Sink or Swim
Italy Can’t Deport Refugees Fast Enough
About 18,000 people deemed the most unwanted of the unwanted are going, going, or gone from Italy, sometimes to their homes, sometimes not. But hundreds of thousands remain.
ROME — They leave in chartered jets, high-speed boats and fast trains. Some are sent back to where they came from. Others are sent on to places they have never been.
In 2015 alone, Italy has repatriated 8,497 irregular or “clandestine” immigrants who don’t qualify for political asylum, who lied on their applications, or whose proposed cause to stay isn’t justified, according to a report released this week by the country’s interior ministry.
Of the nearly 200,000 uninvited people who arrived on Italian shores by July 31 of this year, 18,068 were considered the least wanted of the unwanted. Half of those have already been deported, and the remaining are on a waiting list to be sent home, too.
Among those repatriated, which is the euphemism the Italians use instead of “deported,” 133 were Syrians dropped at the border of Lebanon and Syria, and 221 were Afghans flown to Kabul to face an unknown fate at the hands of the border guards who met their flight.
At the Baobab Center in Rome, which has become one of the primary meeting points for migrants in the city, many are terrified they’ll face expulsion.
“You never know what motive they have for sending you back,” a man from Eritrea who didn’t want his name published told The Daily Beast. “You might have one little mistake on your application or look at the police the wrong way and you’re on a plane home.”
Once a week, Italy charters one direct flight to Cairo and one to Tunis filled with Egyptians and Tunisians who entered the country illegally. Italy will soon start running the same one-way no-return flights to Nigeria and Senegal, thanks to European funds meant to help manage the migration flood. Later this month, there is a scheduled flight to take Gambian nationals home who were refused the right to stay.
Some people who arrive at the international airports in Rome and Milan are put directly on flights back to their countries of origin, like many of the 193 Algerians who tried to enter Italy by air. When people arrive by train, especially from the Balkans, they are put in special locked cars on high-speed trains and sent back, like some of the 3,250 Albanians who entered Italy illegally so far this year.
Other Albanians were sent back on car ferries and smaller vessels across the Adriatic. Italian authorities have also used chartered ships normally serving the tourism industry to return some migrants, as well as space in cargo planes traveling to African nations.
According to an exposé in the newspaper La Stampa, many Egyptians are sent back because they lie on their asylum applications, claiming to be minors when instead they are over 18. The Egyptian embassy in Rome helps verify most applications, although Italy foots the bill for the flight home to Cairo. According to an Interior Ministry spokesperson, many of those who are deported after coming from countries that should normally qualify them for asylum, like Syria and Afghanistan, are on terrorism lists or have criminal records that nullify their applications. “Not everyone can stay so we have to respect the minimum criteria,” the spokesperson said.
One of the reasons more migrants are being sent back by Italy is because it’s getting harder to send them north to other parts of Europe. For years, Italians turned a blind eye to migrant asylum applicants. In some cases witnessed by The Daily Beast, the new arrivals were never asked if they wanted to apply for a right to stay in Italy, and instead essentially shown to the train stations heading north. The vast majority of migrants say they want to move to France, Germany or England to meet family members.
But now many migrants arriving by sea in Italy are stuck at borders into Europe. More than 600 people have set up a makeshift refugee camp on the beaches and near the train station in Ventimiglia on the Italian-French border.
Such problems are not limited to Italy. On the Greek island of Kos, migrants are also backed up with no escape. Violence erupted this week when authorities used tear gas and water canons to herd hundreds of people into a soccer stadium where, in sweltering heat, they will be kept away from the tourists.
Periodically police in both Greece and Italy sweep makeshift camps and pluck out Moroccans and Tunisians, who are the easiest to repatriate thanks to bi-lateral agreements between the interested countries.
Many of those stuck in Italy who eventually sneak through the Ventimiglia border end up in the jungle of Calais trying to get to England. “Those new stopping points in the migration flow have created new problems,” says Fiammetta Cogliolo, spokesperson for the Red Cross in the area. “These backlog points then become powder kegs of tension between the migrants who don’t want to be here and the citizens who don’t want them here. “
Over the weekend Pope Francis called the rejection of migrants fleeing war and hunger “an act of war” itself, feeding into rising tensions in Italy about just what to do with the new arrivals, especially in light of the new border blocks. Italy’s anti-immigration far-right leader Matteo Salvini shot back on his blog: “Rejecting illegal immigrants is a crime? No, it’s a duty,” he said. “Who defends this illegal invasion which is ruining Italy, either does not understand or is making money. It’s not about being Catholic or not, it is about common sense.”
Perhaps, but it is also a question of common humanity.