THE precarious lives of asylum-seekers in Italy are detailed in a new report published by the Centro Astalli, a Jesuit centre that offers support to refugees and migrants.
A summary of the 2017 annual report by Vatican News notes that fewer migrants and refugees are arriving in Italy than in previous years, “but they face greater difficulties in having their requests for protection processed and in integrating into society”.
Figures from the Italian Ministry of the Interior suggest that 119,310 people arrived by sea in Italy last year: the lowest in four years. Thirteen per cent were unaccompanied children. There were 2832 deaths and Amnesty International reports that the Libyan Coastguard intercepted 19,452 people, who were returned to Libya and transferred to detention centres.
Centro Astalli’s report raises concerns about Italy’s ongoing reliance on first reception centres to house asylum-seekers, “notwithstanding the aim to create a transnational system with uniform standards”. The Asylum Information Database, co-ordinated by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, describes these as connoting “large structures, isolation from urban centres and poor or otherwise difficult contacts with the external world”, and notes overcrowding and “degrading” conditions.
An inspection of one in Friuli-Venezia Giulia found nine to 12 people per tent, with no light or heating. It also notes that at least 10,000 persons are excluded from the reception system, and that “informal settlements with limited or no access to essential services are spread across the entire national territory.” In November, in Gorizia, more than 100 asylum-seekers were reported sleeping in a tunnel in the city centre.
“In particular in Rome, many asylum-seekers who have left the First Reception Centers end up deprived of all forms of accompaniment and support — be they both material and legal,” the Centro Astalli report says.
The sharp fall in arrivals by sea — the number recorded from July to December 2017 was about half of that recorded in the first half of that year — followed a Memorandum of Understanding between Italy and Libya, signed in February, and endorsed by the EU Commission, which decided that the Libyan coastguard should “play a central role” in managing the Central Mediterranean route, and announced that it would invest in strengthening Libyan border surveillance and training its coastguard and navy.
The Jesuit Refugee Service was among more than 70 NGOs that warned that the memorandum would “neither reduce human-rights abuses, nor end smuggling”, but would “exacerbate arrests and detention of migrants in Libya” (News, 29 September).
There have been reports of the Libyan coastguards whipping and beating people to prevent them from reaching family members aboard NGO dinghies, and of torture and abuse in Libyan detention centres.
Although most asylum-seekers who make it to Italy remain there, some attempt to move on. The UN reports that at least 16 refugees and migrants died between the Italian border town of Ventimiglia and Nice between September 2016 and the end of 2017. Most were hit by vehicles or trains or electrocuted while trying to cross the border hiding on a train
Churches provide a lifeline. Centro Astalli helped 30,000 people in the course of 2017, providing almost 60,000 meals for people in need in its centres in eight cities, with the help of 687 volunteers. Churches have also been at the forefront of resettlement: more than 1000 refugees have arrived in Italy since February 2016, using a “humanitarian corridor” initiated by an ecumenical church initiative (News, 19 February 2016).
In addition, the UN has flown 312 vulnerable refugees to Italy from Libya, including single mothers, families, and unaccompanied and separated children, many of whom had been held captive for long periods of time.
The UN estimates that 277,000 people located in 15 African countries are in need of resettlement, but, so far, only 16,940 places have been offered. The latest UN figures for the first quarter of 2018 suggest that, for those crossing from Libya to Italy, the rate of deaths has more than doubled with one death recorded for every 14 persons who successfully crossed, compared to one death for every 29 persons in the first three months of 2017.