Lampedusa: Adrift in a Murky Sea of Refugee Policies

Democracy activists around the world rejoiced as Tunisian protesters called for the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, their authoritarian president for 23 years. This wave of optimism did not reach many Italian political elites and immigration authorities, however. Instead, they eyed the southern border of their Mediterranean nation nervously. The so-called Arab Spring, which has swept through the Middle East and North Africa and brought down Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak in its wake, has been a source of great alarm for Italy and other southern European countries.

Political unrest, violence, and economic instability in North Africa have led to a massive influx of migrants across the Mediterranean Sea and into the idyllic Italian resort island of Lampedusa. As many as 24,000 Tunisians and 12,500 Libyans have landed on the island (which is geographically closer to Africa than Europe) since January of 2011. In February, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declared a state of emergency on the island. News reports from Lampedusa, limited as they have been, have shed light on stories of migrants stranded in crowded detention centers, separated families, and capsized boats of asylum seekers. While horrific, these stories are—sadly—unsurprising, considering Italy’s recent track record of managing immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and even trafficked persons. The sorry status of North African migrants in Lampedusa is the result of a trend toward increasingly restrictive immigration policies in Italy and the supremacy of security and border control concerns over human rights issues.

Italy’s Rocky Refugee History in Lampedusa

North African migration to Italy through Lampedusa is not a new phenomenon. “In recent years,” the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports, “Lampedusa has become an important entry point for irregular migrants and asylum-seekers attempting to enter southern Europe by sea.”In 2008, for example, over 86 percent of irregular migrants who came to Italy by sea landed in Lampedusa—a total of 30,978 arrivals. The situation had already reached alarming levels by 1998, prompting the Italian government to begin approving a shadowy network of bilateral immigration agreements with several Arab states. As stipulated in these treaties, the North African signatories agreed to cooperate in preventing undocumented migrants from reaching Italian shores, often in exchange for development aid. These bilateral immigration agreements decreased the flow of migrants to Lampedusa. When the governments of Ben Ali and Mubarak crumbled, however, so did the enforcement of these immigration treaties.

Italy’s bilateral immigration agreements straddle the boundary between ethical ambiguity and clear violation of international human rights norms. In fact, the details of the agreement with Libya are still unknown. In practice, these measures took the form of “pushbacks” at sea, policies restricting out-migration, and the readmission of undocumented migrants to their home countries.The EU and UN have been highly critical of these practices because they force migrants to be readmitted to countries with little infrastructure for asylum seekers and refugees (Libya, for example, is not a signatory to the Geneva Convention on Refugees). The expulsion of refugees violates the principle of non-refoulement and contradicts both the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the European Convention on Human Rights.

UNHCR has also expressed concern over the process by which Italian immigration authorities process migrants in Lampedusa. A 2004 report came to the preliminary conclusion that the adjudication process was rushed and did not give all migrants an opportunity to claim asylum. UN observers have also found the immigrant reception centers in Lampedusa chronically over-crowded, an issue that continues to plague the current wave of refugees and asylum seekers from North Africa. In 2009, for example, UNHCR reported that 2,000 boat people were forced to stay in a reception center with a capacity for only 850 people until their cases were adjudicated. For these reasons and many others (including the detention of minors on the island), Lampedusa has been the subject of routine criticism by human rights organizations.

A Case of Legal Schizophrenia

What explains Italy’s troubled history of managing refugees and asylees in Lampedusa? Generally, Italy has undergone a shift from laissez-faire to restrictive immigration policy. Italy did not have a clearly articulated immigration law until 1986. The country was historically a nation of emigrants; it was not until the 1980s that it became a major receiving country for international migrants. Since then, Italy has emerged as one of the most important destination countries for migrants seeking to enter Europe, and Italy’s sour economy has led to the scapegoating of its immigrant population. In addition, the dual forces of declining birthrates and increased immigration from Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia are heralding a demographic shift that is extremely worrisome for many Italians. In response to these developments, Italian immigration law has shifted from openness toward lockdown. This process has culminated in a series of controversial policies enacted by the Berlusconi government that heightened surveillance of migrants, expanded immigrant detention, facilitated expulsions, and criminalized unauthorized presence in the country.

Despite the anti-immigration trend in Italy’s immigration policies, it would be a gross oversimplification to explain the current situation in Lampedusa as the anti-immigrant backlash of a xenophobic nation worried by its daunting economic situation. The picture is much more complex than that of a fearful nation wantonly abusing helpless refugees. In fact, the legal landscape is a very complex one, shaped by national laws and international norms that are not necessarily in agreement with one another. The resulting uncertainty in both discourse and policy ultimately creates room for uneven implementation of these laws on the ground.

Italy’s asylum policies (or lack thereof) are a perfect example of this legal ambiguity. Italy is the only country in the European Union without an organic asylum law that establishes the right to asylum. Instead, asylum policies are written ad hoc into its general immigration laws. As a consequence, Italy’s asylum policies are subject to change along with immigration policies and fall victim to political pressures and anti-immigrant sentiments.

The Berlusconi government’s 2002 Bossi-Fini law, which represented an extreme strengthening of immigration controls within the context of Europe, made major changes to the asylum system in Italy. While the law introduced some positive changes to the system, including shorter waiting times for detainees and greater legal protections, many observers have criticized it for taking a hardline approach against irregular migrants. The law attempts to draw a sharp distinction between migrants who deserve humanitarian protection and those who do not; in addition, the law significantly expanded the scope of immigrant detention in Italy. Laws enacted in 2008 and 2009 further enhanced the Italian government’s ability to imprison and expel irregular migrants; detention centers (centri di permanenza temporanea) were even renamed “identification and expulsion centers” (centri di identificazione ed espulsione).

Just as Italy’s immigration and asylum policies have undergone major transformations, the country has also had to conform to EU and UN directives. The EU in particular has sent mixed signals to Italy regarding immigration policy, alternately emphasizing human rights and the need for increased border security. As previously mentioned, Italy has been scolded by the EU for its treatment and expulsion of irregular migrants, particularly those from North Africa. Nonetheless, Italy has also had to bring its immigration policies in line with the EU Return Directive, a measure criticized by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and that allows for the deportation of irregular migrants. Finally, the EU has called on Italy to strengthen its border security as a way to reduce the burden of migration on member states.

Implications for Lampedusa

The current situation in Lampedusa has been both influenced and constrained by a broad network of local, state, supranational, and nongovernmental actors. UN observers have been following the refugee crisis, making recommendations about the protection of refugees. The EU recently launched Operation Hermes, a Frontex initiative designed to help Italian authorities manage migrant flows and detect criminal activity in Lampedusa. Italy is also seeking to re-negotiate bilateral immigration agreements with newly formed North African governments, particularly Tunisia. Each of these actors has very different objectives, ranging from humanitarian protection to border security. As a result, the Italian response to Lampedusa has been muddled by competing discourses. Unfortunately, however, not all of these discourses are weighted equally in practice.In fact, the case of Lampedusa shows that the perceived need to limit migration has overshadowed more humanitarian initiatives—a reality that is reflected in other areas of the Italian immigration system.

Since 2007 Italy has participated in a joint initiative called Praesidium with the UN, the International Organization for Migration, Save the Children, and the Italian Red Cross. The aim of this project was to create a framework for cooperation between the Italian government, intergovernmental bodies, and NGOs to manage migrant entries in Lampedusa. While this effort adds much-needed oversight to the activities on the island, some observers in the social work community have been skeptical of Italy’s continued reliance on nonprofit organizations to perform social integration services (Italy has a similar system in place for trafficked persons). The delegation of these critical activities to the private sector is indicative of the reality that the state is much more invested in control and enforcement activities than the provision of humanitarian aid and social support.

Most analyses of Lampedusa have focused on the implications of these clashing priorities for the future European integration; however, it is equally if not more important to examine the consequences of these conflicts for migrants on the ground. How have these competing objectives and power plays manifested themselves inside the infamous detention centers? Has this inconsistency led to the incomplete enforcement of refugee and asylum regulations on the island?

The situation in Lampedusa is ongoing, and we will not know conclusively the details of how migrants were treated in the wake of the Arab Spring for some time. Preliminary accounts, however, have already pointed to an uneven application of asylum policies. Although the Frontex mission now prohibits pushbacks of migrant boats at sea, Tunisia has already begun blocking boats from leaving its ports as part of a new agreement with Italy. Other accounts raised concerns about overcrowded facilities and overlong detention times, and of efforts to draw seemingly arbitrary distinctions between those migrants eligible for humanitarian protection and those who are to be deported (an inheritance from the Bossi-Fini law). At the same time, government rhetoric shows a preoccupation with security concerns and a deemphasizing of humanitarian issues. Official responses have focused primarily on policing, often conflating immigration with criminal activity—hence a call for joint EU−NATO patrols to combat both arms smuggling and irregular migration from Libya. At best, refugee and asylum policies are a guise to mask Italy’s border control efforts; at the very worst, they are actually becoming a means for the government to secure its borders and keep migrants at bay.

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