After the Boats: Refugee Reception and the Production of Irregularity in Italy’s Migration Crisis
Refugee center, Tor Sapienza, Italy AP Photo/Alessandra Tar

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“We must stop this carnage.” These five simple, powerful words were used by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to describe the migration situation in the Mediterranean Sea in April 2015.[1] His impassioned call to arms came in the same month that over a thousand men, women, and children lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea. Repeated summits followed over the subsequent months, bringing Europe’s leaders together to prevent further loss of life at sea, aiming to find ways to stop migrants from making the journey and closing off what Renzi called “massive illegal migration flows.”[2] Today, in the same stretch of water to the south of Italy where so many lives were lost, migrant boats are intercepted by larger ships as part of the European Union’s joint operations Triton and Sophia. Barely anyone lands directly on Italian shores anymore; nearly all migrants are intercepted at sea. The migration flow hasn’t stopped, but the arrival on shore is now somewhat more orderly.

But what happens once people have been taken to land? There, another potential crisis lurks: one not of mobility, but of the reception, protection, and integration of those migrants and refugees who have made it to Europe. This essay takes a closer look at the situation in Italy, where there has been widespread entry of people into positions of precariousness and vulnerability, living in informal settlements, often without humanitarian protection or residence permits. It is a situation that highlights the longer-term implications of the crisis and the shortcomings of the responses that have so far been put in place.

Looking for Space

The Italian migrant and refugee reception system ... is an approach fraught with difficulties.

The Italian migrant and refugee reception system seeks to rapidly identify those who disembark at the country’s ports and relocate them, either to reception centers within Italy, out of the country through transfers to other European Union (E.U.) countries, or deportation to their countries of origin. It is an approach fraught with difficulties. Despite the government’s creation of thousands of new places in temporary centers during 2015, there remains a lack of space, aggravated by lengthy times to process asylum applications and a bureaucratic system that is confusing and unnavigable to many of the applicants. People in some centers report waiting up to 18 months to see the commission that will determine their status. Reports have too often shown the absence of the minimum services and support needed to navigate the asylum system.[3] Elsewhere, outright corruption has been uncovered.[4]

The experience of M. (his name has been anonymized) highlights the presence of administrative and geographical gray areas in the Italian reception system. After disembarking at a port in eastern Sicily, M. was transferred to a reception center in the nearby countryside, situated on a main road away from any nearby towns. Once upon a time, this place was a hotel; now it acts as a first place of accommodation for migrants and refugees after the sea crossing from North Africa. From the outside, only pine trees and perimeter fencing are visible. By the entrance, rubbish bins gather flies on a street with no lights or pavement.

M. was happy to be at the reception center. It was clean, he could rest, and there was food and water. Compared to the chaos of Libya, from which he had departed days earlier, he felt safe. When I met him, however, he was no longer staying at the reception center. Instead, he was in an informal settlement in a church 35 kilometers away. He, along with around 30 other people, had been removed from the reception center under confusing circumstances; they had been told to sign a piece of paper and that they could not stay at the center any longer. The paper was a “deferred expulsion order,” a document declaring that the holder cannot remain in Italy and must leave the country within seven days.[5] A member of the reception center staff told them the direction to walk in; seven hours later they arrived at their destination.

Deferred expulsion orders of this kind are senseless. The people to whom they are given cannot pay for the travel to depart Italy, and even if they could, in many cases they would not return to the place that they had risked their lives to leave. They also cannot be forcibly removed from Italy due to the absence of readmission agreements with their countries of origin. M., along with the others given the order, is from Sub-Saharan Africa, specifically from a country that is considered by some to be “safe” simply because it is not at war.

Under international law, a claim to asylum should be judged on the individual’s experience and not simply whether they come from a country that will take them back.[6] M. had been beaten in his hometown and shot in Libya. Despite this, in Italy he found himself in “limbo,” neither given international protection nor sent away.

Similar stories of people given expulsion orders and told to leave the country but not physically removed are common all over Italy.[7] In fact, this unusual process does serve a particular function within Italy’s migrant and refugee reception system. Removing people from reception facilities frees up space for new arrivals. The usefulness of this tactic for the Italians is accentuated by the seemingly discretionary nature of the orders; they can be given whenever and wherever a short-term fix is needed. In the short term, this discretion can buy some time; in the long term, however, it is sure to create significant problems.

Short-term Response: Long-term Challenges

The focus on short-term responses to migration across the Mediterranean is not particularly new in Italy. Early in 2011, as the Arab Spring started to give way to political and social instability across North Africa, thousands of migrants boarded boats and set out across the Mediterranean Sea towards southern Europe. Over the course of the year, nearly 63,000 arrivals were registered in Italy. In response, the government declared a state of emergency in order to legitimize the use of exceptional powers to set up temporary accommodation, usually in tents on the island of Lampedusa and in the countryside of Apulia, as well as in sports halls, hotels, nightclubs, and other improvised settings around the country.

Migrants and refugees have had to self-mobilize to provide themselves with somewhere to live, forming informal settlements in locations across the country.

Italy eventually declared an end to the emergency in 2014, granted the residents of these temporary housing centers 500 Euros each, and left them to look after themselves.[8] Many of those who remained in Italy have done so with a precarious legal status and in poor living conditions. Migrants and refugees have had to self-mobilize to provide themselves with somewhere to live, forming informal settlements in locations across the country.[9]

These settlements and the experiences of the people who live in them highlight the need for a longer-term approach to migrant and refugee reception in Italy and across Europe.

One such informal reception system could, until April 2016, be found at the ex-SET warehouse in the city of Bari.[10] Located in a residential quarter of the city down near the waterfront, the ex-SET is a barren place with crumbling bare concrete walls, broken windows, and asbestos lining the roof. Inside the warehouse itself, there is no running water or electricity, which must be provided by a temporary cabin outside. During 2015, lines of blue tents, emblazoned with the logo of the regional government, housed around 150 or so people in this warehouse.[11] The reported cost for local authorities was 1.6 million Euros.[12]

A varied population resided at the ex-SET, including people who had lived in Italy for years and others who were more recent arrivals. While some were without documents and others had expired visas, they lived alongside more recent arrivals who had moved out or been excluded from the formal reception system altogether.

On one visit, I met a man searching through bags of recently donated clothes at the entrance. He smiled and was eager to talk to me; he had no documents because it took too long to get them—everything took too long. He had lived on the street before the city council had provided the tents in this warehouse; although they had declared it would be a temporary solution for no more than four months, more than a year had already passed and both the tents and the migrants were still there. During this period, people adapted and started to try to find their own way. A small, local economy developed, with tailors, hairdressers, and other services among the tents, invisible from the everyday life in the city outside. 

The Hidden Crisis

The brief examples given in this essay draw attention to a deep contradiction at the heart of the migration control regime in Italy and much of Europe: although there is consensus on the value of saving lives, there is less agreement about what should happen beyond that.

The current situation is one in which European national governments are generally reluctant to allow migrants and refugees to stay in their countries. In Italy, the rejection rate of applications for asylum rose from 48 percent in January 2015 to 68 percent in December of the same year.[13] Over the same period, the percentage of people being granted short-term visas for humanitarian protection also fell from 43 to 29 percent.[14] This restriction of pathways towards a regular legal status in Italy is placing people in vulnerable and precarious positions. 

As demonstrated by Prime Minister Renzi’s remarks at the beginning of this article, the policy problem of the migration crisis is often presented as one of “massive illegal migration flows” of the physical act of moving. The response that is often suggested is increased border controls, such as pushbacks to points of departure and readmission agreements with origin or transit countries, to bring population movements under control.15]

But the situation in Italy shows that irregular legal statuses and informal residence and employment are (re)produced within Europe. As noted by one interviewee for a recent study; “in Africa I lived in a house made of bricks; it’s here in Italy that I found out about tents.”[16] The arbitrary decision-making, deferred expulsion orders and informal living arrangements highlighted in this article clearly illustrate of how many migrants and refugees who have arrived in Europe over recent years are repeatedly confronted by what Nick de Genova has called their “deportability,” or the chance that they could be removed from the country at any moment.[17] Often, it drives them towards unregulated, exploitative labor and unsafem informal accommodation.

As shown here, the Italian government rarely physically removes people from its territory, but the fact that they could be deported or removed from reception centers and temporary accommodation perpetuates a condition of precarity and invisibility in their host society. To fill the gap, solidarity movements and informal support networks have sought to provide some form of stability for these migrants. A similar pattern has been found in Greece.[18] However, a long-term solution will surely be required to better enforce the rights of migrants and refugees arriving at Europe’s shores.

The material for this article comes from two projects: “Unravelling the Mediterranean Migration Crisis” (www.medmig.info) is led by Coventry University in partnership with the universities of Birmingham and Oxford. It is funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council and Department for International Development. “Undocumented migrants and refugees at Europe’s southern border” is led by Dr Simon McMahon and is funded by a Coventry University research grant.


[1][1] Matteo Renzi, “Helping the Migrants Is Everyone’s Duty” The New York Times, April 22, 2015, accessed July 5, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/23/opinion/matteo-renzi-helping-the-migrants-is-everyones-duty.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] “'We were abandoned': migrants tell of suffering in Italy's private shelters” The Guardian, November 26, 2015, accessed July 5, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/26/italy-migrant-shelters-refugees-naples-landlords.

[4] Stefano Liberti, “Il grande affare dei centri d’accoglienza” Internazionale, December 3, 2014, accessed June 28, 2016, http://www.internazionale.it/reportage/2014/12/03/il-grande-affare-dei-centri-d-accoglienza.

[5] Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo, “Il respingimento differito disposto dal questore e le garanzie costituzionali” Diritto, Immigrazione e Cittadinanza, 2 (2009), 15-29, accessed June 28, 2016, http://www.francoangeli.it/riviste/Scheda_Rivista.aspx?IDArticolo=36612&idRivista=89.

[6] United Nations High Commissioners (U.N.H.C.R.), Refugee Protection: A guide to international refugee law, (Geneva: UNHCR), 47, http://www.unhcr.org/uk/publications/legal/3d4aba564/refugee-protection-guide-international-refugee-law-handbook-parliamentarians.html.

[7] For examples, see “Respingimenti, si ricomincia a cacciare via i migranti ‘economici,’” Repubblica, October 19,  2015, accessed June 28, 2016, http://www.repubblica.it/solidarieta/immigrazione/2015/10/19/news/respingimenti-125425049.

[8] LasciateCIEntrare, Accogliere: la vera emergenza (Rome: LasciateCIEntrare, 2016), 119.

[9] Medici Senza Frontiere, Fuori Campo (Medici Senza Frontiere, 2016).

[10] “Bari, addio alla 'tendopoli della vergogna': cento migranti traslocano a Villa Ata a Palese,” Repubblica, April 20, 2016, accessed June 28, 2016, http://bari.repubblica.it/cronaca/2016/04/20/news/migranti-138012992.

[11] LasciateCIEntrare, Accogliere: la vera emergenza (Rome: LasciateCIEntrare, 2016), 119.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Data from Ministero dell’Interno.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Simon McMahon, “The UK’s plans to prevent migration from Libya show a dangerous unwillingness to learn from the past,”  LSE Europp, March 31, 2016, accessed June 28, 2016, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2016/03/31/the-uks-plans-to-prevent-migration-from-libya-show-a-dangerous-unwillingness-to-learn-from-the-past/.

[16] LasciateCIEntrare, Accogliere: la vera emergenza (Rome: LasciateCIEntrare, 2016), 120.

[17] Nick De Genova, “The Legal Production of Mexican/Migrant ‘Illegality,’” Latino Studies, 2 (2004): 160-185.

[18] Vicki Squire, “City Plaza: a way forward for the European ‘migration crisis,’” Open Democracy, accessed June 28, 2016,  https://www.opendemocracy.net/vicki-squire/city-plaza-way-forward-for-european-migration-crisis