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Story Publication logo March 11, 2015

Italy: The Future of Migrants and Refugees


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Graffiti on a building near the Olympic Village: 'Pace,' which translates to 'Peace.' Image by Akela Lacy. Italy, 2014.

Mohammad S. wakes up at 3 or 4 in the morning and takes the local bus about an hour away to his landscaping job. He asks that his full name not be used in order to protect his identity. He has only been in Italy for three years, and the documents allowing him to work legally will expire within the month. He has come to Mosaico, an organization run by refugees to help newcomers in Italy, for advice regarding his permit to work. He explains in a defeated voice that "Sudan was better…even with war."

One of an imploding number of refugees arriving on Italy's shores since 2011, Mohammad S. worries daily about his future. He fled his home country of Sudan to find work in Libya, forced by the Libyan military to come to Italy after war broke out in 2011. He slept on the streets before finding temporary shelter. "Tanto volte non dormo mai"—"Many nights I don't sleep at all." Why? "Too many thoughts." Where he hopes to be in a month? "Spero di essere morto. Quando state qua non c'è futuro."—"I hope to be dead. When you are here there is no future."

In 2014, more than 150,000 newcomers arrived in Italy,​​ more than 87,000 ​by sea, according to statistics compiled respectively by the International Organization for Migration and UNHCR. Approximately 45 days into 2015, Save the Children reported, more than 6,400 people had already arrived by sea—more than 60 percent the number of individuals who arrived by sea over the same period in 2014.

Although treacherous, getting to Italy is in some ways the easiest part of the journey. Upon arrival, migrants and refugees face homelessness, joblessness, legal disenfranchisement, arrest, and detention in Centers for Identification and Expulsion (CIE). These centers hold migrants and refugees who are awaiting deportation. As the numbers increase and more people flee continuously deteriorating conditions in Syria and Eritrea, conditions in Italy are getting worse.

Mohammad S. is one of the very few refugees who has found a job. But like many others his future depends on documents that he does not yet have, and his employer's willingness to vouch for his employment status to authorities. Luciano Scagliotti, director of the Centro d'Iniziativa per l'Europa del Piemonte—The Piedmont Centre of Initiative for Europe—and Italian coordinator for the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), explains that when migrants and refugees cannot find legal work they often turn to the black market. This means working for mafia organizations to harvest produce in Turin's countryside or in Italy's southern provinces for two to four euros each day, he explains.

Such work has no contract, no guarantee of pay, and no way to secure rights or protection against what lawyer Maurizio Veglio at the International University College of Turin Migration Law Clinic describes as slavery. Attempts to retaliate against inhumane treatment of black market laborers has led to clashes between mafia groups and immigrant and refugee populations.

In 2008 six African migrants were killed by the Casalesi clan of the Camorra, an Italian mafia organization, in Castel Volturno of Italy's southern Campania region. In 2010 following an attack on an immigrant from Togo, racially-fueled riots in Rosarno of the Calabria region led to mass expulsions of African immigrants and refugees.

This growing anti-immigrant sentiment extends to politics as well. Right-wing xenophobic parties like Lega Nord—the Northern League—call for foreigners to return to their own countries. Some regions have initiated censuses for particular ethnic groups like the Roma people, including fingerprinting and photographing of adults and children alike, a step that has alarmed human rights activists.

"Filing a part of the population…this was the first step the Nazis made before killing the Jews" explains Scagliotti. "These aren't for regional census data, they are openly ethnically biased." A similar proposal was made this January to document the Roma population in Turin.

Furthermore the Italian legal system is fraught with obstacles to obtaining asylum and regularization of immigrant status. Those applying for asylum today at offices of the Questura, local police stations, will not have their cases heard until 2016.

Out of the thousands of refugees sent to different regions around Italy each day by the national Sistema di Protezione per Richiedenti Asilo e Rifugiati—System of Protection for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (SPRAR)—each Questura office can only take 10 applicants. If refugees have no residence, they cannot obtain a permit of stay, nor can they access any public services to which they have the right under Italian law. If they don't have a permit of stay, they are subjected to fines of upwards of 1,000 euros. Until 2014 anyone found without proper documentation was considered a criminal, subject to jail time, a trial, and enormous fines. "We had a bunch of trials against ghosts," explains Veglio, "nobody being charged could pay."

The Italian government says its strict immigrant and refugee policies are aimed at fighting terrorism. Human rights activists say they are creating inhuman and undignified circumstances for living. As this debate goes on, conditions for Mohammad S. are getting worse.

Mohammad S. hopes to move into the squatter community of refugees at Lingotto, locally called ex-Moi, the group of four abandoned apartment buildings of the Olympic Village left after the 2006 Winter Games in Turin. More than 600 refugees have come to live here, mostly through word of mouth.

The buildings are painted bright pastel oranges and lavenders. Inside, a bare foyer with broken bicycles, another room with a few mismatched tables, small mattresses propped against the wall to make space for the many men passing through, and two small space heaters, one connected to an electrical cord with some strips of denim and string.

The room smelled of incense, tobacco and coffee, the sounds of Arabic singers coming from a small cell phone propped against a glass. Five to six men share one room, using a corner partitioned with blankets for momentary privacy. Kone, a leader among the refugees living at Lingotto, explains that they have come here "to have our own dignity, our own liberty, and to try to be independent. We are just trying to help each other. I don't have money. Here it's survival."

Kone fled the Ivory Coast during violence preceding the country's first civil war in 2002, coming to Libya where he taught French for 11 years. Like Mohammad S. he was made to leave Libya following the outbreak of war in 2011. With 2,099 others Kone was forced by Libyan authorities onto a small wooden boat headed for Lampedusa, the small Italian island off the coast of Sicily that is the site of many arrivals but also many drowning deaths of migrants and refugees. "I never wanted to come here," he exclaims frankly. "In Lampedusa they said there were no problems with integration or finding a job…this wasn't true."

When there is no work the men at Lingotto often try to sell broken TVs or scrap metal they find in the garbage.

When he first came to Turin he slept on the street until he heard from some friends about a local meeting to find a shelter for migrants and refugees. Since he moved into Lingotto he has become deeply involved in the migrant rights movement in Turin, working to abolish laws that force migrants and refugees to stay in Italy without any prospects for work.

The Dublin Convention is one of these laws, mandating that the first country in which a migrant or refugee is fingerprinted is the country responsible for them. If someone fingerprinted in Italy is found by authorities in Germany, for instance, they are forcibly sent back to Italy.

According to Kone "if the EU agreed to legalize a permit of stay to work in any part of Europe, Italy would be empty [of migrants and refugees]." Kone himself, though, wants to stay. "I cannot go back to my country. I am here, I am ready for integration in Italy."

As others like Mohammad S. and Kone struggle to cope with marginalization, the Italian government has attempted to create new laws and infrastructural changes. But activists say those efforts have primarily led to more confusion.

For Veglio, the Centers for Identification and Expulsion (CIE), locally abbreviated to "chi-eh" are the "most controversial term of this entire picture."

The CIE were established in 1998 by a left-wing government to facilitate deportations. Today there are 13 centers across the country with a capacity to hold 1,500-2,000 people. Only five of the centers are currently operating in Rome, Bari, Turin, with two in Sicily, with a total capacity for 800 people.

By comparison, across the entire country in March 2014 for example, only 469 people were being detained. Although the CIE are under-crowded, their conditions have long been criticized as inhumane and degrading by lawyers and activists. According to Veglio, the costs of operating the CIE under capacity far outweigh any potential benefits of actually detaining people.

The Italian Red Cross (IRC) was in charge of all Italian CIE until early this January when the French correctional center company GEPSA won a public tender to take over operations. The IRC received €3.5 million each year to run the CIE.

Centers around the country have been destroyed by detainees, burning mattresses and buildings to protest their treatment. In December 2013 eight immigrants from Tunisia and Morocco sewed their mouths shut to protest prolonged detention and suspension of rights in the Rome CIE.

"The costs are enormous," says Veglio. "The question is: what for?"

The Italian government can detain immigrants and refugees who have received deportation orders and and are waiting to be repatriated to their home countries, or those who have committed violations of Italian law. Until recently, having lost proper documentation or being found without documents was a criminal offense and could result in detention in a CIE. In 2014 this law was changed to downgrade illegal immigration from criminal to non-criminal, from a legal to an administrative issue with penalty of a fine rather than prison time. Veglio sees this recent change as a sign of political progress with regards to the CIE.

When CIE were established, lawmakers thought that periods of detention would last only 20-30 days. A 2011 law brought the maximum period of detention up to 18 months. Only in December 2014 was this law amended to bring the maximum period of detention down to three months, implementing more stringent conditions under which persons could be detained.

Protests by detainees as well as by human rights activists have pushed the Italian government to pass laws with hopes of ameliorating the controversy. But as conditions for detention become more clearly defined, those already detained still face often cruel and inhumane treatment within CIE.

The legal framework for detention in CIE has been heavily influenced by the 2002 Bossi-Fini Law. This law laid the initial groundwork for many of the legal challenges immigrants and refugees face today. Claudio Tocchi of the Centro d'Iniziativa per l'Europa del Piemonte—Center for the European Initiative of Piedmont—explains that the law "basically created second-class workers, not only second-class citizens…meaning that only persons with working contracts could stay in Italy as migrants." Without a permit to work, migrants and refugees can face deportation and detention in CIE.

In theory this means that employers must request work authorization papers from local authorities for employees they have not met. Future employees are meant to wait in their home countries for proper documentation, coming to Italy after securing a job. In practice, people enter illegally and then look for jobs, often where there are none to find. "This is very Italian," explains Scagliotti. "You have to pretend that you are not here."


Sister Lidia used to visit CIE two times a week, but increasing security measures have made it more difficult to go as often. She and Father Paul used to be able to speak freely with detainees in their cells with the door open, but now they are accompanied by a guard and locked inside. She says they both visit "per ascoltare, segnalare una situazione disumana. Da tutte punte di viste…ci sono persone in gabbia…fare gesti di fraternità. Molti dentri odiano gli italiani"—"to listen, to point out an inhuman situation. From all points of view….there are people in cages…to make gestures of brotherhood. Many inside hate Italians."

Sister Lidia wants to explain to Italians "questa realtà che non conoscono"—"this reality that they do not know." She recounts stories of detainees burning their cells and mattresses with cigarettes lit by guards. The Turin CIE stopped detaining women after the latest burning incident.

On a recent visit Lidia encountered a minor and reported him to authorities. He was released shortly afterwards. There are Nigerians, Senegalese, Moroccans, Romanians, Russians, Ukrainians, but most are from North Africa. They are detained with six to eight people in one room, and are dependent on guards for every need.

"Si fa niente…si sveglia, si mangia, dorme…loro decidono quando accendi le luci, quando le spingi, quando ti può radere"—"you do nothing…you wake up, you eat, you sleep…they decide when you turn on the lights, when you turn them off, when you can shave."

Many try to self-harm by cutting, going on hunger strikes or swallowing pills, allowing them to be released to a hospital if only for a short time. Father Paul tells the story of a man who swallowed a phone battery. He was brought to the hospital and given medicine to expel the battery, upon which he cleaned it off and swallowed it again. "The prospect of 18 months [in CIE] forces people to do anything."

Some detainees tell Sister Lidia they received notice from the local Questura to come pick up their permit of stay. Upon their arrival they were instead taken to the CIE. One man was on his way to pick up his children from school when he was approached by authorities. He had no documentation, and was taken to the Turin CIE. Families can only visit detainees if they have documents or make a request. Otherwise, contact is cut off.

Father Paul explains that "if you haven't done anything wrong, if you've lost work…for Italians this is a disgrace, but for [immigrants and refugees] it becomes a crime." Losing a job means losing documentation, bringing many to CIE. "If you've been in Italy 22 years, working, but you [suddenly] lose your documents, how can they bring you to CIE?"

Leaving a CIE is possible only with a foglio di via, an order for expulsion. If an immigrant or refugee receives this order but has not left Italy within seven days, they can be brought back to a CIE. According to Sister Lidia and Father Paul, this happens more often than not. When detainees are released, it is often at night in the middle of the street. "Dove vanno persone che non sono nessuno?"—"Where do people go who aren't anyone?"

Sister Lidia believes the CIE should be closed "because they serve only to spend money, they diminish a person's dignity, they don't improve the situation of immigration…these situations create terrorism…we humans create this situation. When there is a situation of injustice, it creates hate and a desire for revenge. Injustice creates violence, violence create cruelty."

Father Paul says "we should imagine CIE in Africa…an Italian without documents in a CIE in Africa, what would we say to this? There are so many [Italians] without documents there…If you think about these things it makes you angry inside."

Right-wing Italian politicians run on platforms of anti-terror to "stop invasion" of Italy by foreigners, arguing that Italians shouldn't bear the brunt of overseas struggles. Politicians argue that allowing refugees and migrants into the country allows for the breeding of terrorist cells. The left, according to Scagliotti, "isn't ideologically racist…but is scared to lose votes by saying we need more migrants" to support Italy's aging population and massive emigration of youth to other EU countries. "You win elections by saying the contrary." Left wing supporters combat xenophobia with slogans like ""chi ama la libertà odia il razzismo" - "he who loves freedom hates racism."

Veglio laments that there has been no Italian government to this day that has "faced migration in pragmatic terms without ideological words…there is no strong interest in addressing the highest levels of exploitation and we are still waiting for responsible and reliable politicians to tackle migration issues as they should."

Meanwhile, right-wing parties are gaining traction for their platform following the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. On January 14, a local judge in Turin's City Council announced the evacuation of the Olympic Village. There are no plans as to where the refugees will go.

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