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Italy failing refugees

Diego Cupolo, SicilyMay 18, 2016

Humanitarian groups are questioning Italy's ability to handle minors and victims of torture, as irregular migration from North African continues. Diego Cupolo reports from Pozzallo, Sicily.

Italien Flüchtlinge im Hotspot von Pozzallo, Sizilien
Image: DW/D. Cupolo

Of the 142 asylum-seekers cooped up over the weekend in Sicily’s Pozzallo hotspot reception center - one of several in southern Italy - 120 were unaccompanied minors, some as young as 10 and 12 years old.

After visiting the guarded complex, where youths mostly from Gambia, Nigeria and Cote-d'Ivoire sat around aimlessly, sometimes for more than a year at a time, migration activist Filippo Miraglia called for the Europe's hotspot system to be shut down.

"This place is not made for long-term lodging and is not in line with child protection laws in Italy," Miraglia, who serves as vice president for the Italian Cultural and Recreational Association (ARCI), told DW. "There is a process to be followed when requesting asylum and this process is neglected in the use of hotspots … the entire system is illegal."

Miraglia's call was echoed by hundreds of humanitarian workers who gathered in the southern Sicilian port town recently for the Sabir Migration Forum to analyze and denounce Italy's approach to irregular migration. Participants protested against temporary registration centers, such as the hotspot in Pozzallo, claiming they are being used as detention hubs where minors and victims of torture are held indefinitely without access to adequate services.

In response to the protests, Italian authorities agreed to relocate 52 minors from Pozzallo to another facility in Licata, but migration activists say much more is needed to reform what they say is a broken integration system.

'Beyond the numbers'

While the number of asylum-seekers arriving via the Balkan route dropped 90 percent in April, the amount of people taking the North African route has held steady. About 33,000 people have disembarked in Italy so far this year, nearly the same as in 2015, according to Federico Soda, Italian chief of mission for the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

boats in a harbor copyright: Diego Cupolo
While the stream of refugees using the Balkan route has dropped off, the influx to Italy is unabatedImage: DW/D. Cupolo

"We have to look beyond the numbers to find solutions and create change," Soda said. "European nations have to deal with many complicated issues, all at once, in a very short time and they are simply not acting fast enough."

Soda noted one reason for long delays in the Italian registration process is that asylum-seekers taking the North African route originate from much more diverse set of countries and circumstances than, for example, Syrian and Afghan refugees arriving in Greece.

As a result, each case must be analyzed individually by Italian authorities, which often leaves people stranded in hotspots so long many abandon the formal reception process and instead seek out black market work in agriculture and urban centers throughout the country.


According to Soda, many Sub-Saharan Africans also leave their home countries without a destination in mind.

"We found many don't leave Europe-bound, their projection isn't Rome or Berlin," Soda told DW. "They go from one country to the next, often being persuaded by smugglers who lie to them about the good things awaiting them just across the border."

This was the case for Gassama Saalim, a 22-year-old Gambia-native who left home to find work in Senegal. When things didn't work out as he expected, Saalim tried his luck in Mali where he picked up small gigs that led him to Niger, Libya, and eventually Sicily.

"You go to a place and find the situation is bad and you keep pushing yourself forward," Saalim said.

A diehard fan of soccer team AC Milan, Saalim was thrilled to be in Italy and immediately applied for asylum upon arrival. A year and seven months later, he is still waiting for a response - a relatively common waiting period for people filing claims in Italy.

Mental health dilemma

Still, Saalim said being stuck in Sicilian reception centers was better than being in Libya, where he was kidnapped twice by armed militias. When asked to describe the experience, Saalim said he wasn't comfortable talking about the subject.

"Even when I go to interviews for asylum, I tell them I prefer not to talk about Libya," Saalim told DW. "I don't want to remember that time. I saw many friends die, including my best friend, and I couldn't do anything to help them."

Another point of concern for humanitarian workers is the lack of mental health services available to asylum-seekers in Italian hotspots. As many as 80 percent of people arriving from North Africa reported being physically assaulted or tortured along the route to Italy, according to Flavia Calò, a researcher with Doctors for Human Rights (MEDU).

Having conducted hundreds of interviews with people in Italian reception centers for an upcoming report, Calò said she many showed signs of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and somatization, or the production of recurrent medical symptoms without perceptible causes.

"[Crossing] the Mediterranean is probably the lightest experience the people in our centers experience," Calò told DW. "This is why we need humane reception centers. Many have profited and taken advantage of these people."

man walking past harbor copyright: Diego Cupolo
Experts say the number of people on the move will rise exorbitantly over the next decadesImage: DW/D. Cupolo

'Looking for quick solutions'

Though the Italian reception system has its shortcomings, Federico Soda of IOM said most European nations still have no clear immigration plan - five years after the Arab Spring and the subsequent refugee crisis.

The number of people on the move will grow in the coming decades, according to Soda, who said rising sea levels are expected to displace 200 million people worldwide by 2050.

"If we think deals like the one with Turkey are the answer, then we are looking for quick solutions for long-term problems that involve a much more comprehensive approach," Soda said.