Italy Narrows Right to Asylum After Boat Arrivals Quadruple

Giorgia Meloni also raises prison sentences for human traffickers.

Mediterranean Sea migrant boat
Migrants are rescued by Red Cross in the Mediterranean Sea, August 18, 2016 (Italian Red Cross/Yara Nardi)

The Italian Senate has voted to raise penalties for human traffickers and narrow the eligibility criteria for asylum.

The reforms are part of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s policy to bring down immigration. They have yet to be approved by the lower house, but her government has a majority there as well.

Meloni’s next step will be convincing other European leaders of migration reform. There is not much more Italy can do on its own to stop arrivals by sea, which quadrupled in the first three months of this year.

Media are distracted

For all the handwringing about Meloni’s “far-right” and even “fascist” immigration program during last year’s parliamentary election campaign, there has been scant coverage now that she is turning plans into action. (I thought her proposal, to review asylum claims abroad, so refugees wouldn’t need to make a potentially futile journey across the Mediterranean Sea, made sense, but others saw it as evidence of xenophobia.)

Of the English-language newspapers, only The New York Times has covered the reforms, and even if devotes half its story to Meloni’s synthetic food-banning agriculture minister and brother-in-law, Francesco Lollobrigida, putting his foot in his mouth by warning of “ethnic substitution” if native Italians don’t have more kids.

Meloni herself has spoken of a “large unused reserve” of female labor. Just half of Italian women are in work, the lowest female labor force participation rate in the EU. Italian men are twice as likely to start a business. Meloni wants to cut taxes for families, subsidize daycare and help young couples buy their first home.

The new leader of Italy’s left-wing opposition party, Elly Schlein, accused Lollobrigida of “white supremacy” and said Meloni’s policies reminded her of Benito Mussolini’s, who also encouraged women to have large families (but not work).

Why asylum is a priority

In the very last sentence of the New York Times story, we learn that 34,700 “migrants” arrived in Italy in the first three months of this year, up from 8,600 in the same period last year.

Actually, the figure is for migrants who arrived by sea, about two-thirds of whom apply for asylum in Italy. The rest try for asylum in another EU country. It doesn’t include exchange students and foreign nationals who migrate to Italy for family or work.

Italy takes 8 percent of asylum seekers in the EU. It receives a far larger share of arrivals.

Last year, 105,000 arrived in Italy by sea, up from 67,000 a year earlier. That is still below the records of 2014, 2015 and 2016, when more than 150,000 migrants arrived in Italy by boat each year.

441 people died at sea between January and March. More than 20,000 people have drowned while trying to reach Italy since 2014.

Last year, Italy recognized 48 percent of asylum claims. The acceptance rate is likely to go down this year as the share of asylum seekers from safe countries has increased. The largest group, 17 percent, came from Ivory Coast, followed by Guineans at 16 percent.

Migrants who are denied asylum seldom leave. EU-wide, about one in five go back to their home country. 519,000 people are estimated to live in Italy illegally, 1 percent of the population.

What Meloni is doing

The government has declared a state of emergency for six months, which frees up €5 million to expand reception centers and speed up deportations.

The law that passed the Senate on Thursday raises the penalty for human trafficking to thirty years if migrants died.

It requires asylum seekers to live in government housing while their application is pending. This is the norm in other EU countries. While they wait for their claim to be reviewed — which can take up to two years, because Italian immigration authorities are backlogged — asylum seekers are not allowed to work.

And the law reduces the eligibility for humanitarian, or “special”, protection, which is granted to one in five asylum seekers.

What is “special” protection?

Italy has three forms of asylum:

  1. Refugee status, for those fleeing persecution based on their ethnicity, political beliefs or religion.
  2. Subsidiary protection, for those who would be at risk of torture, violence or other serious harm if they were returned.

In the case of subsidiary protection, the risk isn’t specific to a person but rather the place they fled.

Both come with a permit of five years, which can be renewed. Residents can apply for Italian citizenship after ten years.

  1. Special protection, for those otherwise at risk in their home country.

They are issued a residence permit of two years.

Of the 19,000 asylum seekers who have been processed this year, 17 percent were given refugee or subsidiary status, 20 percent were issued special protection and 63 percent were denied.

The League, the second party in Meloni’s government, wanted to get rid of humanitarian protection altogether. Forza Italia, the party of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, was wary. The compromise bill narrows the conditions under which humanitarian protection may be granted, including if an applicant has a serious illness or if there are “exceptional” circumstances in their home country (so poverty or the absence of democracy doesn’t count).

Will it work?

The Netherlands abolished both subsidiary and humanitarian protection. Migrants who were denied one status would often try for another, creating more work for immigration services and delaying their return.

It didn’t lead to a reduction in either arrivals or recognition rates. Forced to chose between awarding refugee status and potentially putting somebody in harm’s way, Dutch immigration officials often opt for the former. Especially when they are overworked and disputing an asylum request is time-consuming.

What’s next?

“Let it be clear, we are not solving the problem. The solution can only depend on responsible intervention by the European Union,” Meloni’s minister for civil protection and maritime policies, Nello Musumeci, cautioned after the Senate vote.

The prime minister’s proposal to fund asylum centers in North Africa is gaining support from other leaders, including the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte. But it could take years to set up — assuming countries in North Africa can be persuaded to cooperate.

In the short term, member states would limit visas for third countries that fail to stop irregular migration. French president Emmanuel Macron would even withhold developmental aid from countries that refuse to take rejected asylum seekers back. There is EU money to strengthen border defenses.

The divide is over who should take in migrants who are entitled to asylum.

Central and Northern member states argue for a restoration of the so-called Dublin Regulation, which requires asylum seekers to apply for status in the first EU country they arrive in. If they are recognized as refugees, they would get residency in that country.

Mediterranean states like Italy argue that is unfair, because they receive the bulk of arrivals.

The European Commission has for years argued for a proportionate distribution of refugees across the 27 member states of the EU, but that is unacceptable to countries like Hungary and Poland. A solution may be to require countries that opt out of such a distribution scheme to contribute more to EU border security.