Far away, so close

For migrants, reaching Italy is only the start


Mailand, Italien  EU laws force migrants and asylum seekers to choose between being stuck in Italy or moving on, outside the law.

Migrants and asylum seekers communicate with friends and family in a makeshift reception center in Milan’s central train station. © Silvia Giannelli

On a scorching August day, the refugee reception center in Milan’s central train station is packed, sweaty and noisy. Three Italian women working for the municipality distribute cold drinks, Nutella sandwiches and cookies to a constant stream of arrivals. Several Syrian mothers try to calm crying babies, while children in ragged clothing play with toys donated to the center’s improvised kindergarten.

A few young Eritrean men huddle around the four available computers. They are using Facebook to inform friends and family that they have arrived safely in Europe, and they’re looking up maps to plan the next step of their journey.

“In Italy there is not enough work, and the government of Italy, they don’t help refugees. Too many refugees sleeping in the park,” said Abraham, a 27-year-old who fled Eritrea, a country whose government is accused of widespread human rights abuses, according to the United Nations.

Abraham, whose identity is concealed for the safety of his family members who remain in Eritrea, wants to leave Italy for a European country that would give him a better chance of finding employment, integrating into society and living a normal life.

However, according to the Dublin Regulation, an EU law stating that asylum applications must be handled by the first EU country the applicant entered, he is not allowed to apply for asylum in a European destination outside Italy.

The reality for Abraham and thousands of others who reached Europe on perilous smuggling routes is that they are forced to operate outside the law after they reach the EU.

The combination of unfavorable conditions in Italy, such as a high unemployment, and EU laws restricting the movement of migrants and asylum seekers means people in need of protection who want to reach a European country where they will have a better chance to restart their lives must, once again, travel illegally.

And many do. In 2014 about 170 000 people — mostly from Syria, Eritrea and Somalia — entered Italy via the Mediterranean, but the Italian immigration authority registered only 63 456 asylum applications.

The majority of those arriving by boat in Italy in the past two years disappeared from the Italian asylum system and reappeared in Northern European countries, particularly Germany and Sweden, the EU members that have seen the largest rise of asylum applications. In response to the ongoing increase of refugees moving north from Italy Germany’s police recently demanded the reintroduction of internal European border controls.

Anywhere but Italy

The secondary movement of refugees from Italy northward is motivated by their desire to find a country that has a strong labor market and offers social support, according to Demetrios Papademetriou, the president of Migration Policy Institute Europe, a Brussels-based nonprofit think tank.

Germany’s unemployment rate of 4.7 is the lowest in the EU, and Italy’s 12.7 rate is one of the highest. Germany’s welfare system, Papademetriou said, provides refugees with education and training opportunities, which are not available in Italy because of lack of infrastructure.

“Most people don’t really want to end up in Italy,” he said, adding that many refugees usually prioritize finding an environment where they would “be able to settle down and make a productive life for themselves and their families.”

In Italy asylum seekers must wait six months before they are permitted to access the labor market, while in Germany they may legally work after three months, and in Sweden they may work immediately after the asylum application is registered.

But the biggest difference between the EU members comes after refugee status is granted.

In Italy and Germany, people with refugee status are entitled to the same rights as citizens. In Germany that means access to social welfare, child benefits, financial support and language courses as well as other forms of integration assistance. In Italy it’s a different story, said Luca Bettinelli, a policy expert on migration issues for Caritas Ambrosiana, a Christian nonprofit organization that manages a refugee dormitory in Milan.

“The social system in Italy is not good even for Italian citizens,” he said. “If you have never worked, you have no rights to unemployment benefits.” He added that refugees have a low chance of being employed because language courses are rare, and without speaking Italian, it is very difficult to work.

Fearing Dublin transfer

There are more than 93 000 people with refugee status in Italy and an additional estimated 46 000 asylum seekers — people who have applied for refugee status and been granted temporary protection while their applications are under review.

Those who decide to leave their EU point-of-entry nation for other European destinations — disregarding the Dublin Regulation — face harsh consequences. Farah Said Ahmad, a 33-year-old who fled Somalia because of the civil war there, is one of them.

Farah Said Ahmad, a Somali refugee, arrived in Italy, where jobs and resources are scarce. He tried to seek asylum in Germany but, according to EU law, can’t stay there because he was processed in Italy. © Yermi Brenner

His long and dangerous journey from Somalia involved crossing the Sahara, Libya and the Mediterranean. He was rescued at sea by the Italian navy and taken to the Sicilian city of Catania. On his arrival, on May 25 last year, Italian authorities fingerprinted him and input his information into Eurodac, the database for identifying asylum seekers and unauthorized border crossers. After a few days in Catania, he realized staying in Italy might not be a good idea.

“I met Somali people in the market there, and they said to me, ‘Life here is not good. It is bad. You have nowhere to sleep. You don’t get money. You don’t get work. Better for you to leave this country as soon as possible,’” Ahmad said at a refugee gathering in Berlin. “Because of that information, I decided to leave Italy and come to Germany.”

He was aware that getting asylum in another EU country would likely be difficult for him because of the Dublin Regulation. But at the same time, he was convinced that staying in Italy meant giving up any chance for a normal life.

Less than two weeks after arriving in Italy, Ahmad boarded a train to Germany. He applied for asylum in Berlin, knowingly breaking the EU law.

The German immigration officer who handled his application immediately saw on Eurodac that Ahmad was fingerprinted in Italy before arriving in Germany and rejected the claim before it was reviewed. He appealed the rejection, in hopes that German authorities would reconsider. For a year, he lived in a state-provided dormitory in Berlin, waiting for a response to his appeal.

Then authorities handed him a letter stating that he might be deported at any time. But so far, he has not been deported, so Ahmad continues to live in the dormitory, not knowing what the next day will bring.

If German authorities execute his deportation, he will become a Dublin transfer, an asylum applicant whose claim was rejected on the basis of the Dublin Regulation and who is returned to the EU point-of-entry country. A total of 4772 people were Dublin transfers from Germany to other EU countries last year, including 782 to Italy, according to data provided by Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.

Ahmad will not even consider going back to Italy. He is trying to find a lawyer to help him persuade immigration officers in Berlin to review his asylum request. He said after surviving a dangerous trip in the Sahara and crossing the Mediterranean on an inflatable rubber boat, he cannot give up now on the chance for a better life.

“In Italy there is no money. There is no house. There is no work,” he said. “If there was good life in Italy, I would not have come [to Germany].”

The fingerprint conundrum

Had Ahmad known to avoid being fingerprinted upon arrival in Italy, he would have had a much better chance of having his asylum case reviewed by German authorities.

According to EU law, all unauthorized border crossers and asylum seekers must be fingerprinted, but in Italy that law is not strictly enforced.

In a recent interview with local media, Italy's Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said some migrants refuse to be identified in Italy, and he admitted that immigration officials, who want to respect human rights of migrants, cannot force them to submit fingerprinting.

Abraham, the Eritrean in Milan, said he knew before leaving Libya that he should not allow Italian authorities to fingerprint him. He left Libya on July 30, was rescued at sea two days later and was taken to a port in Sicily.

Italian immigration officers questioned him and the 350 others who were rescued with him and repeatedly demanded to take the newcomers’ fingerprints, to no avail.

“They said it is not voluntary,” Abraham recalled. “But when all the people together said, ‘We don’t want,’ and the ladies started crying and babies started crying, they leave us.”

He said that of all the people who were rescued with him, most of them Eritreans, only four were fingerprinted. This is not a rare occurrence, according to Riccardo Clerici, a legal protection officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Italy.

“Since 2014, authorities are confronted with a very specific phenomenon, which is the arrival of hundreds of persons of certain nationalities at the same time, disembarking in ports which usually are not equipped for such procedures, who en masse refuse to be identified,” he said, referring to Syrian and Eritrean nationals.

Ahmad wishes he had refused to be fingerprinted in Italy. There are 16 904 people in Germany who, like Ahmad, are due to be Dublin transfers to other European countries, including 4574 who await transfer to Italy.

He said his only hope when he went to Germany was to enjoy basic living conditions, which were not available to him in Somalia or Italy. But with every day that passes without his situation being resolved, he’s losing hope.

“I don’t know what my future will be,” Ahmad said, with tears in his eyes. “I am searching for a better life, but I still don’t get it,” he said. “Sometimes I cry a lot. Sometimes I think about killing myself.”

This article was originally published on Al Jazeera America and was awarded 2nd place of hostwriter’s collaboration prize 2015.

Publiziert Oktober 2015
Erstveröffentlichung: 10.08.2015 (Al Jazeera America)