A Red Cross volunteer takes a short rest during a refugee and migrant landing operation in Sicily, Italy. Photo by: Carlos Spottorno / British Red Cross / CC BY-NC-ND

PALERMO, Italy — A young man slumps over in a chair in the corner of a migrant drop-in center in Italy’s Sicilian capital of Palermo, then slides to the floor. He clutches his stomach, writhing and groaning. The volunteers call an ambulance and ask him some simple questions:

“Where are you from?” “Gambia.”

“Where are you staying?” “Am sleeping outside.”

“When is the last time you ate?” “One week ago.”

“Are you with friends or alone?” “Alone.”

Italy received two-thirds of undocumented migrants arriving in Europe in 2017, at almost 120,000. But under the country’s new hard-right government, the parameters for asylum have been massively narrowed, accompanied by a shrinking of state support for the refugee and migrant reception system.

In recent months there has been a growing epidemic of homelessness and substance abuse among refugees and migrants, particularly those who have recently turned 18 and may no longer qualify for housing or documents. At the same time, the changes have created a more complex and risky environment for the overstretched NGOs attempting to support them.

The Salvini era

This year’s election season was characterized by frustration over a failure to manage migration at the European level and the widely shared sentiment that Italy was unduly burdened. With the formation of the Lega-Five Star coalition government in June, the state has translated those sentiments into a hard-line immigration policy.

“Many NGOs are finding themselves deciding how to use their resources, and looking for a way to adjust in a system that is fundamentally criminalizing support to people who are undocumented.”

— Fausto Melluso, migration delegate, ARCI Palermo

That has crystallized most clearly in the Decree-Law on Immigration and Security — also called the Salvini Decree after interior minister Matteo Salvini — which will affect the lives of upward of 600,000 asylum seekers and temporary permit-of-stay holders living in the country. It just made it through a confidence vote at the end of last month, meaning it will now enter into law.

Crucially, the legislation makes it much more difficult to obtain international protection, entirely eliminating most forms of the most-commonly issued humanitarian protection — a two-year permit of stay — and requiring nearly all migrants to hold a valid work contract in order to renew their documents.

Due to the high rates of unemployment throughout southern Italy, where most asylum seekers are settled, and the impossibility of getting a work contract without valid documents, this will leave many people with no recourse but to become undocumented or “irregular,” unable to work legally or stabilize their legal status. 

“It’s a trap,” said Giulia Gianguzza, coordinator of a migrant legal and support center, the Sportello Sans Papiers in Palermo. “A person who has a humanitarian permit of stay needs to convert it into a work permit when it expires. Seeing as there is no work, they won’t be able to actually convert it.”

While the move does not breach international law, it may be in violation of the Italian constitution, though it will take some time before that is determined.

Without humanitarian protection, the most vulnerable will be left exposed, according to Gianguzza — including victims of sex trafficking who may fear denouncing their traffickers; those who may have suffered torture and mistreatment on their journey to Italy; and young people who arrived without their parents.

Another Catch-22 is that the law will prevent asylum seekers from registering with local government, meaning they will be unable to establish residency or get an identity card. That, in turn, makes it incredibly challenging to open a bank account, get a work contract, participate in internships, or renew or convert their documents.

Many provinces have put a pause on all document renewals and local government registrations while the new law is implemented, leading to a widespread sense of confusion and uncertainty over the status of asylum seekers — and a terrain that is increasingly difficult to navigate for NGOs offering support.

Fausto Melluso, the migration delegate to ARCI Palermo, said this process of “irregularization” means that many migrants are suddenly outside the mandate of pivotal institutions such as the U.N. Refugee Agency, which specifically serves asylum seekers and refugees. Other organizations may need to find new sources of funding as state support plummets; and to redefine their work, especially as the government has effectively closed the ports to further migrant landings.

“I hope they won’t leave,” he said of the NGOs, but “focusing on the recently landed doesn’t make sense anymore.” Some fear that without the sense of “crisis” created by the dramatic images of boats crossing the Mediterranean, international NGOs will start to pull out just as they are most needed.

Advocates also worry the law could intensify the “criminalization” of humanitarian work that engages with undocumented migrants, such as efforts to shut down sea rescue efforts and the arrest of a town mayor widely known for his integration work on charges of abetting illegal migration — an environment that makes it riskier to provide support to a population that will now be many times bigger.

A youth homelessness crisis

Asylum seekers in Italy are entitled to housing and food. Youth under the age of 18 live in reception centers but must leave once they turn 18. Ideally, they enter the “secondary reception system,” or SPRAR in its Italian initials, where they have access to more opportunities for education, training, and work.

Under the new government, migrants with humanitarian permits will no longer be permitted to enter SPRAR. Instead, it will be limited to those who obtain the much more onerous refugee status. Those with lesser forms of international protection will have no supported housing. That means they will be forced into private, often church-run, homeless shelters, or onto the street.

But even the private shelter system has become completely overburdened. “As of a few weeks ago, the shelters have been completely full,” Gianguzza said. “It really affects our daily work, because we have to spend so much energy looking for any available spots in these shelters.”

She gave the example of a young man named Musa who asked for her assistance finding a place to sleep. She put his name on a waiting list at one of the city’s main dormitories, with an estimate that a spot would open up in 20 days’ time.

Some local and regional leaders are seeking a suspension of the Salvini Decree. Council member Stefano Ferro of the city of Padova explained to online publication Il Mattino di Padova that if it “had been applied since the beginning of the year, we would have had another 1,300 newly undocumented people wandering the streets in our province, without the ability to work or integrate themselves. They would easily end up in the hands of organized crime.”

The situation is only likely to get worse. One advocate with a large international agency, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the situation, said they expect the number of reception centers connected to the Ministry of the Interior to be cut by about half, and those that remain to receive less funding. The ministry did not respond to a request for confirmation or comment on this.

Newly undocumented migrants are now seeking work in the few industries available to them — dealing drugs for local organized crime rings, or working in seasonal agriculture for €30 ($34)  a day. Working conditions for refugees and migrants in southern Italy are already highly precarious, and exclusion from formal immigration status heightens the risk of exploitation, advocates argue.

NGOs are still in the process of developing a response to this new politics. As Melluso explained, “in this moment, many NGOs are finding themselves deciding how to use their resources, and looking for a way to adjust in a system that is fundamentally criminalizing support to people who are undocumented.”

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.