Migration in Italy: a permanent emergency?


Last month, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) revealed that the Italian Navy had rescued some 6,000 undocumented migrants trying to reach Italy by sea over the course of just four days.

“Since the Italian government set up the rescue operation ‘Mare Nostrum’ in October 2013, following tragic shipwrecks in which over 600 people died, more than 20,000 people have been rescued at sea,” reads the UNHCR press release.

Amongst them were women and children from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Nigeria, Gambia, Mali and Senegal, who had sailed out from the Libyan coast in overcrowded boats.

These rescues highlight the dramatic rise of migrants choosing the risk of drowning at sea in an attempt to reach Europe over war, persecution and poverty.

In the first quarter of 2014 alone some 18,000 people arrived in Italy by sea, against 43,000 for the entire year of 2013.

According to Interior minister Angelino Alfano 300,000 to 600,000 more are waiting on Libyan shores to make the perilous journey to Europe.

However, in a country still bearing the consequences of the economic crisis, the €9 million (US$12.5 million) a month it costs to fund Operation ‘Mare Nostrum’ is coming under increasing fire, especially from right-wing political parties on the eve of the European Elections.

They believe that the operation – a military and humanitarian mission which involves patrolling the Channel of Sicily and provides food, clothing and health checks for rescued migrants – will encourage more to come.

Civil society groups disagree

In an interview with Redattore Sociale, Christopher Hein, director of the Italian Council for Refugees, defended the need for Operation Mare Nostrum by pointing out that there has not been a single shipwreck in over six months – a first since 1998.


One emergency plan after another

Regardless of this ongoing debate, the numbers of migrants arriving in Italy by sea recall the numbers seen in 2011, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

At the time, the Italian government promptly set up the North African Emergency Plan, which lasted until February 2013 and hosted approximately 28,000 refugees, just a very little part of the over 900,000 people who fled Libya alone.

But Italy, rather than establishing and coordinating a proper reception system, has demonstrated its incapacity to manage migration flows, stumbling from one emergency to the next.

The invested funds have yielded few results and have failed to materialise into a coherent structured welfare program based on work integration and housing.

Even the Council of Europe has described the Italian measures as “wrong and counterproductive”.

The improvised nature of the reception centres in Italy, which are closed and reopened without a real management program, the lack of a national system for the protection of unaccompanied minors, the overcrowding conditions in the hosting centres and the lack of suitable staff all illustrate this argument.

Alessandra Sciurba, a researcher on migration and poverty at the University of Palermo, told Equal Times that “this is a management method that allows the use of European Union funds. We’re talking continuously about the lack of reception structure in Italy; it is an irrational waste of human resources”.


Workers in Rosarno

For the migrants who remain in Italy, “home” is often made of plastic sheets and improvised wooden shacks.

To survive, many of them choose to work in the agricultural sector, like in the southern Italian town of Rosarno, near the western coast of Calabria, which made world headlines in 2010 when hundreds of migrants rioted against their hard - and often exploitative - working conditions.

Every year, some 2,000 migrants are involved in Rosarno’s black market: citrus harvesting.

Hassan Mamadudja, a 35 year-old man from Mauritania, worked in Rosarno for three months, less than three days a week, for an average of €25 (US$34) a day.

He is amongst the 28,000 migrants who arrived in Italy in 2011 and were hosted under the North African emergency plan.

Now that the season is over, Hassan made his way north, in search of a job. Living in a hosting centre in the northern city of Verona, he found himself in the same situation as three years ago: looking for a job and without real housing.

“They exploited us in Rosarno. I was feeling like in Libya during the war period, when we were hiding ourselves,” Hassan tells Equal Times.

The abuse of migrant workers is well documented: most of them receive no legal contracts, endure excessive working hours and harsh treatment, and are housed in places which lack of basic services like electricity, water and healthcare.

“Under these circumstances, diseases spread quickly,” says Alberto Barbiere, general coordinator of Medici per i Diritti Umani (Doctors for Human Rights, MEDU).

Yet, according to the data published by the independent doctors’ organisation, 70 per cent of these migrant workers hold a valid residence permit and nearly half gained a residence permit for international protection or humanitarian reasons.

MEDU has condemned the situation and asked the new government to put in place the necessary resources to fight against the exploitation of migrant workers in the Italian agriculture sector.

Marco Miccoli, of the Democratic Party, claims: “There is a need for a regulatory intervention, which must be accompanied by a political and a cultural movement: this is the effort.”

The Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) voted by the European Parliament in March has mobilised a total budget of €3.1 billion (US$4.2 billion) for the period 2014-2020.

Italy will be the second biggest recipient of this fund. “Now, the Italian government must take the responsibility to build an efficient system for the integration of migrants and asylum seekers," says the EU body.