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From Maghrib to Lampedusa: What Hope For Refugees?360°ANALYSIS

Lampedusa, the tiny Italian island between Sicily and Africa, has again drawn the media’s attention due to the landing of thousands of refugees from Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya during the past months. This is certainly not the first time that big numbers of refugees reach the shores of Lampedusa and that their presence outnumbers the local population.

The last time that Lampedusa was under such international attention and scrutiny was in 2005 when some 15,000 migrants reached its shores and were poorly received. At that time, the temporary immigration holding centre (officially CPT: Centre for Temporary Permanence) on the island was totally inadequate for ‘holding’ over 1,000 people – a number that far outgrew the 186 people the centre could officially receive. The lack of facilities and personnel had negative consequences on health care, sanitation, and respect of basic rights and needs. Particularly worrying was the screening and identification processes, through which identity and reasons of flight were assessed. The identification procedure is a crucial phase, which deserves serious attention and scrutiny as it assesses whether the newcomers will be granted protection, and hence admitted to the asylum procedure, or whether they will be forcibly sent back because they are deemed economic migrants who have entered the country irregularly, i.e. without the required authorisation and documentation.

Following the visit of 12 Members of the European Parliament from the Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left in June 2005, and protests from NGOs and local groups, the Italian authorities transformed the centre to a first assistance centre, i.e. as a first landing port before the transfer to other holding facilities in the mainland or in Sicily. Between 2005 and 2006, some 35,400 people reached the southern Italian shores while 6,838 were not allowed to approach national waters and were sent back. The figure of asylum requests has been extremely low compared to the inflows: only 327 refugees out of 35,400 sought asylum. This limited data is quite telling of Italian migration politics: very little information on the asylum procedure is available, and the possibilities of being assisted by interpreters and lawyers are slight.

Refugees’ Protection all’italiana

Before the explosion of the migration crisis during the past months, the Lampedusa centre was closed and the immigration pressure from African Continent was solved all’italiana (‘the Italian way’), i.e. through politics which are serious only in their appearance. As matter of fact, the burden of immigration was shifted to Schengen members as well as to emigration countries, which were supposed to prevent outflows. In other words, the Italian government has responded to immigration pressure from neighbouring Mediterranean countries not by adopting a serious politics of protection but through partnership and cooperation agreements, conditioned by readmissions clauses, which compel those very countries to readmit their nationals if found with an irregular status in Italy. Thus, the closure of the centre was not simply due to its poor reception in the past, with facilities that were far below the acceptable minimum standard. The centre was no longer needed after the new Italian approach to migration!

Italy has fully adopted the Fortress Europe rationale, according to which unwanted inflows have to be prevented at all costs through the introduction of extremely tough measures. Border patrolling, detention centres, readmission agreements, partnerships and cooperation with neighbouring countries have all become key instruments for preventing, expelling and/or forcibly returning irregular migrants, regardless of their reasons for fleeing. The Italian partnership signed with Libya in 2008 is a good example for this new approach. Italian shores are protected as long as migration is prevented, and the very few who managed to arrive were immediately sent back to Libya. The fact that Libya was not a signatory of the 1951 Geneva Convention was not considered a relevant issue for the Italian government. Stopping migration influxes from Africa was first priority, and the new partnership with Libya was precisely intended to reach that very goal. The Libyan disregard of human rights, the construction of detention centres in the country and the way in which the Libyan government prevented immigration from sub-Saharan territories was no longer an Italian, let alone European problem.

These politics reflect the inconsistency, if not the hypocrisy, of the Italian, and more in general of EU asylum and migration politics. Readmission, partnership, and/or trade agreements are signed with those very countries which are blamed for not respecting human rights standards. This is the case in Libya, Tunisia, Sri Lanka, Russia, Ukraine and Moldova. As long as people do not reach European borders, they are not of European concern. This is also the message conveyed by the European agency FRONTEX, which performs patrolling operations in the Mediterranean Sea even beyond European waters, as also done by Italian, French and Spanish vessels. Most worrying is the fact that rescue operations do not always follow international standards and many boats in distress are either sent back – and in some cases people are first taken on board and then sent back, or worse, ignored – even if they’re in European waters.

Italian Migration Politics In A Nutshell

The turmoil in the Maghreb countries and the recent NATO bombings in Libya have altered the migration control strategy and encouraged thousands of people to flee, although possible routes toward Europe have been closed down again. A look at Italian strategy in response to thousands of people reaching its coastlines illuminates the way the country has approached this crisis and worked to prevent its happening again in the near future.  The reopening of the Lampedusa centre, the granting of temporary protection, the new cooperation agreement with Tunisia, and the de facto shifting of Italian migration responsibility to its Schengen partners are all the key steps taken by the Italian government.

After some 3,600 migrants landed, mainly from Tunisia, on 13th February 2011, the holding centre in Lampedusa has been reopened at the request of the local mayor. During the first four months of 2011, 26,329 migrants reached Lampedusa’s shores. This figure is impressive if compared to last year’s, when only 31 refugees were counted. The tiny number of arrivals in the past two years – 2,947 in 2009, 459 in 2010 – are indicative not of the conditions of human security in Africa but indeed of the way in which European countries are managing unwanted influxes. A look at the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) figures is telling: the number of asylum requests drastically dropped from 31,000 in 2008 to 17,000 in 2009 following the partnership between Italy and Libya. 834 refugees were forcibly returned and possibly some 15,000 lost their lives in the Mediterranean in 2009, despite the impressive patrolling operations and the technology available, such as sophisticated radars, thermal cameras able to detect any human presence within a radius of 11 km as well as small boats within a range of 46 km. All these instruments are more often used to detect and prevent new arrivals than to carry out rescue operations along the European borders.

On February 12th, the Italian government declared a state of humanitarian emergency in relation to the exceptional landing of North African citizens. For the first time, the whole country was officially mobilised. On April 6th, the government convened a unified meeting with local authorities and three key decisions were taken. Firstly, migrants were going to be placed in all the Italian regions – with the only exception of Abruzzo, which is still recovering from the 2009 earthquake – up to a total, and estimated, arrival of 50,000 people, to be dispersed locally. Secondly, those who would have opted to remain in the country were going to be assisted, but more importantly, all those who had voiced their desire to move to other European countries were issued a six-month permit of stay, which allowed them to freely circulate within the Schengen area: i.e. within the 25 EU countries who have abolished border controls.Lastly, the government intended to encourage the European Council to implement article 5 of the 55/2001 EU directive on Minimum Standards for Giving Temporary Protection in the Event of a Mass Influx of Displaced Persons.

In reference to the Italian plan of refugee reception and placement, it should be noted that the whole plan is organised and supervised by the Department of the so-called Protezione Civile (Civil Protection), i.e. the emergency department of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers and not via the national programme of asylum (SPRAR). While the SPRAR system, which has been functioning since 2001, has developed the necessary experience for managing first reception and for coordinating a variety of migration related projects, the Protezione Civile has not. But while the former has not been allocated extra funding and has been involved in the process only marginally, the Protezione Civile – who operates under emergency conditions – is not restricted by any budget limit. Under the umbrella of ‘emergency’, it will cover all the basic costs that each municipality is going to face in terms of reception. However, while the involvement of the Protezione Civile has the clear advantage of arranging and coordinating a reception plan within a relatively short period of time, many of the municipalities involved have little or no experience in refugee reception.

However, the rationale of the assistance is not based on long-term settlement policies but simply on shelters and basic necessities for the first six months. 21,519 Tunisians have been granted a temporary protection status, although 10,884 of them have already moved toward Schengen countries. In other words, Italy has passed on its migration problems to its Schengen partners by encouraging migrants to move to those territories. This is not the first time that the country adopts such migration practices. This was already the case during the Balkan and the Kurdish crises – although in the past the vast majority of would-be refugees failed to enter Schengen territories with a valid document. The problem of the legal status of the 10,884 Tunisians is only temporarily solved. It is not clear what country is going to renew their documents and, if not, whether they might remain in the European territories once their documents expire.

The question of permit renewal is an extremely important one. Because it was Italy who first issued them temporary protection, it should be Italy to take care of them and establish whether the conditions for further protection exist. However, if the beneficiaries of protection are no longer in the Italian territory, there is a serious possibility that once the temporary protection status expires, the 10,884 Tunisians will remain in Europe irregularly, i.e. they will become undocumented migrants with all the negative consequences in terms of access to health care, housing and the economic market due to their irregular status.

In terms of numbers of migrants assisted under the emergency reception plan, 8,229 are now part of the programme, against the 50,000 that the Italian government was expected to assist, and against the 26,329 that reached the Lampedusa shores during the first four months of 2011. The number of people under protection is unlikely to increase after the new cooperation agreement with Tunisia which was signed on 5th April. It is now the Tunisians’ responsibility to prevent new unwanted influx and to take back all those fleeing the country after the agreement. The politics of protection enacted by the Berlusconi government are clearly inconsistent. Those who have reached the Italian coastlines before April 4th had been assisted or issued a temporary protection status, while those who fled the day after will be forcibly returned to Tunisia despite having good reasons for departure. After a few months of migration ‘crisis’, the government has managed to re-establish the status quo ante: migration influxes have to be prevented at all cost. The protection from migrants, not the protection of migrants, has become top priority once again.

Finally, regarding the 55/2001 EU directive, Italy has not yet managed to directly involve its European partners and especially to convince the EU Council of the need to provide temporary protection status to victims of mass atrocities, for instance those fleeing from Libya. If applied, displaced people – and not only people fleeing persecution as in the case of the application of the 1951 Geneva Convention – will be granted a highly protected status in terms of shelter, access to health care and the job market, on a prima facie basis, i.e. automatically, without going through case-by-case procedures. The procedure has an exceptional character and should be applied only in the event of mass influx of displaced persons who are no longer safe to remain in, or return to their country. Contrary to Italian expectations, the EU Council did not include any discussion of this issue in its agenda for its meeting on the 23rd and 24th June, and no serious consideration has been given to Italian requests. This is not only because some Schengen countries are going to take care, willy-nilly, of those who have entered their territories thanks to the permits issued by the Italian authorities. It is also due to the number of landings along the Italian shores, which do not seem to require the adoption of exceptional measures.

What appeared as the beginning of a serious humanitarian crisis a few months ago, now seems to be over. It is probably too early to assess and predict the number of people fleeing North Africa in the months to come, but evidently, those very European countries that are willing to adopt military solutions to restore democratic processes and human rights standards in North Africa are not as willing to welcome displaced people from those very territories. The Lampedusa crisis has once again demonstrated Italian, and European, inconsistency between declared intention and effective practice.