‘Even if I died in the sea it is better than this’ - how Italy’s migrant ‘hotspots’ undermine the right to seek asylum

It’s mid-afternoon in Catania on the Italian island of Sicily and under the shadow of Mount Etna 450 migrants wait to disembark from an 80 meter Irish navy ship. Men in white hazmat suits bark instructions from the deck, NGO workers usher them into port-side medical tents, and a clutch of bored-looking police officers stand languidly by the water smoking cigarettes. Compared to last year’s chaos in Turkey, Greece and the Balkans it’s a slow, orderly affair. But what happens next in the migrant’s journey is controversial.

After boarding buses, the group — predominantly from Somalia, Eritrea and Nigeria — are transported to one of Italy’s five active ‘hotspots’ — processing centres where those arriving in the country are forcibly identified and fingerprinted. The hotspot system was introduced in Italy and Greece last year to help filter refugees from so-called ‘economic migrants’ and to stop migrants arriving in Europe from sidestepping the EU’s Dublin III regulation which states they must claim asylum in their first country of arrival.

But eight months in, NGO workers, immigration activists and migrants in Italy are increasingly critical about what takes place inside them. They say the right to seek asylum — a cornerstone of international and European law — is frequently denied to those classified as ‘economic migrants’, usually from Sub-Saharan Africa and North African countries like Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia. As arrivals to Italy rise with warmer weather and calmer waters — hundreds are feared to have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in the past few weeks alone — they say many are facing a system increasingly stacked against them.

Theoretically the purpose of hotspots is to distinguish between real asylum seekers and economic migrants, as they call them,” says Lucia Gennari, a Rome-based researcher and lawyer at the Association for Legal Studies on Immigration (ASGI). “But instead it is more like giving access to asylum procedures to people coming from certain countries and trying to stop all the others who come from countries that are not officially at war.”

45-year-old Nigerian, Braimoh Monday is one of the migrants Italy has been trying to exclude. When he arrived at Pozzallo hotspot from war-torn Libya in January, the least he expected was the chance to properly claim asylum. Having fled an attack on his home by militants from Boko Haram in 2013, his real dream was to reunite with his wife and children in the Netherlands. But after two days in a processing centre in nearby Ragusa neither looked likely to happen.

“When we arrived they asked what is my name, where am I from and what made me leave my country,” he says. “That is all they asked. They didn’t let us known about claiming asylum. They didn’t explain anything.”

After a “two minute interview”, Monday says immigration officials handed him an A4 piece of paper. The form, which wasn’t written in his native language, said he had just seven days to leave the country by his own means via Fiumicino airport in Rome. It was, he says, an impossible demand: with just €150 to his name he had no hope of returning to Nigeria, let alone the desire.

Children have also been affected by what NGO workers describe as ‘summary rejections’. In the offices of AccoglieRette, an Italian charity in Syracuse that helps unaccompanied minors, 17-year-old Barry Boubacar picks nervously at his forearm and brushes his hand through his hair as he tries to recount what happened when he arrived in Italy last September. The Guinean says he left his home to escape an ethnic conflict between the Mandinka tribe and the mostly Muslim Peul group, which he belongs to, but after ten days at Pozzallo hotspot he too found himself on the streets.

“They didn’t offer me anything,” his says through a translator. “They took my fingerprints, asked for my age, and gave me a number. We didn’t hear anything about asylum. When I was walking on the streets I thought even if I died in the sea it is better than this.”

Despite giving his age as 17, when AccoglieRete found Boubacar wandering the streets of Syracuse his rejection paper said he was 19. “He was underage but they wrote on his letter that he was overage,” said a translator and mediator from the association who ask not to be named. “There was another boy from Senegal who had an ID card showing he was a child who was also rejected with the wrong age,” they added.

Carla Trommino, an Italian lawyer and the founder of AccoglieRete claims that none of the rejections handed out have any basis in Italian or EU law, which clearly states that everyone has a right to claim asylum regardless of their country of origin.

“Rejections are given to collective groups,” she says. “But the European court says it is not possible to reject for a general situation you can only reject on a single case. As you know you can be persecuted in every place you come from. By law you also have to be informed about your rights. You have to be interviewed and only after this can you be rejected.”

Using these arguments Trommino has helped dozens of migrants successfully fight rejection orders in court over the past few months. “We succeeded to send them all back into the asylum seeker centres,” she says. “Everyone presented their request and the big majority are now inside the reception centre.” But NGO workers say the practice continues, now predominantly for migrants from Tunisia, Moroccan and Egypt, countries with which Italy has pre-existing bilateral readmission agreements. While some are placed in detentions centres for immediate repatriation, with Italy’s detention estate overflowing, others are simply abandoned to the streets.

“For a lot of [Maghrebi migrants] the process is done on the basis of the country of origin,” says Lucia Borghi an activist with the group Borderline Sicilia, which monitors the hotspot system. “Listening to the stories they report to us about what happens the suspicion is that the government doesn’t give them the opportunity. The law and our constitution says that everyone has the right to ask for protection. The law says that you must listen to everyone.”

While some of those spat out of Italy’s hotspots have managed to find legal help with lawyers like Tommino, many can be found wandering the streets of Sicily and further afield months after their rejections with no money, no food and little understanding of the country’s asylum system.

Sitting on a bench on the promenade by the central railway station in Catania, the second largest city in Sicily, 22-year-old Lamin from Gambia says he has spent the past eight months sleeping rough after receiving a hasty rejection at Pozzallo hotspot last year. “They didn’t give me nothing,” he says as an older man in the same situation paces up and down the promenade gesticulating angrily about his hunger. “I don’t have a place to sleep and no money,” Lamin adds. “I have nowhere to go.”

It’s a similar story for 29-year-old Ibrahim. On a street corner near the same railway station the Gambian rests against a filthy, upturned mattress and stares blankly across the road, the whites of his eyes tinted yellow. Like others he was ordered to leave Italy in seven days after arriving in Pozzallo late last year but having lost his return order form says he can’t even get an appeal.

“I have no family to help me so I came here,” he says gesturing at the litter, insects and stained blankets around him. “Just like this for eight months, no help or nothing”.

Without the will or desire to return home NGO workers fear those left on the streets without documents will have little choice but to join the swollen ranks of migrant laborers already working in Italy’s large black market economy. “Italy knows there is this possibility that people who are not here legally will fall inside of this network of black market jobs,” says Lucia Borghi an activist with the group Borderline Sicilia, which monitors the hotspot system. “In Sicily there are black market jobs for everyday things and migrants are useful to society.”

Visit the country’s southern breadbasket — where thousands of super-exploited migrants pick oranges and potatoes — or walk through urban centres like Catania’s main thoroughfare and you can see the scale of the problem that already exists.

“It’s very difficult,” says Mamadou, a 40-year-old from Senegal who has been in Italy without documents for ten years and says those without papers will find legitimate employment hard to come by. He points at a small selection of second-hand CDs and Playstation games resting precariously on a cardboard box in front of him and sighs. “I have no papers, no business, no job.”

“Even the Italians, they don’t have work,” his friend Adam from Senegal interjects. ”Each and everyone has their own secret way of life,” he adds. “But it’s difficult.”

The EU’s hotspot system was supposed to work in tandem with the relocation of 160,000 refugees to countries across the bloc’s 28 member states. But few EU countries appear willing to accept it — just 1500 refugees have been relocated from Italy and Greece to date according to the European Commission’s latest progress report — and nor do the refugees actually offered asylum, most of whom have a specific destination in mind and refuse to move to poorer countries such as Romania and Bulgaria.

That dispute has spilled over in the past few weeks on the Italian island of Lampedusa, just South of Sicily, where Somali and Eritrean refugees have repeatedly clashed with authorities trying to fingerprint them. Meanwhile, with the system moving at such a glacial pace, there are reports that many of those chosen for relocation are escaping Italy’s reception centres to continue their journeys Northwards.

“The people that previously could escape without getting fingerprinted, now they must agree to the relocation,” says Borghi. “But again they escape. After one months or two months waiting they just go away. So the relocation is totally not working. It’s a failure like the hotspot approach.”

Back at the port in Catania, the sun beats down on Europe’s latest arrivals as they slowly make their way down the ship’s gangway. After surviving the prisons of Libya and waters of the Mediterranean, there’s time for a brief moment of repose under the gaze of Etna. But as the buses snake a path through the harbour and the migrants enter into Italy and Europe’s increasing hostile asylum system, a whole new set of challenges will stand in their way.