The Ita­li­an asyl­um sys­tem is stam­ped by arbi­tra­r­i­ne­ss, deni­al of rights and iso­la­ti­on – A jour­ney through sou­thern Ita­ly on the tracks of Afri­can refugees By Judith Gleit­ze, Ali­ce Schultz* Agned­du e sucu e fini­ci u vat­tiu – ‚Lamb and gra­vy, and the baptizing’s done‘. The Sici­li­an ada­ge means some­thing like the-devil-may-care. And that’s how

The Ita­li­an asyl­um sys­tem is stam­ped by arbi­tra­r­i­ne­ss, deni­al of rights and iso­la­ti­on – A jour­ney through sou­thern Ita­ly on the tracks of Afri­can refugees

By Judith Gleit­ze, Ali­ce Schultz*

Agned­du e sucu e fini­ci u vat­tiu – ‚Lamb and gra­vy, and the baptizing’s done‘. The Sici­li­an ada­ge means some­thing like the-devil-may-care. And that’s how the staff mem­bers of Vil­la Exo­dus, a home for unac­com­pa­nied minor refu­gees in Sici­ly, are describ­ing the stance of the poli­ce­men they have to deal with every day. This govern­men­tal atti­tu­de is cha­rac­te­ris­ti­cal for the who­le situa­ti­on as it repres­ents the hand­ling of refu­gees and migrants in sou­thern Ita­ly: They want to get rid of them and they don’t care what will beco­me of the­se peop­le. On the con­tra­ry: If the refu­gees can­not be sent back right away, they are at least sup­po­sed to be invisible.

We will show how a refu­gee beco­mes an ille­gal per­son in Ita­ly. The pro­cess of re-defi­ning starts with the refugee’s arri­val in Ita­ly. „As a mat­ter of princip­le refu­gees are trea­ted as clan­des­ti­ni (ille­gal)“, says Ful­vio Vass­al­lo, a lawy­er and refu­gees‘ rights acti­vist from Paler­mo. With a basic atti­tu­de like that, there’s hard­ly any room left for con­cern about flight rea­sons. Thus, for most refu­gees chan­ces to find shel­ter in Ita­ly are slim.

What beco­mes appa­rent is how iso­la­ted the­se peop­le are from the rest of the world. Insi­de a Cen­tro di per­ma­nen­za tem­pora­nea (CPT; Cen­ter for tem­pora­ry sojourn) there’s no such thing as con­sti­tu­tio­nal rights. Vin­cen­zo Medi­ci is a lawy­er in Cro­to­ne, a town stee­ped in histo­ry on the sou­thern coast of Cala­b­ria. How come this seclu­ded vil­la­ge is some­thing spe­cial? It har­bours one of the lar­gest mul­ti­func­tio­n­al cen­ters in Ita­ly. Initi­al recep­ti­on, iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on cen­ter and cus­to­dy pen­ding depor­ta­ti­on: all in one. Migrants sup­po­sed to lea­ve the coun­try are deli­ve­r­ed to a CPT, amongst them refu­gees who did­n’t even stand a chan­ce to app­ly for asyl­um. A law­less zone insi­de the so-cal­led Ita­li­an recep­ti­on sys­tem, says Medi­ci. Ser­gio Tro­lio, him too a migrants‘ and refu­gees‘ lawy­er from Cro­to­ne, and his Sici­li­an fel­low lawy­ers are in agree­ment: Access to the asyl­um pro­ce­du­re is often refu­sed. Qui­te clear­ly, so the lawy­ers‘ unani­mous opi­ni­on, is this the case with refu­gees from North Afri­ca: Peop­le from the Maghreb coun­tries are sim­ply not admit­ted to the asyl­um pro­ce­du­re by the poli­ce offi­cers on duty.

The dan­ge­rous voyage

They arri­ve from Ethio­pia, Eri­trea, Sudan, Egypt, Tune­sia, Moroc­co, coun­tries whe­re the­re are indi­vi­du­al and collec­ti­ve per­se­cu­ti­on as well as mise­ry and lack of per­spec­ti­ve. The rou­te to Ita­ly via Tur­key is, as Tro­lio obser­ves, hard­ly used at the time being. Ins­tead, many of the refu­gees anding up in Ita­ly have cros­sed Libya. Par­ti­cu­lar­ly peop­le from sub­sa­ha­ri­an Afri­ca have often been en-rou­te for years until they reach Ita­ly. On their way, they were for­ced to lon­ger sto­po­vers in several Afri­can coun­tries which eit­her do not pro­vi­de reli­able shel­ter or do not offer a chan­ce to earn their living. When the situa­ti­on grows pre­ca­rious, they move on to the next coun­try. But for many of them, Libya remains the tar­get from whe­re they can tra­vel to Italy.

Refu­gees from Ethio­pia, Eri­trea or Sudan have to make their way through the most inhos­pi­ta­ble deserts of the Liby­an-Suda­ne­se bor­der regi­on. The dan­gers awai­t­ing them here are part­ly rem­nants from the Bri­tish-Ger­man desert war back in 1940–42: „You enter Libya via Al Uweinat in the east, not far from the Suda­ne­se bor­der. Then you cross the Saha­ra on a road that is not much fre­quen­ted as it is full of mines. We were very many. Three of us got hurt becau­se they did­n’t know about the mines. Loud screa­ming made us stop, a child and two men were blee­ding and did not under­stand what had hap­pen­ed to them. The­re was no doc­tor amongst us. We moved on, and a short time later I did see the three of them no more. We made the last leg of our odys­sey on one of the­se floa­ting cof­fins. Befo­re we reached Lam­pe­du­sa, we had been at sea for five days, with no food, no water and no means to have a wash.“ Most of them don’t want to talk about their adven­tures. But when they are lucky to find some con­ta­ct and are able to trust into their tutor or lawy­er, they do give account. And all the­se accounts are simi­lar to that of this young man who in the end was recei­ved in one of the few natio­nal housing sys­tems for refugees.

Tran­sit to Sici­ly cos­ts about EUR 1000, depen­ding on the size of the boat. If a refu­gee agrees to act as skip­per, the pri­ce may be redu­ced. With a com­pass and a bot­t­le of water in hand they go sai­ling. Most refu­gees have seen peop­le dying aboard their ship. The­se days, most of the boats from Libya are led by ‚real‘, pro­fes­sio­nal skip­pers, says Vass­al­lo, sin­ce the poli­ce are watching the coast clo­se­ly. Obvious­ly, the­se con­trols can be avoided only by way of cor­rup­ti­on and mafia-like struc­tures. Without pro­fes­sio­nal skip­pers embar­king would­n’t be pos­si­ble. So the refu­gees resign them­sel­ves to wai­t­ing, some­ti­mes for mon­ths. Mon­ths whe­re they are pen­ned up in their quar­ters like ani­mals, inclu­ding pregnant women and child­ren. They live on the hope to be told one night that the jour­ney is bound to begin tomor­row, today, in an hour.

All this hap­pens under the very eyes of more than some soli­ta­ry poli­ce­men. It can­not remain unper­cei­ved if 1000 peop­le embark wit­hin 24 hours, even if this hap­pens along the long Liby­an coast with its desert hin­ter­land. Sca­fis­ti get­ting caught will not face a tough punish­ment. Ins­tead, last year a refu­gee from Gha­na who had repor­ted a sca­fis­to to the poli­ce found hims­elf arres­ted and con­vic­ted for ille­gal ent­ry as repre­sen­ta­ti­ves from ‚Doc­tors without Bor­ders‘ told us in Agrigent.

Poli­ce manipulations/Without pro­tec­tion in Italy

Most of the boats arri­ve in Lam­pe­du­sa. Not until jour­na­list Fabri­zio Gat­ti came to Lam­pe­du­sa dis­gui­sed as a refu­gee did the public learn about what’s going on the­re. Par­la­men­ta­ri­ans‘ visits are ano­t­her important source of infor­ma­ti­on. Vass­al­lo who accom­pa­nied them several times und tal­ked to refu­gees reports: „It all hap­pens in the first 48 hours. The refu­gees arri­ve in Lam­pe­du­sa. After having heard them in the pre­sence of a poli­ce inter­pre­ter, the poli­ce will deci­de whe­ther or not a spe­ci­fic per­son may be admit­ted to the asyl­um pro­ce­du­re. If nobo­dy is wil­ling to record your request in wri­ting in the­se 48 hours, you will find yourself aboard a pla­ne that takes you to Libya, even if you want app­ly for asyl­um. There’s no such thing as con­trol. I know peop­le from Eri­trea who typi­cal­ly app­ly for asyl­um; they have been depor­ted to Libya, and Libya has depor­ted them to Eri­trea. (…) There’s no infor­ma­ti­on about the asyl­um pro­ce­du­re, and the­re are neit­her lawy­ers now jud­ges in Lam­pe­du­sa. We know about that only becau­se we’­ve been insi­de the CPT with par­lia­men­ta­ri­ans. Every time we went the­re with the par­lia­men­ta­ri­ans, we met refu­gees who­se app­li­ca­ti­ons for asyl­um had not been recorded.“

Trolio’s expe­ri­ence in Cala­b­ria is most­ly the same: Usual­ly the­re is an asyl­um pro­ce­du­re for refu­gees from Sudan or Soma­lia, but for the North Afri­can coun­tries… Admis­si­on is deci­ded upon by the „poli­ce­man who hap­pens to be on duty. And of cour­se the pre­sent trans­la­ter. Ever­ything depends upon the trans­la­ter. The poli­ce­men, of cour­se, do not under­stand Ara­bi­an. Hence they trust in the inter­pre­ter. The inter­pre­ters, though, have orders which they are sup­po­sed to obey and they are the ones who under­ta­ke the first selec­tion. They try to expel them if pos­si­ble“. And Vass­al­lo adds: „The pre­fec­tu­re of Agri­gen­to draws up depor­ta­ti­on orders for ever­yo­ne. Ever­yo­ne com­ing from Lam­pe­du­sa has recei­ved them for years. And they are get­ting them only in the very moment when they are put into the pla­ne; they don’t have a pho­ne, they can­not read to anyo­ne what was given to them.“ Orders like the­se are deli­ve­r­ed to tho­se admit­ted to the asyl­um pro­ce­du­re as well, just in case.

Lawy­ers and sup­por­ters of the refu­gees are to a lar­ge extent hel­pless against this sys­tem of mani­pu­la­ti­on. Offi­cial­ly they do not have access to the initi­al recep­ti­on, the iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on cen­ters and the cus­to­dy pen­ding depor­ta­ti­on. When the aut­ho­ri­ties are the ones to mani­pu­la­te, they do not want any wit­nes­ses. It’s only par­la­men­ta­ri­ans, natio­nal as well as Euro­pean ones, that may see to it that the door is left ajar for a short time and a glance is pos­si­ble upon the mise­ra­ble sta­te of affairs. But the prac­ti­ces are going on almost unch­an­ged, though, thus showing the resis­tance of the Ita­li­an aslyum sys­tem and its poli­ti­cal prot­ago­nists against any kind of cri­ti­cism even if it’s based upon inter­na­tio­nal law and the Gene­va Refugee’s Con­ven­ti­on. Signi­fi­cant­ly, this sys­tem of iso­la­ti­on, selec­ti­ve admis­si­on to the asyl­um pro­ce­du­re and depor­ta­ti­ons are still working without a spe­ci­fic asyl­um law. If the­re were char­te­red rules, the aut­ho­ri­ties might have to stick to them.

Cha­os with a system

The Ita­li­an asyl­um sys­tem is part­ly based on the so-cal­led Bos­si-Fini bill on migra­ti­on. It beca­me effec­ti­ve in 2005 and laid down that asyl­um-see­kers have to be iden­ti­fied after their arri­val. To this end they are taken to the Cen­tri di Iden­ti­fi­ca­zio­ne (CDI), iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on cen­ters. The­re were sup­po­sed to be ele­ven of the­se cen­ters by now in Ita­ly, in fact about seven of them are ope­ra­ting, two of them in Sici­ly and one in Cala­b­ria. Affi­lia­ted with the­se CDIs are the ter­ri­to­ri­al com­mit­tees whe­re the request for asyl­um is brought forward.

There’s no con­sis­tent rule for the who­le housing sys­tem in the­se cen­ters. If in sum­mer, for examp­le, a lot of refu­gees arri­ves at the same time, it may hap­pen that migrants, child­ren and pregnant women too will be locked insi­de the CDI. It’s cal­led emer­gen­za, and the Ita­li­an sys­tem of asyl­um seems to be a las­ting emer­gen­cy. The CDI and the depor­ta­ti­on pri­sons (CPT), often situa­ted on the same grounds, are clo­sed cen­ters that no one is enti­t­led to enter. Save, by all accounts, for the staff of the embas­sies of the coun­tries of ori­gin: „For iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on pur­po­ses diplo­mats have free access to the CPT, some­ti­mes car­ry­ing along lists of people’s fin­ger­prints. As the­re are cer­tain­ly peop­le wil­ling to app­ly for asyl­um among the occup­ants of the CDIs and CPTs, this means that a would-be app­li­cant for asyl­um will be iden­ti­fied by an offi­cer of his own coun­try. This hap­pens par­ti­cu­lar­ly with Egyp­ti­ans, Tune­si­ans, Moroccans, becau­se the­se are the coun­tries Ita­ly is clo­se­ly coope­ra­ting with“, obser­ves Vassallo.

5 minu­tes deci­ding on the future

5 to 10 minu­tes. That’s the average time refu­gees have to plead their request for asyl­um. A cha­ra­de, in the opi­ni­on of many lawy­ers. The ter­ri­to­ri­al com­mit­tees for the hea­rings are made up of one per­son each from the pre­fec­tu­ra, the questu­ra, the poli­zia, the Minis­try of the Inte­rior and, enti­t­led to vote of late, the UNHCR. The pre­sence of an inter­pre­ter is not always ensu­red, some­ti­mes embas­sy mem­bers of the coun­try of ori­gin are atten­ding. Only with a lawy­er atten­ding the situa­ti­on chan­ges slight­ly which annoys some of the committee’s mem­bers as it may pro­lon­ga­te the mee­ting. All the lawy­ers assert that the hea­rings with the com­mit­tee are faul­ty and unfair. Ins­tead, they say, of inves­ti­ga­ting the flight rea­sons, a time con­suming task, the com­mit­tees were try­ing to ent­ang­le the asyl­um see­kers into incon­sis­ten­ci­es by trick-ques­tio­ning them. That the UNHCR is now invol­ved in the pro­ce­du­re had at first given some hope to the lawy­ers and sup­por­ters. Mean­while the UNHCR under­goes seve­re cri­ti­cism. Some lawy­ers are hol­ding it even respon­si­ble for the restric­ti­ve hand­ling of the procedure.

Depor­ting or illegalising

From April 2005 until the end of Febru­a­ry 2006 only 6945 per­sons app­lied for asyl­um in Ita­ly. About 95 % of the­se app­li­ca­ti­ons were decli­ned. „In my opi­ni­on the­re are orders from abo­ve: The­se natio­na­li­ties yes, others no, a cer­tain num­ber of peop­le, but no more… They do not address the indi­vi­du­al case at all“, is Trolio’s com­ment on the com­mit­tees‘ work. A. D. is a young man from Ivory Coast, he sub­mit­ted an app­li­ca­ti­on for asyl­um in Cro­to­ne which was decli­ned. We have a look at the papers of the ter­ri­to­ri­al com­mit­tee of Cro­to­ne. Obvious­ly they are using text modu­les the con­tent of which does not rela­te to the indi­vi­du­al case. The hearing’s pro­to­col is in Ita­li­an, half a hand­writ­ten page. Inclu­ded into the refu­sal is the request to lea­ve: The ali­en can­not be arres­ted to ensu­re his lea­ving becau­se the­re are not enough pri­son cells. He has to lea­ve Ita­ly wit­hin five days via Roma air­port. All refu­gees who are rejec­ted are given a train ticket in Cro­to­ne – to Saler­no, some three hours to the south of the spe­ci­fied air­port of their depar­tu­re. Tro­lio who­se desk is fil­led with files like this is mys­ti­fied about what kind of thin­king of the questu­ra this is based upon.

Not all the refu­gees are so ‚lucky‘ as to be ille­gal, but free. Many of them end up in cus­to­dy pen­ding depor­ta­ti­on. „The­re is no gua­ran­tee for the civil rights being abi­ded. Con­victs have more rights than tho­se arres­ted for depor­ta­ti­on“, says Medi­ci about the con­di­ti­ons of impr­i­son­ment in Cro­to­ne whe­re he has repre­sen­ted several of the detai­nees. Even he has only sus­pi­ci­ons how bad con­di­ti­ons in pri­son real­ly are, he can­not access the prisoner’s row. None of the legal repre­sen­ta­ti­ves would know for sure who gets depor­ted whe­re from the­re. No rights, no wit­nes­ses, hard­ly any legal pro­tec­tion. Admit­ted­ly, some are set free from pri­son. But sin­ce the request to lea­ve is still valid, they end up out­la­wed on the street.

In this way, the Ita­li­an sys­tem of dealing with refu­gees pro­du­ces ever more peop­le with no legal sta­tus and no papers. The­se ille­ga­li­sed peop­le depend on the help of NGOs and the church; that’s whe­re tho­se loo­king for shel­ter and labor and often living under degra­ding cir­cum­s­tan­ces in dila­pi­da­ted or squat­ted houses show up. Their only hope: A sta­te-run cam­pai­gn to lega­li­ze them which would give them a chan­ce to lead a ’nor­mal‘ life.

It’s not only lamb and gra­vy that sym­bo­li­ze an end – a fine hum­mer dish may also mark the end of a day. While hund­reds of refu­gees were prompt­ly reship­ped into the pla­nes to Libya last year, the poli­ce offi­cers taking part in dis­as­semb­ling the refu­gees‘ rights had a good time near­by enjoy­ing frut­ti di mare and watching in tri­umph the pla­nes depar­ting. Uncom­pre­hen­din­gly, the lawy­er of the Ita­li­an Refugee’s Coun­cil in Paler­mo is sit­ting at his desk. He had tried to avert the depor­ta­ti­ons on site: „This was a very bit­ter thing to watch, but a poli­ti­cal solu­ti­on is not real­ly wanted.“

Day after day, the Ita­li­an prac­ti­ce of dis­fran­chi­sing refu­gees with its spe­ci­fic mix­tu­re of arbi­tra­r­i­ne­ss and cha­os is redu­cing refu­gees‘ rights to absur­di­ty. The EU coun­tries, Italy’s part­ners in the pro­cess of har­mo­ni­zing the Euro­pean right of asyl­um, keep silent about this. It’s the silence of accomplices.

*name chan­ged