Italy and the Maghreb Exodus

Just months ago, if experts, politicians and local administrators grappling with the migration influx from North Africa to Italy were asked for their opinion on what the future had in store, most – if not all – could not have predicted the mass exodus that has resulted from the Arab Spring. This unprecedented uprising in the Arab world has in an instant opened the floodgates of migrants landing on Italian shores. 

Four months ago, Dr. Salvatore Gugliemino, a top immigration official in Italy, went on record, prophetically, with the following statement: “Even though we have no arrivals from northern Africa right now, we are just waiting for them. Migration fluxes have not ended, and migrants – especially economic ones – are still willing to come to Europe. Right now in Tunisia or in Libya, they find a closed and well-patrolled gate due to the bilateral agreements [that] those countries have signed with Italy; but one day, those countries will no longer have the power to keep those gates closed.”

The Arab Spring sweeping the Middle East and the Maghreb, and the concomitant mass emigration have, in effect, caught Italy and the whole of Europe by surprise – unprepared and, clearly, unwilling to adequately respond. How can such a significant surge of migrants leaving for Europe from North African countries in transition (and turmoil) be managed in an era wherein calls for a closed-door immigration policy are growing ever louder in European capitals? The case of Italy, given its role as a buffer state and bridge for African migrants to mainland Europe, is of particular interest.

Due to Italy’s geographic proximity to a number of Maghreb states, it is often the destination of choice for many migrants looking to leave the African continent. Since mid-February 2011, a large, continuous influx of migrants from North Africa – in particular from Tunisia’s coastal regions – have reached Italy (to date, some 25,000 migrants).

Berlusconi’s government has been unprepared, ineffective and extremely slow in intervening to manage the influx of migrants reaching the Italian coastline of Lampedusa. The Minister of the Interior, Roberto Maroni – a Northern League, anti-immigration politician – has been criticized for failing to put in place a viable reception plan that would be supported by regional administrative bodies, based on a model of cooperation between national and European institutions.

Lampedusa – an island in the Mediterranean Sea, and part of the Province of Agrigento in the Sicilian region – has paid the biggest price during the recent migrant crisis. Lampedusa is the southernmost point in Italy, and Tunisia is its closest shore – just 70 miles away. Its small population of approximately 5,000 people subsists on fishing and tourism. The island has always been a prime transit site for illegal migrants hoping to enter Europe from Africa, and while its inhabitants are used to seeing migration activity on their island, the scale of the recent influx is unprecedented. Within a few days of the start of this most recent wave of migrants, the number of new arrivals actually surpassed that of the island’s inhabitants, resulting in the rapid deterioration of living conditions on the island – and, naturally, tensions with the local population. Since the second week of February, the temporary stay and assistance centre in Lampedusa (CTSA) – originally built for a maximum capacity of 804 people (according to the Ministry of the Interior) – has been housing an average of 2,500 migrants per day. The number of migrants landing daily on the island has on at least one occasion reached some 6,000 people – in effect making the locals a minority, and creating great strain on local infrastructure; indeed, pushing the  limits of the island’s holding capacity.

Living conditions at the CTSA in particular, and on the island in general, have come under criticism by the UNHCR. Due to overcrowding, a significant number of migrants have been forced to sleep outdoors, with no access to running water or to hygienic facilities. On March 30th, Berlusconi visited the island, pledging that all migrants living in extreme conditions will be transferred within 60 hours with the assistance and intervention of the Italian Military Navy (Marina Militare). Transfers to different centres in mainland Italy – most of them in the south – started shortly thereafter, but other migrants continue to pour onto the island, replacing those transferred. The problem persists.

Reaction from the local population has been mixed. On the one hand, the presence of so many migrants on the small island of Lampedusa has naturally caused anxiety among the islanders. Grievances are based on the slow and ineffective action of the government in Rome in managing the growing crisis; indeed, there is some suspicion locally that the authorities may actually prefer to keep the migrants on the island – at least in the interim – instead of relocating them to mainland Italy. On the other hand, many locals have faced the emergency with patience and dignity, and in a spirit of solidarity with their newly arrived guests.

The Italian Ministry of the Interior is working on a plan, in cooperation with regional administrative bodies, to transfer small groups of migrants to other centres scattered across Italy. (An agreement has also been reached with the new interim government in Tunis to have many of the Tunisian migrants returned to Tunisia). Most of the centres envisaged are designed to receive asylum seekers – but given the circumstances, they will accept and host the large number of migrants coming from Tunisia. In fact, one of the thorny legal questions facing the Italians is whether the thousands of recent Tunisian migrants should be considered illegal migrants (the more likely scenario) or whether they will be afforded refugee status.

According to the ‘Bossi-Fini Law’ (Law no. 189, July 30th 2002), foreigners who have entered Italy without a regular entry visa are considered illegal migrants, and must therefore be deported. However, deportation is delayed in cases where migrants are in need of rescue, or if a suitable means of transport is not available for such deportation. Moreover, by law, these migrants must be held in special Temporary Stay and Assistance Centres only for the length of time strictly necessary to process their identification and removal (Art. 14 of the Consolidated Act, no. 286/98).

CTSAs thus allow the sovereign to avoid the dispersal of illegal migrants on its territory. They also enable the competent authorities to perform the necessary procedures for the purpose of removing and transferring migrants. Under Italian law, the maximum length of stay in the centres is 60 days (30 days, plus a further 30 days by request of the local chief of police).

Migrants who satisfy the criteria for refugee claims, or who are in need of other protection measures (i.e. ‘temporary protection’) do not have to be removed from Italian territory, and benefit from a wider set of rights and protections – including the right to remain on Italian soil until their application for refugee status is completed and processed. These migrants are hosted in centres specifically created to receive asylum seekers (CARA).

Italy is currently facing the worst migration crisis it has faced in decades. It has shown itself to be clearly inept in dealing with the crisis. If the actions of, and declarations from Rome are any indication, then Italy is not only ill-equipped, but also uncompromising in its refusal to accept the migrants. Rome’s current policy ostensibly aims to deport the migrants back to their countries of origin, or to transport them northward to other countries in Europe – France and Germany, in particular – countries that, in all likelihood, will also look to close their gates due to the high number of migrants that they have received in recent years, as well as to the precarious state of the European economy. Making matters worse is the raging turmoil in Libya. According to the UN Refugee Agency, nearly 300,000 people have fled the country since the onset of the violence and the armed rebellion. Of this number, some half have fled to Tunisia. (Some, as per recent reports, have also died at sea.) And from Tunisia, evidently, Lampedusa is but a hop, skip and jump.  

The pictures presented in this photo essay were taken principally in February 2011 in Lampedusa, Porto Empedocle and Mineo (Catania) – the main sites of North African migration activity in Italy. The photos capture the reality of migration and life in the CTSAs, as well as the practical challenges faced by the Italian authorities in hosting such a large, unprecedented influx of migrants.

Pictures by Alessandro Callari, Giovanni Salvaggio & Emilano Tidona © Wartoy 2011

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