21.02.2007

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