Italian policymakers currently face one of the biggest political dilemmas of their time: how to deal with immigrants coming into the country. The majority of these immigrants are young men from Nigeria, Pakistan, Gambia, Senegal, and Bangladesh. Is the reason for these men risking their lives political or economic? They all settle in the country seeking political asylum. However, the majority are migrating for economic reasons. Unfortunately, there is no way of telling whether their motivations are political or economic. Some may have come from devastating homelands, but others who have economic reasons for migrating may not be completely honest. Either way, there is a migration problem occurring in Italy.
Natives in Italy have been arguing and protesting the construction of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) whose purpose is to assimilate these migrants into Italian life while they wait to be approved for asylum. This problem is not unique to Italy, but is common in many European Union (EU) countries. Immigrants coming from Africa are being picked up in the Mediterranean Sea and immediately transported to Italy. Out of the large number of immigrants that have crossed the border in the past year (approximately 150,000), less than half have actually been fingerprinted and identified (~68,000). Migrants intentionally avoid being documented in Italy, because their goal is to travel to Germany or Austria. This is because the unemployment rate in Germany is the lowest in the EU, and it is the highest in Italy. However, the Dublin Regulation, an EU immigration law, requires that the first country you enter is the one where you must remain.1 Thus, most migrants avoid documentation until they reach their intended destination.
The terrible unemployment rate is the primary reason Italians are fighting immigration. Overall, Italians are a very hospitable people. But, the threat of migrants taking the few jobs available is enough to cause tension among the locals. The unemployment rate in Italy hit an all-time high in November 2014 at 13.10 percent. This month it rests at an average of 11.5 percent. The youth unemployment rate (jobseekers between the ages of 15-24) is at 43.70 percent.2 Most of this is a result of an economic crisis that began in 2007 and has been ever-so-slowly recovering. The country is starting to see restoration in the form of the Jobs Act (labor market reform). There has also been a shift from false freelance work to stable employment, because of declining costs.3 The lack of employment opportunities in Italy is enough to make the locals weary of outsiders.
Migrants are not able to come into the country and automatically find (legal) employment. Approximately 77,970 asylum applications were filed in Italy in 2015. Until their application for asylum is approved (a process that can take up to two years), the migrant must find a place to live. This can be with friends or family, or an immigration facility that houses migrants. An asylum seeker can only be placed in a facilty after his or her application have been filed. Even then, there is a shortage of facilities, which are already overcrowded.4 Once there, they are required to take language classes to assimilate to Italian culture. Some migrants, however, do not take advantage of this opportunity. A permit to work is granted six months from the time of the asylum application. The majority of these immigrants are classified as economic refugees, which do not qualify for political asylum, and their paperwork is declined. They then have the choice to appeal once; otherwise, they are deported.
The requirements for political asylum are very specific. “You can apply for refugee status if in your home country you were directly and personally persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, or if there is a well-founded and proved reason to hold that you may be persecuted in case you return to your home country (in compliance with the Geneva Convention).” If there is any prior refugee status or you have been convicted of a crime against the state, then an application for asylum is declined.5 Overall, this is a very lengthy and complex process.
After working with many of the refugees staying in NGO facilities, I have witnessed the complexity of this system. However, many of the migrants living in these facilities live just as well, or sometimes better, then some native Italians. They are given a room, cell phone, meals, and a daily allowance (about €2 a day). The problem, however, is political and economic. Who among these immigrants qualifies for political asylum? How many claim asylum when they are migrating for economic reasons? This is the stressful job of the courts to determine who really qualifies. But, pressure from the EU forces governments to accept all immigrants, despite their reason for leaving their homelands. Where is the line to be drawn?
Human rights advocates stress the horrible circumstances immigrants face while traveling and the fact that so many die trying to get to Europe. Even Pope Francis discussed this issue at a meeting with Catholic scientists and compared refugees that drown in the Mediterranean or die in the Sahara to abortion.6 But, is it Italy’s responsibility if someone from Africa puts himself in danger in order to make more money? Human rights are important, and many people have the right to work for a better life, but accepting all immigrants without question is like treating cancer with a band aid. At some point, we must get to the root of the problem: why are these people leaving in the first place?
- Emily C. Harmon
1. The Dublin Regulation [Internet]. [cited on July 24, 2016]. Available from http://www.unhcr.org/4a9d13d59.pdf.
2. Italian unemployment rate [Internet]. [cited on July 24, 2016]. Available from http://www.tradingeconomics.com/italy/youth-unemployment-rate.
3. Unemployment in Italy down [Internet]. [cited on July 24, 2016]. Available from www.ansa.it/english/news/business/2016/03/10/unemployment-in-italy-down_3d0b3441-2a05-4fb4-ae94-db04371dcdd7.html.
4. Aiyar, S., Barkbu, S., Batini, N., Berger, H., Detragiache, E., Dicioli, A., Ebeke, C., Lin, H., Kaltani, L., Sosa, S., Spilimbergo, A., & Topalova, P. The refugee surge in Europe: Economic challenges [Internet]. [cited on July 24, 2016]. Available from https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/sdn/2016/sdn1602.pdf.
5. How to apply for asylum in Italy [Internet]. [cited on July 24, 2016]. Available from www.africa-news.eu/guides/legal-section/legal-guide-italy/how-to-apply-for-asylum-in-italy.html.
6. Brooks-Pollock, T. Pope Francis compares Mediterranean migrant crisis to abortion [Internet]. [cited on July 24, 2016]. Available from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/pope-francis-compares-mediterranean-migrant-crisis-to-abortion-10288979.html.