Italy: The refugee emergency’s sinking lifeboat

By Federica Brandi
Migrants arriving at the Italian island of Lampedusa, where thousands have drowned in recent years.

Migrants arriving at the Italian island of Lampedusa, where thousands have drowned in recent years.

Over the course of the year 2016, 144,211 men, women and children braved a wall of unimaginable and sometimes lethal obstacles to land on Italy’s coasts. For many refugees and migrants desperate to escape a life of destitution and destruction, reaching Italy means summiting the first peak of the journey towards safe haven where they may establish a more prosperous and secure life. In addition to its enormous scale, the latest waves of migrants and refugees reaching Italy proves alarming as it is increasingly populated by unaccompanied children: 161 of the 406 new arrivals to reach Italy on the week of September 26th to October 2nd were unaccompanied minors, composing 40% of total arrivals. Large numbers and a high presence of vulnerable people make 2016’s migrant population reaching Europe one of the most at-risk groups in recent history: Images of overcrowded boats capsizing and beached bodies in the Mediterranean plagued news and media outlets all over the world. Simultaneously, numbers swelled in shelters and makeshift camps all over Europe, Egypt, and the Levante region. The gravity of this situation continues to evoke strong responses from leaders and citizens in the EU’s largest “hot spot” destinations for migrants, yet recent voices calling for a cold-shoulder approach grow louder among the chorus.

In contrast to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s eye-popping generous decision to admit thousands of refugees earlier this year, many states in an increasingly divided EU are adopting uneasy to downright hostile positions on the immigration crisis following a series of high-profile acts of violence associated with migrant populations. Investigators revealed evidence which strongly suggests that attackers such as the San Bernardino and Orlando shooters as well as the perpetrator of Nice’s Bastille Day attack were self-radicalized and unstable individual actors with no formal ties to ISIS or other violent extremist groups. Nonetheless, their familial ties to the Middle East, South/Central Asia and North Africa provoked negative stigmas and fear of migrant populations originating from the regions among many EU countries, which was further enflamed by the rhetoric of racist and xenophobic demagogues.

Situation in Italy: Xenophobia or something else?

Xenophobia prevails as the contentious buzzword assigned to EU nations who fall under this category. Critics now look upon Italy as recent domestic developments depict the republic as a reluctant and increasingly unwelcoming hot-spot destination for migrants. A Human Right Watch report from June revealed unsafe conditions in Sicily’s first-response entry port of Pozzallo, in which minors were forced to share cramped quarters offering little to no privacy with adults due to overcrowding. Minors both male and female lived alone, often without protection and often reported sexual assault and harassment. The facility also lacked sufficient communication methods, providing a single broken phone which minors could use to try to contact family members. In an earlier report, several Afghan minors arriving on trucks were also turned away and sent back to Greece at one of Italy’s land-borders when they were unable to verbally communicate with officials due to language barriers. This stands against the October 2014 European Court of Human Rights ruling which states that summary returns from Italy to Greece violates the rights of migrants to freedom from inhuman or degrading treatment, protection against collective expulsions, and to the right to appeal against their return.

Despite these alarming conditions and an apparent troublesome apathy toward refugee well-being by Italian officials in facilities like Pozzallo, the Italian population still cries out against further helping or accepting refugees. According to a recent study, 46% of Italians polled share this view.  Congruently, anti-immigration protests erupted in Rome and Treviso this month, even turning violent in the case of Treviso. These clashing pressures are a critical issue as Italy remains one of Europe’s first landing points for refugees arriving from North Africa and the Middle East because of the country’s geographical positioning. Migrants arriving in Italy undergo their critical first screening which largely determines whether they will continue forward or be sent back in their journey towards safety. An Italian population that turns its cheek the other way to supporting this process could thus prove devastating to millions of refugees. Understanding Italy’s reasons for moving in this direction could prove critical to countering the movement.

Connecting nations like Italy’s handling of the migration crisis to xenophobia is not necessarily well-placed. Despite its xenophobic appearance, the Italian public’s reaction to immigration is less ideological than it is practical. Public opinion forums and daily chatter among locals in Italy’s cafes, shops and many public spaces reveal a constant factor when discussing immigration: Frustration and feeling overwhelmed.

Between up-taking the massive maritime rescue operation “Mare Nostrum” in 2014 and in-taking hundreds of thousands of refugees in 2015 and 2016, Italy shares a lion’s portion of the EU’s burden in managing refugees. Most migrants arriving in Italy’s four main intake facilities (CPSAs) seek relocation in other countries, especially Germany and the UK. Yet as numbers swell in intake and processing centres where migrants apply for asylum status (up to a 12-month process) or wait for relocation, their destination states progressively close their doors. Hungary’s attempt to block an EU plan to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers across all members states in a referendum earlier this month, failed as voter turn-out rendered the referendum void. Prime Minister Viktor Orban is now trying to amend the constitution to have his say. Meanwhile, thousands of refugees remain stuck in makeshift camps along Hungary’s borders and in Calais. French authorities initiated the dismantling of the camp, which is a main transit point for migrants to reach the UK, during the writing of this article.

The squeeze on immigration among Italy’s northern EU neighbours creates a compounded bottleneck effect in the country as more and more refugees reaching their first EU stop find themselves with nowhere else to go. Only 1,258 of 39,600 individuals who are supposed to relocate from Italy to other EU destinations in 2016 under the European Commission relocation scheme have done so—a miserable 3.2% of the target. Alternatively, staying in Italy proves a grim option. Concern over Italy’s lagging economy and a desperately sluggish job market which fuels Italy’s own emigration crisis renders the country a less-than ideal target for professional migrants while fuelling self-preservation mode for nationals. Italian citizens’ frustration and apprehension seem hardly out of line in this sense. While Italy’s market continues to employ millions of migrant workers (4,811,163 at the beginning of 2016), the government also assumes enormous costs (around 4 million Euro) to support millions of needy migrants each day who do not contribute to the country’s economy due to their lack of employability. Without cooperation on relocation among other EU countries, it appears clear that Italy is hurting itself in order to uphold its duties to refugees. The economic impact of migration thus ultimately stands as a colossal obstacle in Italy’s ability—and thus willingness — to help migrants.

A desperately needed new path

Economic strain weighing down on Italy has produced negative consequences for citizens and refugees alike. Italy’s Migration Compact encourages independent and government-run enterprises from Italy and partner EU countries to invest in African states that produce large numbers of migrants. The objective of the compact is to stabilise migration push-factors at their source by creating better opportunities for workers regionally while stimulating economies at home. This could prove a useful prospect for a long-term solution, yet the current crisis also necessitates a shorter-term solution. Italy’s most practical option remains to help migrants reach other destinations throughout the EU. Unfortunately, this places the Italian government and refugees at the will of the greater EU. With shaky cooperation from central European nations, the European Commission and its partner organisations could benefit from looking to Nordic countries that remain relatively open to receiving refugees. As with any agreement regarding migration, actions would produce consequences. A relocation agreement between Nordic states and traditional “receiver” states such as Italy may mean that several migrants would not relocate to their destination of choice. An agreement should also include an education/ labor integration program to operate more effectively than current accords, under which refugees largely remain without access to education or work. An inclusive agreement would thus ask for significant financial and political investment from host states, which may necessitate an EC grant to facilitate cooperation. Notwithstanding, this appears as a far greater option than allowing millions of individuals to stay in cramped and unsafe quarters in a state that itself spins further into crisis as it struggles to accommodate and support the many lives trapped in the cycle of human strife.


About the author:

Federica Brandi is a Bachelor’s Degree recipient in International Relations and Global Affairs form Eckerd College. She is currently an editor for Policy Eye International Journal and has worked as an intern for multiple Human Rights and Community Development NGOs including EG Justice, Beit Hagefen Center for Jewish-Arab Dialogue (Israel) and Beit Magenza Center for Ethiopian Youth (Israel). Her favorite hobbies include hiking, skiing, swimming and Blues dancing.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Human Nations and any of its campaigns and projects.

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