcher for civil liberties monitoring organisation Statewatch, says Italy has been placed in an “impossible and unsustainable” position.
“Relocation was meant to be the justification for the hotspot system, but it simply has not happened,” he told IRIN. “And no matter what effort the state makes in providing adequate reception facilities, it will not be enough to match the numbers of migrants arriving.”
Under the hotspot approach, migrants are supposed to be identified and screened at ports by mobile teams or at one of four dedicated hotspot centres: two in Sicily, one on Lampedusa, and one on the mainland in Taranto.
In reality, fewer than half of the new arrivals are channelled through the hotspot centres and the majority of disembarkations happen at ports outside hotspot areas. The Italian interior ministry, under pressure from the European Commission, is in the process of setting up more mobile hotspot teams, but, until these are fully implemented, the majority of migrants are being taken to other facilities for processing.
“We know that currently at least 38 percent of all arrivals are going through those centres where the hotspot procedure is applied,” UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami told IRIN. “The rest are transferred to police stations for identification and to reception centres in other territories. In this case there is no presence of [outside] agencies.”
Although UNHCR provides basic information to almost all migrants and refugees arriving at Italy’s ports, only those processed in the hotspot centres receive the more in-depth information and support available from teams working inside the centres. “Those who are transferred to other centres can miss this further information,” Sami said.
“It’s very important for migrants to be provided with strong legal assistance in the centres and also at the police stations, but that is not always the case.”
Refusal of entry
Giulia Capitani, migration and asylum policy adviser at Oxfam Italia, is also worried about the difficulty of monitoring what happens to the migrants transferred directly to reception centres around the country for processing.
She fears it could lead to “people being fingerprinted and rejected in a very spread-out way” that will be difficult for migrant rights groups and lawyers to respond to.
The basis for these concerns is the widespread issuing of refusal of entry notices (“respingimento differito”) that followed the implementation of the hotspot approach.
Between September 2015 and March this year, Oxfam Italia estimates that more than 5,000 migrants from countries with low asylum recognition rates – mainly North and West Africans – received these decrees, which give them seven days to leave from Rome airport by their own means.
Fausto Melluso, who works for migrant support organisation Arci Palermo, says the procedure has forced thousands of migrants underground.
“Ninety percent of people didn’t appeal the notices; there is an enormous number of people who now have to hide from the state and do what they can to survive,” he said. In Sicily, this often means they end up exploited by criminal networks through slave labour on farms or in the drugs trade.
The battle to exercise the right to apply for international protection is only the first phase of an excruciatingly drawn-out asylum process involving requests, rejections, and appeals that can take up to two years. “People can get very depressed in this limbo,” said Melluso. It is also part of the reason why Italy’s reception system is log-jammed.
Fighting for change
The Palermo University legal clinic team successfully proved that the refusal of entry notices were issued with “substantial and formal” defects.
“Some migrants were given only very general and ineffective information on international protection. Others were not given any,” said Elena Consiglio, a researcher and lawyer on the team.
A national campaign by lawyers and activists denouncing the procedure was eventually met with new guidelines from the interior ministry in May. These make it clear to immigration authorities that all migrants, regardless of their nationality, have the right to apply for international protection and to information explaining those rights.
Sicily-based organisations working with migrants say the number of rejection notices has drastically reduced in recent months.
But they have not disappeared entirely. Simon McMahon, a researcher from Coventry University who is in southern Italy investigating the hotspot approach, said he had heard from activists in Sicily that migrants are still receiving the orders.
He met migrants there last October who had been transported to reception centres in isolated areas before being given return orders. “They were used as a way of getting people out of the centres to make way for new arrivals because there is a drastic lack of space,” he told IRIN.
According to McMahon, this practice has continued as a short-term response and is bound to create long-term challenges.
Because there is often a time lag between the orders being issued and their recipients coming to the attention of support organisations, he said it is hard to gauge the extent of the problem. “It is not clear whether these orders are being issued on a mass scale, but it appears that they are being issued on a discretionary basis… depending on the needs of the authorities at the time.”
Oxfam is now working with partner organisations to determine how many migrants are being issued with refusal of entry orders, a process that, in their words, is creating “a new group of invisibles”.
(TOP PHOTO: Jamal, from Somalia, arrived in Italy in May and was transferred to a reception centre where he received no information about his right to apply for asylum. Pablo Tosco/Oxfam)