Italy’s new Immigration and Security Decree has scrapped humanitarian protection and revoked a holistic approach to asylum seekers’ reception. This will result in an increase in irregularity, which will translate into marginalization and increasing insecurity for local communities, argues Chiara Marchetti.
Chiara Marchetti, University of Milan
Migration and security have always been the Lega party’s workhorses and its current leader, Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, has built the party’s recent electoral success – constantly growing even after the March 2018 elections (according to the most recent data, it has now reached at least 30%) – right around these issues. Migrants have often been defined as a burden, as irregular aliens, or even as criminals, no matter what data showed. But the most recent developments have pushed this narrative’s normative boundaries. Now, it is not only migrants’ individual actions, but their exercise of the right to asylum itself that is criminalized. The Immigration and Security Decree, issued on October 2018 and converted into Law n. 132, attacks asylum seekers and the reception system as a whole. It inverts the image of migrants landing on the Italian shores. The impression is that they are not considered as subjects at risk, but, on the contrary, as risky subjects. Those escaping from Libya and trying to reach Europe are not to be rescued anymore, but to be pushed back. Because asylum seekers are generally suspected of being bogus, law 132/18 arranges for their confinement and control. And at the end of their asylum procedures, the possibility of being protected by a regular status has become almost a mirage. But it has not always been so.
Since 2002, the institutional reception system formally allowed asylum seekers to have access to the same services and projects as offered to refugees. The System for the Protection of Asylum Seekers and Refugees (SPRAR) – even though systematically undersized if compared to actual needs – relied on a holistic idea of embedding reception in public welfare. This reception programme included not only the fulfilment of basic needs, including asylum seekers’ housing in apartments or small and decentralized facilities, but also different services and activities aimed at social and economic integration (such as Italian courses and employment programmes). Already while being an asylum seeker, the migrant had access to welfare services and was able to enjoy a number of social and economic rights that matched Italian citizens’, without being separated from local communities.
Although Minister Salvini himself had called SPRAR “a bridge necessary for inclusion” in an official report just a few months before passing the Immigration and Security Decree, Law 132/18 caused SPRAR’s progressive depletion. Since October 2018, only the holders of international protection (refugee status and subsidiary protection) and unaccompanied foreign minors are admitted to the SPRAR programme. Asylum seekers are excluded and assigned to “extraordinary” reception centres (Centri di accoglienza straordinari), where they receive minimum services and nothing which might be useful in their path towards integration (including learning Italian). At a time when asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable, their existence is suspended and secluded as they cease to benefit from SPRAR’s holistic approach to reception. They are confined to big and isolated centres reminiscent of prisons, with limited and conditioned access to the outside. The social workers employed here are transformed into guardians, mandated to control guests day and night. Thus, it has recently been reported that social workers in reception centres were asked to go through asylum seekers’ private e-mails and purchases.
In contrast to this, SPRAR ensured a reception system based on the responsibility of local institutions, on the subsidiarity of the third sector and on asylum seekers’ exposure to intercultural relations from the very beginning of their life in Italy. The continuity – before and after they are formally granted protection – of the reception experience and the possibility to access individual needs and aspirations with the help of a qualified team of social workers allowed asylum seekers and refugees to be the real protagonists of their stories.
In the new scenario, what is left is the privatization of reception in the extraordinary centres for asylum seekers. Law 132/18 arranged for centres to be run by private actors without any involvement of the local institutions, and therefore without a programmatically planned connection with welfare services and the territorially competent bodies. And Law 132/19 extends the securitization of control, practiced in deportation-focussed facilities like hotspots and centres for repatriation, to asylum seekers’ reception centres.
The strict application of the current law risks violating the spirit and the letter of the Italian Constitution. The Constitution of 1948 provided for a right to asylum even before the Geneva Convention came into existence. Article 10 states: “A foreigner who, in his home country, is denied the actual exercise of the democratic freedoms guaranteed by the Italian constitution shall be entitled to the right of asylum”. Even though this was never fully transposed into an organic law – Italy does not have a coherent asylum law in Italy, but only single articles or decrees –, since 1998 it had become possible for a foreign citizen to be granted a residence permit for humanitarian reasons, in case he/she presented “serious reasons, in particular humanitarian or resulting from constitutional or international obligations of the Italian state”. This extended protection to a number of vulnerable asylum seekers: unaccompanied foreign minors traumatized during their journey, women with children who suffered torture and/or detention in Libya, those whose human dignity is not guaranteed in their country through an acceptable standard of living, or people fleeing emergencies, such as armed conflicts or natural disasters in countries outside the European Union. The extension of humanitarian protection has given asylum seekers access to a protection status who have previously been considered ‘economic migrants’ only: Around 100,000 migrants from, for example, Gambia (among whom many unaccompanied minors), Mali (144th place of the Global Peace Index in 2018) and Bangladesh (victims of a mix of internal insecurity and environmental catastrophes) have been granted humanitarian protection in the last ten years, making for an average of 20-25% of first instance decisions. All of them also had the opportunity to access the institutional reception system the same way as those granted international protection.
The Immigration and Security Decree has completely upset this scenario. Humanitarian protection has been abolished and substituted by much narrower forms of protection, which neither allow migrants to access the reception system, nor to work and gain economic independence.
As a result, Italy is witnessing an increase in irregularity, which will in turn spur social marginality to grow in the near future, paradoxically – if one takes for granted Salvini’s premises – creating security problems for natives and foreigners alike. By restricting the right to asylum, many migrants will be unable to regularize their stay in Italy for years to come. Contrary to Salvini’s demagogic slogans, only a small minority of irregular migrants can be forcibly returned, since Italy has no repatriation agreements with most asylum seekers’ countries of origin. The ISPI research centre estimates that in the period between June 2018 and January 2019, 45,000 migrants have become irregular, having been denied any form of protection. Of those, only 5,000 were repatriated, while the remaining 40,000 stay on Italian territory, without a residence permit or the possibility of acquiring one. The same research institute also estimates that the number of irregular migrants on Italian soil will have grown to 140,000 by 2020, excluding future arrivals.
Italy’s new “Security” Decree ends up producing insecurity, one might conclude. In fact, it is precisely regularity that most effectively reduces crime rates among foreigners. As demonstrated by the economist Paolo Pinotti, foreigners who obtain a residence permit are 50% less likely to commit serious crimes (thefts, robberies, drug dealing) compared to those with an irregular status. But insecurity is not only an unintended consequence suffered by local communities. It is, above all, the everyday experience of all those migrants whom irregularity renders more likely to become victims of exploitation, blackmail, invisibility and marginality. There is hardly a possibility to exit the vicious circle: once being denied asylum, Italian law offers no way to obtain a residence permit, even if a migrant has a regular job and/or positive social relations within his or her community. A lose-lose outcome, where the only winners are fear and racism.
Chiara Marchetti is a lecturer in Social and Political Studies at the University of Milan, Italy. She can be contacted at email@example.com.