In Italy's refugee centers, NGOs struggle to speak up about corruption

CARA di Mineo, Europe’s largest refugee camp. Photo by: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly / CC BY-SA

PALERMO, Sicily — “We get meat once a week — a chicken thigh. On Wednesdays,” said a young man from Ghana living in Europe’s largest refugee camp, the CARA di Mineo, in eastern Sicily.

He is one of several thousand asylum seekers at the camp, and one of hundreds of thousands who have arrived in Italy in recent years.

Migration crisis: Two years on

In 2015, more than 1 million undocumented migrants and refugees arrived in Europe. A further 3,515 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean. In November that year, as the “migration crisis” escalated, European leaders met to hash out a solution at the Valletta Summit, relying heavily on the idea that development cooperation could help.

Two years on, Devex is taking a look at some of the policies, priorities, and trends that were put in action then, asking what is working, what isn’t — and what’s yet to even start? Read more about the rise of the migration agenda in European development policy, and follow the rest of the series.

Following the near-complete closure of the refugee route from Turkey to Greece in 2016, Italy has become the primary country of arrival for migrants to Europe. So far this year, more than 116,000 have arrived by sea, about 75 percent of the continent’s total. Last year it was 160,000. The majority claim asylum.

The European Union’s Dublin regulation stipulates that asylum seekers must claim in the first country of entry, and intra-European relocation schemes have largely failed. As a result, almost all asylum seekers who arrive in Italy stay, and are funneled into the official reception system — a diffuse collection of apartments, former hotels, church dormitories and even a former United States army base — meant to house and integrate asylum seekers as they go through their legal proceedings. New arrivals will be sent to one of approximately 1,600 privately-run “primary reception centers,” generally intended to host people for a few months, but will often remain there for one to two years due to a lack of beds in the “secondary reception system,” the centers overseen by the state that are intended for longer-term hosting and integration.

The system is funded in part by allocations from the European Commission, through the Asylum Migration and Integration Fund, and the Internal Security Fund, which have provided Italy with 76.6 million euros ($90.37 million) since 2014 to support the primary and secondary reception centers. An additional 43.3 million euros ($51.08 million) was awarded to Italy in emergency funding in 2016. The rest comes from the Italian national budget. The primary reception system overall was estimated to cost 2.5 billion euros ($2.95 billion) in 2016.

But as cash floods in, the reception system has also been implicated in a series of corruption scandals that have revealed funds being siphoned away from those it is intended to help. The setup discourages NGO staff from reporting corruption and other problems in the centers, insiders told Devex, in part because of concerns that it will prevent them from doing their work. In the meantime, asylum seekers are left dealing with substandard conditions, often without a means of recourse.

As NGOs find themselves caught between speaking out and retaining access to the populations they want to support, some are highlighting the conditions that allow those problems to persist, and asking how they could be solved.

The business of migration

The majority of money for the reception system is allocated to Italy’s Ministry of the Interior, which then funds the reception centers through public contracts offered through its regional offices, the prefectures. The going rate: 35 euros ($41.3) per adult per day, and 45 euros ($53.1) per minor per day.

Although the money is public, the primary reception centers are largely run by private cooperatives — consortia of owners operating on a for-profit model — turning humanitarian response into what many call the “migration business.” It is difficult to know how much this business is worth, but one cooperative owner recently imprisoned for corruption claimed to have made 50 million euros ($59 million)  from the operation.

Italy is not alone in outsourcing its migrant and refugee centers to private operators, but it is this industry that migrant-serving NGOs are tasked with both monitoring and working within, often putting them in the difficult position of choosing between speaking out and continuing to pursue their work.

In recent years, reception center administrators throughout Italy have been investigated for fraud, misuse of public funds, granting jobs and economic benefits in exchange for political favors and votes, and making inflated claims about the number of residents so as to receive more of the per diem rate. One investigation in the southern region of Calabria revealed an embezzlement scheme in which 36 million euros ($42.5 million) was siphoned off from a total of 102 million euros ($120.3 million) of public money provided over a decade.

Piero Cardone, an educator with years of experience in youth homes who recently opened up a small reception center for unaccompanied minors, told Devex that corruption in the reception system should come as no surprise.

“The mafia and corruption are present in all kinds of institutions” and in the system of public contracts, he said. “So it’s inevitable, normal even, that they be involved in the reception system. The mafia comes in when they [the authorities] make highways and when they make bridges. The same goes for the migration business.”

The anti-immigration strain in Italian politics will try to claim that it is migration that brings the mafia and corruption with it, Cardone warned. “People like to say this is a new phenomenon that was born with migration,” he said, but “no, this is something that has always been here.”

In 2014, what came to be know as the “Mafia Capitale” investigation was initiated, exposing pervasive organized crime infiltration in the migrant reception system and leading to the conviction of 41 people, including former politicians and local officials. Long-time migrant rights activist and director of the Intercultural Studies Center in Sicily, Ramzi Harrabi, explained that “Mafia Capitale was a great slap in the face of the reception system, but it is not only Mafia Capitale — there are many other smarter lobbies and people making money out of it.”

CARA di Mineo, Europe’s largest refugee camp. Photo by: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly / CC BY-SA

Life in the reception centers

The pervasive corruption in the reception system exists for many reasons, among them the need for fluid capital to keep operations running. Government payments may often be delayed anywhere from six months to a year. This seriously disadvantages smaller operators and those who genuinely want to provide high-quality services and programs. It is in this context that organized crime networks, with their ability to front money for the cost of operations, become involved.

It affects day-to-day life in the reception centers in a number of ways. A child protection officer at one of the large migrant-serving NGOs, who asked to speak anonymously, told Devex that: “Corruption entails the lack of funds. The money may be laundered or disappear, which means no funds for services.” One of the main services she has seen to be lacking is for professional training, which would allow asylum seekers to enter the workforce. But other, even more basic services, may be lacking as well. “All of the services, like food, sanitation, health care … are lowered in standards” because of issues around corruption, she said.

The working conditions for reception center employees can also be demoralizing when they are not paid for six months to a year at a time, and often work many more hours than their contracts state. It is hard to attract experienced professionals into such a work environment, and even harder to keep them.

Between a rock and a hard place

While the Ministry of the Interior provides funding to the reception centers through the prefectures, it also directly funds several international organizations: Save the Children, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, and the International Organization for Migration. Each organization has its own mandate — Save the Children deals with minors; UNHCR with political refugees; and the IOM with victims of trafficking and other vulnerable people.

These organizations have access to the centers and can monitor them informally, but often find themselves caught between speaking up about corruption or bad services, and continuing to pursue their work. Alberto Biondo, an independent monitor with NGO Borderline Sicilia, said that this is because they would be denouncing reception centers managed by the same government agency that is funding them, which they worry could affect their contracts.

“Obviously if they find a situation of great hardship at a center it’s possible that they will tell the prefecture,” he said. “But they will not publically denounce the conditions ... The NGOs are trying to do their part in a system that doesn’t work, with huge limits placed on them by the Ministry of the Interior.”

Biondo gives the example of Medicins Sans Frontières, which was working with other international organizations in the hotspot processing center in Pozzallo, Sicily, but was not funded by the Ministry of the Interior. It withdrew from Pozzallo in December 2015, saying in a statement on its website that it could no longer operate in the “inadequate” and “undignified” conditions. It handed a report on the situation to the Italian Parliamentary Commission, claiming that its teams “have often had to face an insufficient and inadequate response from the authorities in charge” of Pozzallo in the course of their work.

Biondo believes that other organizations might complain “in other ways, more quietly.” But even NGOs that are not funded by the Italian state may be hesitant to complain, because they rely on local relationships and partnerships with center administrators to do their work. In order to provide programming and involve asylum seekers in their integration projects, NGOs need to have access to people living in the camps and may keep quiet in exchange for that, in what Harrabi described as a “stupid game.”

“These organizations don’t focus on the overall operations of the centers but on particular groups of people,” said Biondo. “They see the conditions, they note them, but it isn’t their mandate to report.”

A press officer at Save the Children confirmed to Devex that the monitoring of centers is currently informal, as there is no longer a direct mandate from the Ministry of the Interior to report on them following the end of the state-funded Praesidium Project in 2015.

When asked whether conditions at the centers have worsened following the end of that project, Alessio Fasulo, a program coordinator at Save the Children, said that while “it’s impossible to generalize, obviously an external monitoring structure guarantees greater protection for minors and center workers.” He added that the NGO has “still been present” as a monitoring force in the centers, but “with personal funds,” and without an official mandate.

What could change?

Doctors for Human Rights, or MEDU in its Italian initials, has worked in the primary reception system since 2014, identifying victims of torture and offering medical and emotional support. They have extensively documented conditions in some of the camps, including the CARA di Mineo, and have written that the system could be improved through the expansion of the secondary reception system, which is both funded and managed by the state, and offers broader reception services focused on education and integration. 

The privately-managed primary, or “extraordinary,” reception centers were originally intended to supplement these state-managed secondary reception centers, but have since become the rule: 78 percent of asylum seekers in Italy are currently housed in primary reception facilities.

But redistributing funds and residents from one system to another, as MEDU suggests, is easier said than done. As Le Nius reports, participation in the secondary reception system is voluntary and depends on political will at the municipal level. Of the 8,000 “comuni” in Italy, only about 1,000 participate in it. While this system is widely recognized as providing a higher-quality of services, giving greater attention to vulnerable populations and more robustly promoting social and economic integration, as well as mitigating concerns about the “migration business,” local politics is ultimately the deciding factor in its expansion. Many local politicians may opt out, fearing a negative backlash in response to the opening of a center that could take them out of power.

But that calculation may be changing. The author told Devex that some municipalities are beginning to decide “better a small [secondary reception center] today than a large extraordinary reception center tomorrow.”

The recent influx of migration-related money and jobs into Italy has also made many change their tune about migration. Biondo said that years ago, “The townspeople protested against the opening of Mineo [refugee camp] and today these same people protest against closing it” because of the economic benefit derived by the town.

Some groups advocate for a more diffuse reception model, noting that concentrating large number of asylum seekers in often-isolated reception centers undermines integration.  Refugees Welcome Italia, for example, promotes “family reception,” whereby individuals or families in Italy can offer a spare room for an agreed amount of time to an asylum seeker. Rome’s mayor, a member of the Five Star Movement, has suggested a system where families are paid up to 1000 euros ($1179.5) a month to do so.

These initiatives have come under criticism, though, because although they put roofs over asylum-seekers heads, and potentially money into people’s pockets, it is highly unlikely that such a system would be properly monitored, and there is as yet no coordinated system in place for the provision of legal, psychological and educational support services.

Biondo imagines that the system could be managed in a totally different way, for example, by giving a stipend directly to asylum seekers with which to find their own housing and buy their own food. “This would create immediate integration, as opposed to the system we currently have which is designed to make money for the cooperatives,” he said. If that money were to be distributed, he suggested, it could revitalize the economy.

In the meantime, NGOs dedicated to supporting migrants find themselves working both within and against a system set up to profit from migrants’ lives. NGO workers say they have the experience and expertise necessary to make the system function better, were their feedback to be heard — but a robust, independent monitoring mechanism is needed to achieve this.

Read more Devex coverage on migration and displacement.

About the author

  • Leanne Tory-Murphy

    Leanne Tory-Murphy is a researcher and reporter living in Palermo, Italy, where she recently completed research as a Fulbright scholar. She is a current journalism fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

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