The plight of refugees under Italy's right wing government is only getting worse.
Frustrated by Italy and trapped for several months, sometimes years, in a bureaucratic limbo that won’t offer them possibilities for real integration. The migrants who choose to make their journey back home are far more than a few.
“Farewell Italy, you’re a disappointment,” said a resolute 19-year old Amoako Kwadwo, from Ghana, in July when he had made up his mind to return home.
His case was widely picked up by Italian papers when rising anti-immigrant rhetoric was sweeping the country and media focus was firmly focused on controlling migration flows.
Kwadwo landed in Sicily two years ago after crossing the desert, passing through detention hell in Libya, and braving the Mediterranean. The young Ghanaian arrived in the northern city of Padua filled with hope. All he wanted was to work and send money home. Months later, he found himself over-worked and underpaid.
“Here it’s not what I expected, so I may as well go back to my family and try to build my future in Africa,” Amoako told the volunteers from the local association, Percorso Vita, who assisted him in leaving Italy.
In the Padua province, Amaoko was living in an overcrowded reception centre, picking potatoes eight hours every day, seven days a week for $277 per month, or nothing, in return.
His decision not to remain shouldn’t come as a surprise. Two years of hard work and sacrifice later without seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, he decided to create a better future in his homeland.
Amoako’s story doesn’t differ from those of many others who find a different reality after they reach Italian shores — completely different from what they’ve been told. Stranded in a state of vulnerability and marginalisation, they soon realise the Italian dream is just a dream, gradually developing a strong desire to go back home.
Most migrants in Italy end up either jobless or exploited in low-paid work, coping with miserable living conditions, facing limited opportunities due to their temporary and insecure legal status, and are barred from leaving Italy to find a job elsewhere due to restrictive immigration laws.
The controversial Dublin Regulation, which set migration policies within the EU, obliges asylum seekers to remain in the country where they first land, which means essentially Italy and other frontline countries physically placed on migration paths. This means, any migrant who has family links and work prospects in another European state is nevertheless stuck in limbo wherever they land.
The legal and economic marginalisation, racism and discrimination that migrants encounter in Italy coupled with the hard-line approach by the new right-wing government led by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, have thrown large numbers of them into subordinate positions in the Italian labour market and wider society.
This was not exactly the Italy that sub-Saharan Africans fleeing violence and poverty in their countries had in mind before they undertook the dangerous sea crossings.
The grim picture of the country’s reality for migrants and refugees can be seen in a report released by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) ahead of parliamentary elections warning that around 10,000 people in Italy are living in “deplorable” conditions without healthcare, shelter, food and clean water.
Inadequate reception policies are forcing migrants into informal settlements and abandoned buildings with limited access to basic services, MSF found.
Italian authorities have thus far failed at improving the country’s emergency reception system and promoting better social inclusion for migrants. Large portions of Italy’s migrant population are facing a sad reality where their grasp of the language, education or work is not allowing them to be meaningfully accepted into Italian society.
Luca Favarin, the head of Percorso Vita association which runs about ten reception centres serving 150 migrants, says the problem is that Italy hasn’t been able to develop a fully integrative programme nor does it have any long-term policies aimed at managing migration efficiently.
Instead, the Italian government is wasting time by sorting newcomers between refugees and economic migrants, thus handling the migration issue in a hostile, and inefficient way.
Unable to integrate and lacking any real opportunities over long periods, several refugees and migrants are opting to go home. The assisted voluntary return is not the solution but one of the possible approaches to migration management. More so, it is a realistic option for those who are unable or unwilling to stay in host or transit countries.
Not many succeed in rebuilding a life once they are back home and many of those returning are ostracised since they are socially perceived as ‘losers’ who didn’t achieve anything abroad.
Amoako is one of the few lucky ones. With the support of Percorso Vita, he joined the EU-funded voluntary return scheme and got a contribution to cover flight and visa costs, in addition to 1,800 euros for initial housing, and to purchase five cows and run a farm in his village in Ghana.
The Padua-based association has so far recorded over 1,000 voluntary repatriations during 2018. In the last two years, the Italian organisation has helped at least five young people to return voluntarily and reintegrate in their countries.
Among these cases, a Nigerian opened a small store in his hometown, a Senegalese built a little fishing boat and hired a team of nine people to work with him, and another set up a cheese production business.
Between 2009 and 2014, approximately 4,000 people left Italy thanks to the European Return Fund.
It is not a part of the conversation but voluntary repatriations can prove beneficial. They are much cheaper and more sustainable than forced returns.
Still, integration remains the key. People coming to Italy have high hopes and goals, then they find out the reality doesn’t match their expectations. Later, they gradually become aware that they will most likely not obtain legal papers and be able to live a normal life. Eventually many of them think: what’s the point in staying?
Italy’s overall attitude to migration needs to change. “We cannot deal with migrants as if they were hazardous waste”, Favarin denounced, “thinking that those fleeing war and famine are dangerous people, is cruel.”
If attitudes and policies don’t change, migrants will continue to live on the margins of society, whether unemployed or exploited, and risk ending up in the hands of illegal traffickers and criminal networks.
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