Italy’s Forgotten Refugees

The country’s structural support systems are quaking under the sheer volume of immigrants seeking asylum.

Giorgio Ghiglione June 5, 2014

Baba Konè, who fled to Italy from Libya in 2011, stands in front of the former Olympics complex where he lives with hundreds of other refugees. (Giorgio Ghiglione)

Baba Konè, 27, worked as a truck dri­ver in Libya until three years ago, when his par­ents were killed in the civ­il war that even­tu­al­ly oust­ed Muam­mar Gaddafi. Fear­ing for his own safe­ty, the Niger­ian left the coun­try in 2011 to cross the Mediter­ranean Sea by boat, even­tu­al­ly reach­ing the Ital­ian coast through the Strait of Messina. 

'There's 11 of us living in one room,' says Konè. Even so, he continues, the ramshackle conditions 'are not the problem.'

I came to Italy to seek a bet­ter life,” Konè says.

Konè now lives in Turin, a city in north­west­ern Italy that host­ed the Win­ter Olympics in 2006. He is just one of the tens of thou­sands of refugees who have escaped to Italy in recent years from con­flicts in the Mid­dle East and across Africa. The Euro­pean Union’s 2003 Dublin reg­u­la­tion states that asy­lum appli­ca­tions can only be processed in the nation where immi­grants first arrive; as a con­se­quence, Italy has shel­tered a mas­sive influx of refugees in recent years. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the coun­try lacks the infra­struc­ture to han­dle the increas­ing num­bers of peo­ple flee­ing for their lives — some offi­cials esti­mate that up to 800,000 are cur­rent­ly gath­er­ing in Libya to do just that.

This week, Italy’s inte­ri­or min­is­ter, Angeli­no Alfano, final­ly demand­ed help in the form of per­son­nel or finances from the rest of the EU. Oth­er­wise, he said, Italy will begin send­ing refugees to neigh­bor­ing coun­tries, no mat­ter what the Dublin reg­u­la­tion says.

Thanks to Italy’s over­loaded sys­tems, immi­grants who make it through the treach­er­ous Mediter­ranean jour­ney often find them­selves with­out any sup­port once they arrive. Konè, for exam­ple, even­tu­al­ly end­ed up squat­ting in an aban­doned Olympic com­plex in Turin.

Orig­i­nal­ly built to host ath­letes for the Win­ter Games, the build­ing — nick­named Moi” after the farm­ers mar­ket, Mer­cati Ortofrut­ti­coli all’In­grosso,” that used to take place in that site before the con­struc­tion — was essen­tial­ly aban­doned by the city of Turin after no one showed inter­est in pur­chas­ing it. After eight years of neglect, Moi is almost in ruins, with no run­ning water and chipped exte­ri­or walls.

Above all, though, it’s the lack of heat­ing that pos­es the biggest threat. Though Turin has a gen­er­al­ly warm cli­mate, tem­per­a­tures still fall to below freez­ing in win­ter, forc­ing Moi’s res­i­dents to gath­er around small stoves to avoid hypothermia.

In addi­tion, the build­ing is severe­ly over­crowd­ed — though it was orig­i­nal­ly con­struct­ed to house 200 ath­letes, Konè says he is one of about 600 refugees stay­ing there.

There’s 11 of us liv­ing in one room,” says Konè. Even so, he con­tin­ues, the ram­shackle con­di­tions are not the problem.”

The real issue, Konè says, is that it is near­ly impos­si­ble for the immi­grants to find work to sup­port themselves.

In 2011, the Berlus­coni gov­ern­ment launched the Emer­gen­za Nord Africa” to man­age the thou­sands of refugees who, like Konè, were enter­ing the coun­try from dan­ger­ous regions. Under this plan, all migrants cross­ing the Mediter­ranean were first held for sev­er­al months inside an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cen­ter” in Lampe­dusa, a small island near Sici­ly. After that, they were rout­ed through­out Italy into recep­tion cen­ter” facil­i­ties — gen­er­al­ly con­vert­ed hotels or resorts — where they were pro­vid­ed with food and med­ical care.

But the plan was only meant to be a tem­po­rary mea­sure. On Feb. 28, 2013, the gov­ern­ment abrupt­ly shut down the recep­tion cen­ters, leav­ing many refugees in a des­per­ate situation.

Many of them were left with­out know­ing a sin­gle word of Ital­ian,” explains Car­lo Mad­dale­na, a jour­nal­ist in Turin who vol­un­teers teach­ing Ital­ian to migrants. They don’t know how to apply for a res­i­dence per­mit, or even how to call a doctor.”

Mad­dale­na notes that the Ital­ian gov­ern­ment allo­cat­ed an enor­mous sum for the refugees” dur­ing the Emer­gen­za Nord Africa plan, which cost, in total, more than 1 bil­lion Euros. Each indi­vid­ual refugee, says Mad­dale­na, cost the gov­ern­ment about €42 per day dur­ing his or her stay at an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cen­ter. How­ev­er, this mon­ey was used just to pro­vide food and shel­ter; no plans were made for the immi­grants’ long-term prospects.

Such was the case with many of the asy­lum-seek­ers Konè knew at his recep­tion cen­ter in Pad­ua. After it closed, he says, he and the oth­er refugees were giv­en €500 (approx­i­mate­ly $670) to start a new life and sent off on their own.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, as Mad­dale­na argues, their lack of train­ing — or even knowl­edge of Ital­ian — has trapped them in lim­bo, with lim­it­ed means to find work or school­ing. Even if they do get help in apply­ing for res­i­den­cy after their two-year refugee sta­tus has expired, which can help them jump the admin­is­tra­tive hur­dles of access­ing social ser­vices, approval can take months.

Konè was lucky: After sus­tained pres­sure from allies in the activist com­mu­ni­ty, he was able to obtain the doc­u­ments allow­ing him to work in a solar pan­el fac­to­ry and take on a few oth­er scat­tered tem­po­rary jobs. But many of his neigh­bors in Turin — as well as the approx­i­mate­ly 64,000 oth­er polit­i­cal refugees in Italy — do not have access to such luxury.

And the sit­u­a­tion in Turin, local activists say, is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of hun­dreds of oth­ers occur­ring in cities around Italy. For instance, they argue, the fact that the migrants ille­gal­ly liv­ing in the for­mer Olympic com­plex haven’t been evict­ed yet is just a mat­ter of pub­lic order. After all, says one activist, Mon­i­ca Frat­tari, Hav­ing such a large [num­ber] of peo­ple in the streets, with no income nor prospects, would be a total dis­as­ter.” Author­i­ties know that, but they lack a clear idea of how to han­dle the prob­lem in the long term,” she con­tin­ues. So they pre­fer to turn a blind eye.” 

Frat­tari, who was instru­men­tal in orga­niz­ing the protests that even­tu­al­ly allowed Konè to achieve res­i­den­cy, says the immi­grants have effec­tive­ly been aban­doned. Once these peo­ple were released from the camps,” she says, It is as if they dis­ap­peared from the pub­lic scene.”

Local offi­cials in Turin, how­ev­er, say they are not the ones to blame.

Elide Tisi, the deputy may­or and a mem­ber of the cen­ter-left city admin­is­tra­tion, says offi­cials have point­ed out to the sit­u­a­tion of the Moi to the cen­tral gov­ern­ment.” There are about 2,300 refugees in Turin alone, though that num­ber varies giv­en how often they change cities in search of work.

Tisi says that part of the issue is the cen­tral government’s fail­ure to coor­di­nate a plan for the refugees with munic­i­pal offi­cials. The wel­com­ing of asy­lum-seek­ers has pre­sent­ed mis­takes,” she says, because the cen­tral gov­ern­ment did not con­sult the local authorities.”

Immi­grants are in dire straits, she says, because of the over­all lack of employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties in the cities where they settle.

We had no prob­lem with recep­tion [in Turin] when the econ­o­my was fine,” says Tisi. She sees the dif­fi­cul­ty immi­grants have with nav­i­gat­ing Ital­ian bureau­cra­cy as a sec­ondary issue; rather, she argues, The real prob­lem for for­eign­ers is to find a job.”

Oth­ers say that while the sys­tem itself is viable in the­o­ry, it’s not suit­able for the sheer vol­ume of peo­ple who reached Italy after the con­flicts inten­si­fied in Libya and oth­er African and Mid­dle East­ern countries.

The prob­lem is the num­ber of asy­lum-seek­ers,” says Loren­zo Truc­co, a lawyer and pres­i­dent of ASGI (Asso­ci­a­tion for Legal Stud­ies on Immi­gra­tion). In order to avoid fur­ther sce­nar­ios such as the one at Moi, Truc­co believes Ital­ian author­i­ties must change their approach on both a cen­tral and local level.

Italy does have some facil­i­ties avail­able, such as lan­guage schools, which could help immi­grants assim­i­late into Ital­ian cul­ture. But there sim­ply aren’t enough avail­able, Truc­co points out. Accord­ing to the New York Times, in 2012, Italy only had about 3,000 spots in such pro­grams—rough­ly five per­cent of the total refugee population. 

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, a struc­tur­al over­haul may be unlike­ly to occur any­time soon. Fear­ing a pub­lic opin­ion often hos­tile toward Africans, author­i­ties have fre­quent­ly opt­ed to effec­tive­ly con­fine refugees into a no man’s land. Once they reach Ital­ian soil, their exis­tence soon seems for­got­ten: The media talks about African asy­lum-seek­ers only when there’s some news about a migrant boat wreck­ing off the coasts of Sicily.

The truth is, for many politi­cians, immi­gra­tion is a top­ic too del­i­cate to deal with, espe­cial­ly in a time of eco­nom­ic crisis.

Sev­er­al big par­ties are open­ly anti-immi­gra­tion. At the last nation­al elec­tion in 2013, the third-most pop­u­lar par­ty was the Movi­men­to 5 Stelle”, or Five Stars Move­ment, which oppos­es grant­i­ng cit­i­zen­ship to for­eign­ers. Mean­while, the right-wing Lega Nord”, or North­ern League, which was part of the gov­ern­ment coali­tion until Novem­ber 2011, reg­u­lar­ly orga­nizes demon­stra­tions against the pres­ence of immi­grants in Italy. A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of Ital­ians are resis­tant to per­ma­nent solu­tions for refugees, fear­ing that for­eign­ers take away jobs and resources.

Giv­en this cli­mate, it is no sur­prise that few politi­cians have both­ered thus far with long-term solu­tions for the ris­ing num­ber of immi­grants. But Truc­co thinks the cir­cum­stances require cohe­sive action, and fast. We need to expand the sys­tem of recep­tion of local com­mu­ni­ties, over­com­ing the log­ic of emer­gency,” he says.

Most of all, Truc­co says, We must stop see­ing immi­grants only as a prob­lem of pub­lic order.” Instead, he says, we should start see­ing them as a peo­ple capa­ble of bring­ing resources and ben­e­fits to the country.” 

Gior­gio Ghiglione is a jour­nal­ist and video mak­er based in North­ern Italy. He has worked, among oth­ers, for La7 TV and the Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor. His web­site is http://​journoini​taly​.word​press​.com.
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