With funding cutbacks and the closure of welcome centres, asylum seekers are left living on the streets, caught in limbo and unlikely to resolve their situation any time soon.
The closure of many welcome centres, along with cutbacks in support for those in need of humanitarian protection, have left dozens of migrants in Italy on the streets. The implementation of the far-right government’s hard-line immigration measures is generating more insecurity while providing no alternative solutions for the new invisible.
A young sub-Saharan African, Lami, is hanging out outside the hostel and canteen for the destitute run by a branch of Catholic charity Caritas, near Rome's main train station. The man, originally from Gambia, moved to Rome in May where the charity allowed him to stay at the hostel for a couple of months, then he was out.
Before that, he was ousted from a reception centre in Tivoli, outside Rome, after he spent a long period away working as a tomato picker in the fields around Foggia, in Apulia. He tried to be readmitted to the same structure, even promised not to leave the centre again, but in vain. The decision of the prefecture was firmly negative.
“These days, I take a cardboard box by Termini train station and sleep on it,” Lami said. “It never happened to me to sleep outside, it’s very hard, what can I do?”
“In the morning, I travel to another Caritas-run centre for a free shower,” he continued. “Every now and then, I do my laundry at a free washing facility nearby.”
When spending nights in the street, he has had things stolen from him. Recently, one passer-by took his purse aiming to find money inside and stole his Italian ID with it. He can only apply for a replacement ID once he obtains his residence permit for asylum.
In Italy since 2014, Lami was once refused the permit of stay until he got a formal acceptance a few months ago after an appeal that lasted up to two years.
Back in Gambia, he was a farm worker, overworked and underpaid. Like many young school-dropouts there, whose parents cannot afford covering adequate education, he could not find a decent job. Pushed to search for an opportunity elsewhere, he first made a transit to Libya but very soon found out it was dangerous to stay there. He was forced to flee thus embarked on a boat to Italy. He is now struggling to get a job.
“I thought it would be easier [in Italy]. Everyday I’m looking for work but can’t find anything,” the young Gambian complained. “Maybe it’s easier for me to go work in the fields, or if it doesn’t work out I’m better off going to another country.”
Lami is among the hundreds of people who are being denied reception and left on the street since the Italian government scrapped residency rights it used to offer asylum seekers.
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s decree-law on immigration and security, which came into effect in December 2018, has formally abolished humanitarian grounds for granting protection. Before, humanitarian protection was issued to those deemed ineligible for refugee status but had “serious reasons” to remain, such as people fleeing war, natural disasters, and other grave events in countries outside the EU, as well as victims of persecution or exploitation.
According to Matteo Villa, Researcher at the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), humanitarian protection, which is valid for two years and enables people to work, was the most common form of protection granted to foreigners in Italy from 2014 to 2017. A quarter of the applications filed by asylum seekers last year were granted humanitarian protection.
People who are recognised “humanitarian protection holders”, once permits are received, are supposed to leave centres on the first level of the migrant reception system, where essential needs were met (identification, asylum proceedings, medical check-ups), and move to an accommodation in which they can benefit from integration programmes. However, due to sluggish bureaucracy and limited capacity, those with permits end up staying in the “first-rung reception” for longer.
The tough anti-migrant decree significantly downsizes the Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees (SPRAR), and grants access to the network only to beneficiaries of international protection and those in possession of special residency permits, along with unaccompanied foreign minors (under the Siproimi system of protection). Asylum seekers with pending applications are therefore cut out of the local reception system. The only available option to them are the centres for extraordinary reception (CAS).
As a result, Italian authorities have been removing dozens of migrants from welcome centres, and more are expected to be evicted.
What’s more, under the new bill, not only those individuals without legal protection are affected by the new measures but also those in possession of permits of stay who have been told to leave despite the law stipulating that their status should be maintained.
Manuel, a 27-year old Nigerian, currently living in the city of Viterbo, told his story. He first came to Italy on its own in June 2016. He was forced to leave his country since his life was in danger. Back then, he and his older brother were abducted, tortured and held captive by gunmen belonging to the extremist group Boko Haram. He escaped the following day and fled to Libya to find himself at risk again. A group of militiamen detained him with other migrants in a camp where he was subjected to beatings and other abuses for five months. Once out of detention, he quickly made up his mind to cross the sea and reach Italy.
Manuel spent his first month in Rome in a reception centre to be then transferred to another centre in Montefiascone then to Viterbo where he spent several months while seeking asylum. After a first rejection, he appealed and was granted humanitarian protection and from there sent to a SPRAR project in Rome. During that time, he took a forklift licence and applied for jobs unsuccessfully. Pressured to make a living, he figured that he would try his luck in Germany. Meanwhile his fiancée Joy, aged 23, also fled Nigeria as she was at risk of being married off to another man, allegedly the same who had kidnapped her beloved. She made it to Italy via Libya and stayed in a welcome centre in a different city.
The young man travelled to Germany with her and their six-month baby girl at end of 2018, without a passport, mistakenly applied for asylum there too, got rejected and tried to appeal against the decision. In June, he was deported with his family and his permit was withheld by the German authorities.
“They [authorities] came in the middle of the night, took us straight to the airport and sent us back to where we came from,” he recalled.
Back in Italy, the three lived through some tough days with nowhere to stay and no papers on them. After sleeping outside and begging for a couple of days in Rome, they raised 15 euros to travel back to Viterbo then more difficult days followed. On top of it, Joy was pregnant with a second child.
Under the Dublin Regulation 2013, asylum seekers must apply for asylum in the country in which they first arrive, for example Italy. Vulnerable asylum seekers who try to move to another EU state face destitution, homelessness and arbitrary detention upon their return to Italy, a late 2018 report by the Danish and Swiss refugee councils revealed.
“It was very difficult at that time. My partner and daughter were accommodated at a Caritas hostel for women after two days. I couldn’t find a place at the men’s hostel,” the man recounted, “I spent a month or so sleeping rough, usually lying on a bench nearby the train station.
“It was very risky for me to stay outside. Bad things might happen to me, people might make problems for me, or I might run into the police and get questioned. Then I was wondering how to get a job to take care of my family.”
In July, through the help of the local Caritas branch and Arci association, the couple was offered the chance to stay for free in an apartment off Viterbo. Manuel has found work as a dish washer meanwhile, though he is looking for a better job opportunity. He is still waiting to get his humanitarian permit back. He will then have to convert it into a work permit to enable him to extend his stay and build a life in Italy.
Lorenzo Chialastri, head of the immigration section at Caritas in Rome, identified four main cases in which migrants are cut off from the system. The newly arrived ones who have applied for a permit have to wait up to three months to know the outcome of the request. The individuals who previously enjoyed protection as part of the SPRAR have been sent away. Those people who completed their integration cycle were then invited to leave.
Those who used to access the CAS but were later thrown out either, due to absence from the centre, misconduct or other reasons; by default, they cannot be re-integrated unless they gain refugees status.
In one year, 56,000 people have exited the Italian reception system, thus becoming “irregular” or “clandestine”. Based on data from Italy’s interior ministry, between June 30 2018 and June 30 of this year, the number of individuals regularly in the reception system has dropped from 165,080 to 108,924, marking a 34 percent contraction.
“That creates a very difficult situation for these people who no longer have a support network, and often don’t have a family. They are completely left on their own”, Caritas’ immigration officer commented. He explained that some associations and local institutions, within the available resources, have continued to accommodate migrants whilst others have left them out.
“Every day, I come across lots of people sleeping outside around here. I also used to sleep in the area in my first days,” said Abdul, 20, from Ghana, walking up the street towards Termini station.
He recently arrived in Rome, and is allowed to stay at a CAS for a month then he may be out in the streets again. He came through Libya where his brother was kidnapped and killed.
“I hold a humanitarian permit but don’t know what to do, there’s no work,” he added in a resigned tone. “I don’t have a choice right now, it’s not easy, I will stay in Italy.”
Another young man called Ayoub, passing by close to Termini, said he ran away from grave circumstances in his homeland, Burkina Faso. He also transited via Libya where he was detained by militias three times. He stressed how difficult it is for migrants to find employment in Italy without the right papers. His five-year residency permit is due to expire soon, he hopes to renew it but wishes deeply to get a work permit. He has no place to sleep at the moment.
“I spend my nights outside the railway station. How can someone choose to live in the streets? It’s not a choice, we need to live like other people,” he said, “I cannot stay in this way, with nothing, this is not a life for me.”
The new decree provides for a very limited form of protection, which is valid for one year and can be only be extended for an additional year. During this time, only those with humanitarian protection permits are allowed legal residence if they possess a valid employment contract.
Many of them are already integrated but are doing undeclared work, and will be unavoidably thrown into a formally illegal status.
A legal worker at Viterbo’s Arci branch office highlighted that the so-called ‘Salvini Decree’ is generating negative effects for all those who were before treated as humanitarian cases (young people, women with children and other vulnerable subjects). Not only asylum-seekers are required to leave CAS structures once they obtain permits, but they are denied access to the SPRAR system with their path to integration disrupted overall.
“People who used to receive psychological support and legal orientation through their asylum claims prior to appearing before the commission are now left without guidance, and often see their applications turned down as a result”, Arci’s legal staff said.
“Beneficiaries entering SPRAR projects were able to continue their integration process through attending language and cultural classes or taking vocational training to find employment,” she added, hinting that countless asylum seekers, refugees and those granted humanitarian protection will now be excluded from such integration services.
With the decree-law entered into force, hundreds of asylum seekers are being transferred to larger reception centres, overcrowded and with much lower standards, mainly providing board and lodging while suffering drastic financial cuts to refugee programs.
The new legislation also means that hundreds of migrants will be put outside the law. Italy’s national statistics office estimates that the end of humanitarian protection will make at least 130,000 migrants “illegal” by 2020. Which in turn means that these people will become more vulnerable, at greater risk from labour exploitation and criminal groups. The bill will effectively increase homelessness, create social marginalisation and potential for social unrest, instead of increasing security for citizens.
“If you leave people undocumented, it is likely that you’re going to have those who remain in Italy without papers. So there wouldn’t really be a way to control who is in the country and what he does. That’s critical for security”, argued Chialastri.