Exploring asylum governance in Italy: the mismatch between regulatory frameworks and protection needs

Forced migrants and asylum seekers who have reached Italy over the last years often find themselves in situations of protracted precariousness, vulnerability and marginalisation, both in terms of their legal status and socio-economic conditions. Such situations of protracted displacement are largely (although not exclusively) determined by the regulatory structures – i.e. the legal and policy frameworks – governing migration, asylum and mobility at the international, European, national and local levels. This multi-level governance regime and the way it is implemented in Italy, as in other European countries, affect both the daily lives and future aspirations of protractedly displaced people, impinging on their legal and socio-economic marginalisation and hindering their mobility.

In Italy, a law reform passed in October 2018, the so-called “Salvini Decree” (Law Decree 113/2018 implemented by Law 132/2018) named after the former Minister of Interior Matteo Salvini, has changed in a significant way the national asylum system. As described in the Internal country report on Italy prepared in the framework of the formulation of the TRAFIG Working Paper No. 3 “Governing Protracted Displacement: An analysis across global, regional and domestic contexts”, the changes introduced by the Salvini Decree had a serious impact on the situation of many forced migrants and asylum seekers in Italy. The Salvini Decree increased the risk – especially for the most vulnerable – to fall into marginality and irregularity (Amnesty International 2019, Naga 2019, Swiss Refugee Council 2020).

One of the most relevant changes introduced is the abolishment of the residence permit issued for humanitarian reasons. Before the Salvini Decree, Italian authorities could grant so-called “humanitarian protection” to applicants who did not qualify for refugee status or subsidiary protection, based on “serious grounds, in particular of a humanitarian nature or resulting from constitutional or international obligations for the Italian state” (former wording of Article 5(6) of the Unified Text on Immigration, Legislative Decree 286/1998). In fact, at that time the majority of positive decisions on asylum applications in Italy used to grant humanitarian protection; the incumbent government, willing to cut down these permits, claimed that the criteria for the recognition of this form of protection were too vague and authorities’ margin of discretion was too broad.

After the enforcement of the Salvini Decree, the humanitarian protection permit can no longer be issued nor renewed. Instead, four new types of “special protection permits” were introduced. These are not only more limited in terms of duration and possibility to subsequently access a more stable legal status, but they also fail to cover the multiplicity of cases that could be covered under the category of humanitarian protection. In practice, this change in the regulatory framework affects especially those asylum seekers who might not qualify for international protection, but who may have suffered inhuman treatments, torture, violence or situations of conflict in transit countries, as in the case of many West Africans in Libya. Their condition of vulnerability is exacerbated by a regulatory framework that, in the blink of an eye, has started to deny them the protection it once granted.

The Salvini Decree also established that asylum seekers can no longer apply for civil registration in the city where they reside; only beneficiaries of international protection (or special protection) can. This provision was strongly criticised by civil society, while some Municipalities refused to apply it and several courts ruled against it, stating that it violates the principles of equality and non-discrimination. In practice, the prohibition of civil registration risks to limit asylum seekers’ access to welfare services, causing bureaucratic hurdles. More generally, in daily life civil registration and the identity card (issued by the Municipality where a person is registered) are required by many public administrations and private actors for a variety of practical purposes. This represents an additional factor of potential marginalisation for individuals who may find themselves in an already precarious situation.

The research carried out so far within the TRAFIG project shows that, on the one hand, the international protection regime is characterised by a number of gaps, most notably with regard to those forced migrants and displaced persons who do not fall within the strict definition of refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention. On the other hand, even those who are granted some form of protection may face difficulties to gain a stable legal status, safe and decent living conditions and socio-economic integration. However, a regulatory framework that does not correspond to displaced people’s protection needs may not only affect the daily life and future prospects of these persons, but may also produce broader side effects on the country of residence.

Apparently being aware of this situation, the current Italian government (in office since September 2019) is allegedly ready to propose a reform of the national legal framework on migration and asylum, which would target the most controversial provisions introduced by the Salvini Decree, including the abolition of the humanitarian protection permit. In the last months, the Minister of Interior Luciana Lamorgese has also stated in several public occasions (both in a parliamentary interrogation and on the media) that the government is considering the hypothesis of a regularisation of those irregular migrants who are already present in the country and have a job (an irregular one, of course). This long-awaited measure would allow many migrants – 300.000 at least (Il Sole 24 Ore, 10 February 2020) – who live and work in Italy without a residence permit and a job contract to get out of a condition of precariousness and marginality, and have the chance to sustainably integrate into the Italian society. However, these measures are still the object of a heated discussion within the government, whose outcome is not predictable.

The Italian case study represents a good example of how legal and policy mechanisms may have the potential not only to produce or worsen protracted displacement situations, but also to offer new policy solutions to tackle the situation of protractedly displaced people – in Italy, as well as in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

by Emanuela Roman/FIERI

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