While they seek better lives in Europe, asylum seekers in Italy now face losing precious opportunities to integrate into Italian society, and an increased risk of deportation.
This month, Italian President Sergio Mattarella signed a law, previously enforced on October 5 as a decree-law, which ends humanitarian protection for asylum seekers in the country.
This is a result of growing resentment and hostility towards migrants into Italy, since the populist Five Star Movement & Lega Nord coalition government was sworn in last June, after Lega Nord campaigned on an anti-migrant basis.
Migrants usually arrive from sub-Saharan African countries like Nigeria, Mali, Gambia, Senegal Ivory Coast, as well as Bangladesh, Eritrea, Somalia and Egypt, often fleeing war-torn environments and extreme poverty. They face the treacherous Mediterranean Sea route to Europe, where many die or end up in trafficking, suffering torture and other human rights violations.
Those fortunate enough to reach Italy previously had a two-year humanitarian protection and were hosted in either of two levels of ‘accoglienza’ (reception camps).
The second tier, managed by the Protection System for Refugees and Asylum Seekers and the Ministry of Interior, provided greater means for migrants to integrate into Italian society. Specialist teams gave asylum seekers and refugees training for work, while helping them find internships or job opportunities.
People in these camps were forced to stop living a normal life involving work, leisurely activities and their passions, despite moving to Europe for a better life. Often, they would face discrimination and coldness on the streets
A number of African migrants are removed from a former penicillin factory in Rome where they were living in poverty and in poor hygienic conditions [Getty]
Part of the budget focused on cultural activities, including workshops for leisure activities such as photography, filmmaking, acting and sports. The goal was to help them familiarise themselves with Italian society and grasp the Italian language.
The first level however only provides basic treatment, including some food and water, clothes, dorm beds, a tiny stipend of just 2.5 euros per day, with camps providing cultural mediators, legal services, and sometimes Italian language lessons. Some camps, especially in the south, have dire and more overcrowded conditions.
People in these camps were forced to stop living a normal life involving work, leisurely activities and their passions, despite moving to Europe for a better life. Often, they would face discrimination and coldness on the streets.
To counter this, some volunteers work as cultural mediators to provide stimulating cultural activities for these migrants as a means of integration, helping them acquire knowledge of Italy’s social and cultural reality, and to help them mix with local Italians.
Gaining an appreciation of the language of art is a key focus in these activities, to enhance the asylum seeker’s sensibilities towards universal matters, promoting hopeful stories of human resistance to bridge cultural distances.
Escaping the daily void of waiting for documents or simply surviving, some migrants were able to have more stimulating routines and return to ‘human life’, as these activities aimed to improve people’s time in the lowest level reception camps.
The cultural activities aim to improve the quality of time in first level camps, going beyond their basic needs of food and accommodation. Instead the volunteers focus on providing human and emotional requirements like relationships – such as creating networks with locals, along with leisurely and cultural activities like those provided in the second level camps.
Cherif Seckouna Kande, 31, from Senegal, who claimed asylum in Italy in June last year, is one of those who had previously benefited from the cultural activities.
“I think that when a person is stuck in a camp, they become nervous. A human being must do something,” said Cherif.
“When you have friends, when you go out with them to watch a movie or visit an exhibition, this is so important because you forget your problems. But if you are stuck in a room, just eating and sleeping, you start thinking too much and this is not good.”
Cherif adds it is vital, as an asylum seeker, to make friends with Italian people as “we are all equal as humans and can find a way to relate to one another.”
He adds that one needs courage to befriend locals, which he really desires to do. Although he did receive a cold reception from some in Italy, he adds, “I now have a couple of Italian friends, and when I am with them, I feel good.”
While stories like Cherif’s are more hopeful, other asylum seekers will not have such opportunities to integrate and settle into Italy.
Ordinary asylum seekers are now barred from second level camps, which are restricted to those with very exclusive circumstances such as those with refugee status and non-accompanied minors
With the new decree, the two-year humanitarian protection, which was previously granted to those who had successfully ‘integrated’ and could have eventually been converted into a work permit and, has been scrapped.
Now, they are replaced with a number ‘special permits’, many of which are unable to be turned into work permits. Therefore, migrants who had started to build lives and networks in Italy face deportation.
Ordinary asylum seekers are now barred from second level camps, which are restricted to those with very exclusive circumstances such as those with refugee status and non-accompanied minors.
The government has deliberately carried this out to make migrants’ futures more insecure and uncomfortable, argues Claudia Monti, legal assistant and expert of migration policies.
“Not only will this prevent people from being able to live fulfilling lives in Italy, many could be forced to return to their home countries. Since the Italian government will not provide an effective return policy home, many of them will become irregular migrants” she told The New Arab.
Many have already been made homeless because of the new regulations, and risk being driven into criminal activity. In Milan alone, at least 900 more people are expected to be forced onto the streets this month.
The already limited services of the first level camps also face further cuts and conditions will get worse for inhabitants.
Italy received over 130,000 asylum seekers’ applications last year, however the number dropped to around 40,000 by September 2018, largely because of the Italy-Libya agreement to curb the migrant flow into Italy, and increasingly restrictive government policies.
While, over the last three years, the previous government made some steps to approve the quality of time in reception camps, life will only get harder for asylum seekers, representing a significant step back.