Salvini’s Migrant Crackdown in Italy Is Creating a Crisis, Not Solving One


ROME, Italy—Things were looking up for 21-year-old Gambian migrant Lamin Saidykhan in early November 2018. Two years after arriving in Italy via a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, he had finally been granted humanitarian protection status by the Italian government, which would allow him to legally stay and work in the country for another two years.

But just a few weeks later, on Dec. 1, 2018, a decree passed by Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini became law. In addition to abolishing humanitarian protection status as part of a broader crackdown on migrants’ rights, the new law revoked resources like the right to stay in an asylum reception center for migrants like Saidykhan, despite having already been granted a humanitarian protection visa.

As a result, after waiting two years to receive his documents, Saidykhan was given a few weeks notice to leave the asylum reception center where he’d lived since arriving in Italy.

Saidykhan is one of more than 600,000 migrants to arrive by sea to Italy, one of the frontlines of Europe’s migration crisis, over the past five years. Now, immigrants in Italy are facing growing hostility, legitimized by Italy’s populist anti-immigration government that came to power in June 2018, formed by Matteo Salvini’s far-right League Party in an increasingly shaky partnership with fellow Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio’s Five-Star Movement, or 5SM.

The abolition of the humanitarian protection residency permit left Saidykhan and tens of thousands of other migrants in Italy with few, if any, pathways toward legalization. Paradoxically passed in a moment when migration to Italy had actually decreased, Salvini’s reforms will mean that many migrants who previously held legal status will become unauthorized and, as a result, unable to access basic resources that will help them find housing, work or education. These actions threaten to push Italy’s migrant community further to the margins in a country that has become increasingly antagonistic toward them.

When I spoke to Saidykhan in November 2018, he was downcast. “I risked my life to come here. I used to think Europe was easy compared to life in Africa. I try to find work, but I don’t have still, after two years here I don’t have nothing,” he said.

Saidykhan originally left Gambia in order to support his family. Grinding poverty is the main push factor for migration from West Africa, although some are also fleeing conflicts, such as the fight against Boko Haram, a terrorist group active across the northern regions of Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon. Others, such as the thousands of young women from Nigeria who are forced into prostitution in Italy, are the victims of sex trafficking networks.

Saidykhan worked as a carpenter before leaving Gambia, but his lack of access to education made it impossible to make ends meet for his family. “I wanted to go to school to study construction before coming on this journey, but we couldn’t pay school fees,” he said. “Our condition was poor there because I lost my father when I was young, it was only my mum and my two sisters,” he said. As far as he knows, his father died trying to reach Spain by boat.

Between 2014 and 2017, Gambians were among the top 10 nationalities taking “the back way to Europe,” as many in Gambia put it. Some 37,000 Gambians arrived by sea in Italy during that period, but many have also died on the journey, according to data from the U.N. Refugee Agency, or UNHCR. Despite a population of just 2 million, Gambians are now among the most numerous migrant nationalities in Italy.

Though now more politically stable than some of its neighbors, Gambia is classified by the U.N. as a “least developed country,” with an undiversified economy heavily reliant on subsistence farming. It has a youth unemployment rate of over 40 percent, according to the 2018 Gambia Labour Force Survey. Many families see sending their young sons to work abroad as the only escape route from poverty. To pay for the journey, they often sell assets, such as cattle or property, in the hopes of their sons reaching Europe to send money back. This has left many already impoverished families deep in debt.

Saidykhan endured a difficult and dangerous journey from Gambia via Libya, where he was kidnapped, detained and enslaved for four months. He was eventually able to pay a smuggler the price of passage on a boat across the Mediterranean, but the boat capsized and was rescued by an NGO vessel. When Saidykhan disembarked in Sicily, he was dispatched to a “hot spot” center for registering migrants upon arrival near the port. His fingerprints were taken, meaning he could only apply for asylum in Italy according to the European Union’s Dublin Regulations, by which anyone applying for asylum must do so in the first EU country they arrive in. He was then transferred to the asylum reception center on the outskirts of Rome.

Though there were challenges in those early months, Saidykhan was enthusiastic about the opportunities he’d had in Italy while living in the asylum reception center. He spoke animatedly about taking Italian and English lessons at a local school. A coach had tapped him to join a junior league football team, where Saidykhan relished the chance to play alongside Italians. “School’s something great to me. Football is also a chance,” he said, wearing the baseball jacket and cap he’d bought with his asylum-seeker allowance of 45 euros per month.

But with the implementation of the so-called Salvini Law, all of these prospects became a thing of the past.

This is the new reality for thousands of migrants stranded in Italy.

When Saidykhan found out he was going to be evicted from the reception center, he was frantic. He stopped going to school to look for work, which proved fruitless. In July he desperately called me, saying he was about to become homeless. By the end of July, he had been evicted and left Rome for Milan where he was sleeping on a friend’s floor. “There is no solution,” he said. “I have to stay [in Europe].”

This is the new reality for thousands of migrants stranded in Italy.

Protestors hold a banner with a drawing of Matteo Salvini, Milan, Oct. 6, 2018
(Photo by Matteo Bazzi for ANSA via AP Images).

The Salvini Law

The Decree-Law on Immigration and Security, better known as the Salvini Law, comprised a package of measures to reduce asylum protection for immigrants like Saidykhan and make it easier to expel them. The most far-reaching aspect of the package—both in terms of its consequences for migrants and for Italian society more broadly—is the abolition of the humanitarian protection residency permit, which an estimated 40,000 migrants benefitted from before the laws went into effect, according to Matteo Villa, a research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, or ISPI, a Milan-based migration think tank.

The humanitarian protection permit accounted for 21 percent of asylum decisions in 2018. It was granted to asylum-seekers who did not qualify for refugee status, which only 7 percent of migrants in Italy were granted in 2018. An additional 5 percent were granted subsidiary protection, an EU-wide status for those at risk of persecution if returned to their home country. The remaining 59,000 migrants were rejected for any protected status and are now likely among the estimated 500,000 unauthorized migrants residing in Italy, according to Villa’s research.

Humanitarian protection, which afforded a temporary residency permit for up to two years, could be granted for a range of discretionary reasons, including health problems and harsh economic conditions in the applicant’s country of origin. More recently it was increasingly applied in situations where applicants had suffered human rights violations on their journey to Italy, as growing numbers of migrants sought treatment for the physical and psychological trauma of experiencing torture and other abuses in transit. In Libya in particular, a transit country for Gambians coming to Europe, many face imprisonment and torture in inhumane detention camps. According to International Organization for Migration, or IOM, 5,600 migrants were detained in Libya as of mid-July.

The horrific conditions Saidykhan had endured on his journey to Italy are likely why he was granted humanitarian protection. When crossing Libya, a gang kidnapped him and took him to one of the many unofficial militia-run migrant detention camps in Sabha, where he spent four months. Every day he was there, he recounted, he was bound and sent by truck to work in the fields. When we met he still had the resulting scars on his wrists. After he escaped, he was detained again in Tripoli for another three months, where he witnessed a friend being shot dead. “I wanted to go back to Gambia when I came out,” he told me. “But the smugglers told me ‘I cannot go home, I have to go by sea or go back to prison.’” So he worked to pay the 700 Libyan dinar, or roughly $500, that the smugglers charged for his boat passage.

Other EU countries have their own versions of humanitarian protection, but Italy’s was comparatively broadly applied, according to Villa. Now, under the new law, the previous category of “humanitarian protection” has been removed. A nonrenewable, temporary protection on humanitarian grounds can only be awarded in exceptional circumstances, defined by six criteria that include domestic violence in the country of origin and severe health issues. According to Villa’s research, only around 2 percent of applications under the new grounds for humanitarian protection have resulted in affirmative decisions since the passage of the laws.

Those who already have humanitarian protection will not be able to renew the status when it expires, but may be able to convert those visas into work permits if they have job contracts—a difficult qualification to meet given that Italy’s economy has been in and out of recession over the past year and legal jobs for immigrants are already scarce.

“The possibility of regularization for migrants in Italy has been significantly reduced by the reforms,” Villa says.

Meanwhile, the new law also makes it easier to rescind protection and rights for migrants in the country, expands the list of deportable crimes, and increases funding for repatriations and fast-track deportation. As part of this measure, Italian police are carrying out raids on squatter settlements typically occupied by irregular migrants. The law additionally constricts access to the asylum system by limiting spaces in longer-term integration facilities to only minors and those with refugee status, and introduces a list of “safe” countries of origin whose nationals will be immediately rejected for international protection. Finally, it reduces opportunities for migrants to appeal verdicts to their immigration cases.

When sworn in on June 1, 2018, Salvini made a far-fetched promise to repatriate 500,000 irregular migrants in a year. Migration experts believe Salvini’s repatriation promise is wholly unachievable. Italy does not have the capacity—financially or politically—to do so, and it does not have enough bilateral agreements in place to repatriate on that scale. This is especially the case with West African countries relying heavily on remittances that have little incentive to take back deported migrants.

Instead, most of these irregular migrants will remain stranded in Italy, becoming part of the so-called clandestini, the Italian term for irregular immigrants, who exist on the margins of society.

In passing these harsh anti-immigration measures, Salvini is positioning himself as Europe’s Donald Trump, capitalizing on the frustrations felt by many Italians that the rest of Europe has abandoned their country to bear the brunt of the migration crisis alone. The tough stance on immigration certainly benefitted Salvini’s hard-right League Party in the European Parliament elections in May, when it won 34 percent of the vote, compared to 17 percent in Italy’s 2018 parliamentary elections. Its coalition partner 5SM slipped to 17 percent of the vote, after winning 33 percent in 2018. The role reversal heightened tensions between the two parties and pushed 5SM’s leader, Di Maio, to toughen his anti-immigration rhetoric.

“The decree reduces asylum protections, reduces integration costs, at no extra cost, so it’s great for the public purse and is proving very popular with voters,” says Villa. “But it comes at a big social cost.”

Villa has calculated that, in stripping humanitarian protection, the Salvini Law will leave 140,000 more migrants with no regular status by December 2020, half due to the historical average rate of rejections of asylum claims, and the other half due to ending humanitarian protection. That would bring the number of irregular migrants in Italy to roughly 640,000.

“The decree reduces asylum protections, reduces integration costs, at no extra cost, so it’s great for the public purse and is proving very popular with voters,” says Villa. “But it comes at a big social cost.”

On average, Italy deports between 6,000 and 7,000 people per year, according to Carlotta Sami, a spokesperson for UNHCR Italy. Paradoxically, despite Salvini’s promises to increase deportations, between June and December 2018 deportation rates have been 20 percent lower than during the same period in 2017, according to Villa.

For now, though, the contradictions between Salvini’s promises and his policies are not harming his soaring popularity. A recent poll put his party at 37.7 percent.

Dwindling Options

The consequences of the immigration reforms have already begun playing out as migrants with humanitarian protection face the expiration date of their permits. The estimated 40,000 migrants who received humanitarian protection permits between October 2016 and October 2018 will risk losing it over the coming months and years—if they haven’t already. But this is a low estimate, says Villa, as it does not include renewals that occurred during this period.

Evictions from the hostels that housed those with humanitarian protection status began as soon as the decree became law, because the status no longer includes the right to accommodation. Local charities and churches have had to step in to offer shelter to vulnerable migrants, but demand clearly outstrips the resources these organizations can deploy. By December 2020, Villa estimates that 20,000 protected migrants will be ordered to leave the facilities they are staying in, with many likely to become homeless.

In addition, the timing and nature of these evictions is unpredictable, depending on individual agreements with hostels and local governments’ approaches to implementing the decree. “They could be told to leave their camps at any stage,” Sami explains. “The level of information about what will happen to them is very poor. Many migrants are feeling very anxious and are thinking about trying to go to other countries.”

Lamin Saidykhan, now jobless and homeless, has considered leaving Italy due to the difficulties he’s faced in recent months. “I’m trying to find a job, but I can’t find work. I am going to try my luck in Germany, I know a Gambian boy in Hamburg,” he told me over WhatsApp in July.

But leaving could also be futile. Because EU law under the Dublin Agreement requires migrants to seek asylum status in the first country they are fingerprinted in, many find that their only options are to live clandestinely elsewhere in Europe, return to Italy or go home—an impossibility for many. Indeed, the number of asylum-seekers sent back to Italy after trying to leave by land has tripled in the past five years, as border police on buses and trains commonly target African migrants.

For the immigrants who stay, there are few options for survival. “People are finding themselves stranded in Italy without any papers, unable to access the job market and basically just living on the streets,” says Nando Sigona, a migration expert at the University of Birmingham in the U.K.

In addition to evictions, Salvini’s Law has also led to crackdowns on illegal squats, occupied mostly by irregular migrants trying to find alternative shelter to avoid living on the streets. Squatters now face steeper fines and up to four years’ imprisonment.

There are hundreds of squatter settlements across Rome and other cities in Italy. One of the largest and most frequently raided is the “Ghetto,” a vast, abandoned former penicillin factory off the busy Tiburtina Road in Rome’s industrial outskirts. When I visited in November 2018 with Saidykhan and Baba Camara, a fellow Gambian and migrant support worker in Saidykhan’s asylum center, most of its occupants had recently fled. Some had been there for several years until the police began their regular raids, said Camara.

“Before more than a thousand [were living here], but now everyone has gone crazy,” a man named Mamou, who had emigrated from Senegal and was living in the settlement, told me. “Every day police come so when you see police here you go out. Two, three days after, you come back,” he said. “We don’t have nothing here, no money, no water, no light.”

Without garbage collection or lavatories, the settlement was filthy and smelled of urine, with trash piled almost ceiling-high in some rooms.

Saidykhan, who was still living in the asylum center at the time, was adamant that he would never end up living in these conditions. “I cannot stay in that situation. I think they stay there because they don’t want to have a future, but me, I’m doing my training,” he said. But that was before he’d become homeless.

With the loss of humanitarian protection and the crackdown on squatting, even these options could be disappearing. “Salvini wants to close all these kinds of illegal places and arrest whoever they find inside,” Camara says. “That’s why most of them have gone away and are sleeping inside the train stations or on the streets.”

There are hundreds of squatter settlements across Rome and other cities in Italy,
which are frequently targeted by police raids, Nov. 2018 (Photo by Jason Florio).

Is Another Outcome Possible?

While Italy has faced immense pressure to respond to the needs of migrants and asylum-seekers, its government can no longer complain that it is bearing the bulk of the burden of the immigration crisis. Sea arrivals have plummeted since 2017, when Italy struck a controversial deal with the Libyan coast guard to “pull back” smuggler boats and return migrants to Libya. So far this year, the numbers of migrants returned to Libya has for the first time exceeded the number of arrivals to Italy, according to IOM’s latest data on sea arrivals.

There has also been a significant reduction in rescue vessels operating in the Mediterranean since the Italian government began closing its ports to them last year. Salvini’s latest security and immigration decree-bill, passed by the administration on June 14, will further increase punishments for NGO rescue vessels that defy orders and disembark migrants at Italy’s ports.

“Migrants are now more likely to die at sea,” says IOM Italy spokesperson Flavio Di Giacomo. In the latest incident on July 25, 150 migrants are feared to have drowned in a shipwreck off the coast of Libya.

Di Giacomo notes that this year marks “the lowest numbers of arrivals I have seen in recent years. This should be the right moment for the government to focus on a migrant integration plan.”

But integrating migrants into Italian society is not a good fit for Salvini’s nationalistic narrative.

“My reading is that Salvini needs irregular migrants to be visible to feed into this narrative of emergency, which is very much proving successful for him and his party,” says Nando Sigona. “It is becoming increasingly obvious the migrants are being used as a tool for gaining political leverage.”

As migrants have become pawns in Italy’s populist politics, violent undercurrents have begun to surface. Racially motivated attacks have already tripled between 2017 and 2018, according to a report by the Italian intelligence agency, which warned of further tensions in the run up to the European Parliament elections. The report noted that since Italy’s 2018 elections, the Italian far right has been characterized “by a pronounced vitality” and an increase in xenophobic propaganda “focused on the opposition to migration.” Indeed, across the road from the Ghetto, the words “Nazi Skins” had been graffitied on a wall in large black letters.

“It is becoming increasingly obvious the migrants are being used as a tool for gaining political leverage.”

Sadly, other mainstream political parties at the national level have not proposed an alternative to the anti-immigration policies pushed by Salvini and the League. In the past, Italy has responded to high levels of irregular migration through amnesty programs. But today, regularization would come at a huge political cost in terms of public support, and other political parties are reticent to stick their necks out in favor of pro-immigrant policies. Other alternatives, such as greater collaboration with the EU or forging bilateral agreements with other EU countries, also appear unlikely given the political climate and lack of available resources.

“In general, the mainstream parties are quite timid in really countering the anti-immigration narrative. They don’t want to be seen as soft on migration,” says Sigona.

However, there is resistance to Salvini’s hardline policies. Lawyers and judges are challenging his immigration rules. And at the municipal level, left-wing mayors in several cities including Palermo, Sicily and Florence declared in January they would not allow the decree to be implemented in their cities. Meanwhile, some Italians have marched in solidarity with migrants, while parishes within the Catholic Church and Pope Francis himself have made statements in support of their plight.

Nevertheless, the government’s anti-immigration stance has become even more entrenched. Salvini was noticeably absent from a meeting of 14 EU interior ministers in Paris last week intended to develop a “solidarity mechanism” for redistributing migrants across the EU.

“Salvini is fighting a migration crisis at sea that doesn’t exist,” says the IOM’s Di Giacomo. “At the same time, his policies are creating an emergency on land.”

Louise Hunt is a freelance journalist and filmmaker who focuses on social justice and international development. She lived in Gambia briefly during the Jammeh regime, witnessed the political transition and is now reporting on the transitional justice process and the victims’ movement, as well as illegal migration from Gambia to Europe. Follow her on Twitter @lhuntjourno.


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