Italy’s asylum seekers caught in limbo

An Italian Coast Guard ship carrying migrants enters the harbour in Pozzallo. Picture: AP
An Italian Coast Guard ship carrying migrants enters the harbour in Pozzallo. Picture: AP
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Months in detention and the long wait for permits and housing sour EU safe haven

Work, asylum, safety and a European passport are the Holy Grail for the nearly 37,000 migrants and refugees from Africa and the Middle East who have arrived in Italy so far this year.

A police officer helps a migrant arriving near Ragusa. Picture: AP

A police officer helps a migrant arriving near Ragusa. Picture: AP

Whether fleeing war in Syria, a repressive regime in Eritrea, poverty in Nigeria or two decades of civil conflict in Somalia, they all have one thing in common – they are desperate enough to pay hundreds and thousands of euros and dollars to smuggler gangs to bring them across the Mediterranean in grossly unsuitable boats.

In April alone, 1,500 refugees drowned making the journey, but for those who are rescued by the Italian Coast Guard, the British, German or Italian navies, or a passing cargo vessel, their problems begin when they make landfall in Sicily.

New life in Italy is not always a bed of roses, and often the supposed safe haven can be anything but.

“I would never advise anybody to do the same journey I did in 2007. To those in Somalia coming to Italy, I would say just stay there, because it is so difficult here, and much harder now,” says Abdullahi Ahmed, 26, who left the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and now lives and works in Turin, in north-western Italy.

‘It is a question of welcome. You can’t just put people in any old place’

“It’s not so easy here, and this is only if you want political asylum here – in Germany, Ireland, elsewhere, it’s harder.”

Abdullahi paid $2,000 (£1,300) to Somali smugglers to transport him across the Sahara in a car, and then by boat to the Italian island of Lampedusa. The journey took seven months, and on arrival in Italy he was screened, finger-printed, requested political asylum, and was flown on a military aircraft to Turin. Asylum-seekers tend to be divided up between Italy’s different provinces, cities and regions, depending on how many spaces each can make available in camps or refugee centres. These are often in converted hotels, old-people’s homes or schools.

Now, eight years later, Abdullahi has provisional Italian citizenship, speaks Italian, a flat and a job as a civil service volunteer in a suburb of Turin, doing the rounds of local schools and institutions giving talks on immigration. He’s one of the lucky ones.

The first problem arriving migrants face is the several months it can take for asylum applications to be processed. During this period, refugees have no documents, meaning they cannot circulate legally in Italy. Instead, they sit waiting in holding centres where they are sometimes paid small allowances of pocket money.

In the agricultural bread-basket of Sicily, many take work picking potatoes or courgettes while waiting for their documentation.“The work is good,” said Khamis, 33, from Sudan, who was harvesting potato fields near Syracuse earlier this month. He said he earned ¤50 a day (£40).

“Here, immigration is a resource,” said Chiara Lo Bianco, whose agricultural business produces organic citrus fruit and vegetables for customers in northern Europe.

But the Italian region of Val d’Aosta, which sits north-west of Turin in the shadow of the Alps, last week flatly refused to accept any more than the 62 asylum-seekers it is currently housing, saying it had insufficient facilities. “It is not an ideological position. It is not about being selfish,” said Augusto Rollandin, the regional president. “I think it is a question of what sort of welcome we provide. You can’t just put people in any old place,” he said, stressing that the region of 128,000 people was working to develop new reception facilities.

In the expensive Roman suburb of Casale San Nicola, residents are protesting against plans to house 100 migrants in a former school, saying the facilities are not adequate. The vigil in the upmarket area, which houses tennis clubs and riding stables, has been dubbed “the revolt of the chic” by Italian media.

But for every protesting resident or far-right politician from parties like the Northern League, many Italians see it as a normal human obligation to look after the new arrivals. Unsung, thousands of police officers, coast-guard and naval personnel, volunteers and health officials have worked daily since October 2013 to help arriving refugees in Sicily and southern Italy.

The village of Riace in Calabria, which had seen its population plummet following mass emigration, has been rejuvenated after agreeing to house and provide work for refugees from countries such as Afghanistan.

The European Migration Agenda, approved by the EU this month, aims to streamline asylum applications, 626,000 of which were filed in 28 EU member states in 2014, a third of them in Germany.

The next step for migrants in Italy after the asylum application is the much-coveted permesso di soggiorno, or resident’s permit, which allows the bearer the right to be in Italy, but many refugees are only granted a permit that allows them asylum status – and not the right to work.

The Dublin Regulation of 2003 says those arriving must request asylum in their first country of arrival, while the EU keeps a fingerprint database to identify those migrants inside it without documents.

If asylum seekers who arrived in Italy are later found without identification papers outside the country, they are deported back to Italy and placed in a Centre for Identification and Expulsion, while police identify them before possible repatriation.