The European Union’s migration crisis: An Italian view

The city of Bologna bears a glowing beauty in July. Temperatures rise beyond 30°C in the late morning and refuse to drop until past midnight. All buildings shine in shades of yellow, orange and ochre. Walking along Via Saragozza, I come past young Black men standing under the arches of the Portico that shades the sidewalk. The men greet me in a friendly way and I greet them back but I – a non-Italian speaker – don’t understand what they are asking me. They don’t seem to be asking for money, although the way one of them holds his hat in his hands could suggest that. I assume they are looking for work and after a mutual nod I walk past, wondering if this strategy is working for them. I walk on past shops selling vegetables and canned food, most of them run by people of who look to be of  South Asian origin.

I have come to Bologna to take part in the Summer School on Forced Migration and Asylum hosted and organised by the cooperative Lai-momo and the association Africa e Mediterraneo for the second time this year. Lai-momo operates various support services for migrants, including reception centres for asylum seekers and legal assistance, and also edits a journal on cultural and social issues, ‘Africa e Mediterraneo’. The school takes a multidisciplinary approach to current issues around the crisis of European institutions struggling to accommodate refugees. Among the European countries, Italy is feeling the effects of discord inside EU institutions most strongly as it tries to support large numbers of people arriving by boat at the southern shores. People headed for Germany are mostly forced to stay in Italy and many challenges remain unresolved today. The escalating disagreement between aid organisations and the Italian government on a code of conduct for private rescuers at sea is directly related to the rising anti-refugee sentiment in the Italian population.

The Summer School’s syllabus includes the push and pull factors of current migration to Europe in general, and Italy in particular, as well as important issues in providing assistance to refugees. Speakers are academics from across Europe and practitioners in international organisations as well as government agencies. The first presentations take an ethnographic approach towards two of the most important countries of origin of irregular immigration to Italy at the moment: Bangladesh and Nigeria. Neither of the two has any particular historical (i.e. colonial) ties with Italy but there are strong networks of different kinds that support current immigration to Italy as a country of destination. In this sense the two groups of immigrants differ from other refugees from Western African countries many of whom intend to migrate onwards to northern Europe.

In the case of Bangladesh, presenter Francesco della Puppa (PhD) of the University of Padova explains that a diaspora community started to form in the 1990s when the Italian economy needed unskilled labour and immigration was easier. In the decades since then, Italian governments have granted amnesties to irregular migrants and made naturalisation possible under certain circumstances. Today, Italy figures as a mid-range destination country in the portfolio of the so-called “dalal”, that is returned Bangladeshi migrants acting as migration brokers. The wealthier migrants from Bangladesh’s upper social strata can afford to move to the UK (ca. $12,000 per person) while the poor send their young men to work in the Middle East (ca. $5-6,000). Italy has in the last few decades received mostly members of the lower middle class who are able to pay around $8,000 for the move. The stratification of Bangladeshi immigration is now becoming more complex, as migrants get ‘re-displaced’ from Middle Eastern countries in upheaval and become refugees alongside the natives. Reportedly, some even choose to take a detour through North Africa to make their journey less costly but more risky and undertake the Mediterranean crossing from there. Therefore, people from Bangladesh with a lower level of education and fewer economic means also manage to reach Italy. Della Puppa’s most recent observation is that established migrants in Italy increasingly use their European residence status to re-migrate to the UK which is still the ultimate goal for many people from Bangladesh.


© Vincenzo Valentino Ventura for Lai-momo coop.

Irene Peano (PhD) of the University of Lisbon presents her analysis of Nigeria as a country of origin with a focus on bonded sexual labour. Transnational networks that traffic women for this purpose operate in fixed arrangements of cooperation with Nigerian ‘big women’ in Benin City: influential individuals who carry economic power that extends to the ability of coercing young women to cooperate in their own forced emigration. The ‘deal’ that the women enter into with their traffickers is embedded in powerful cultural practices. The estimated number of Nigerian women working as prostitutes in Italy is 6-12,000. Peano mentions in passing that the same criminal networks are suspected run lucrative trades in toxic waste and drugs between Europe and Africa, but this was not the focus of her research presented at the Summer School.

The exchange with the Italian participants is just as instructive as the formal thematic sessions. Most attendees of the Lai-momo summer school work as ‘social operators’ in Italy, that is to say as legal advisors in the asylum process, as ad-hoc counsellors and social workers. A. works in a camp at Trentino. She tells me the story of a young man from Chad who had worked as a traditional healer or witch doctor at home. The journey to Italy put the man in distress and in addition, he became the victim of violence after his arrival. Since A. is in charge of legal advice to asylum seekers at the centre that accommodates the man, he asked her to issue him an ID document declaring him a ‘doctor without borders’ so that he may travel freely. My immediate reaction is to laugh at this clever unmasking of the absurdity of the European border regime – but the Chadian doctor was of course serious. Other summer school participants tell of the desperate conditions in southern Italy where untold numbers of mostly young men from West Africa work on farms and plantations for close to nothing.

And this links to the problem facing Italian institutions and the European Union as a whole: the rigid border regime forces people arriving via the Mediterranean route to apply for asylum immediately. The only practical ‘success’ in European immigration policy since the beginning of its current crisis in 2015 has been enforcing the registration and finger-printing of all new arrivals. The Dublin Regulation (now in its fourth iteration) mandates that an application for asylum is only possible in the original country of arrival and onward travel is out of the question without a legal status. The outcome of many if not most of the asylum processes is eventual rejection which – after one or sometimes two years of waiting – means not deportation but a formal notice requesting to leave the country. I am told by my fellow participants that the Italian state currently does not have the capacity to execute any deportations. In other words, tens of thousands of young men are officially being released into a life as an undocumented immigrant without any entitlement to e.g. health care or any other form of social security, not to speak of legal ways to earn a decent living.

Instead of talking about the continental deadlock that is frustrating so many individuals, however, the Summer School focuses on the practical assistance that is possible during the process of asylum. Funding allocated by the Italian state is basic (around €30 per person per day for accommodation and food) but Lai-momo manages to run an impressive level of services. Visiting two of their reception centres for asylum seekers, I am surprised by the positive atmosphere and the good conditions that the guests live in. One centre is located in an old farm house where the 18 residents from countries in South Asia and Africa grow vegetables and look after a number of animals. They have prepared for the visit and proudly show around the summer school participants. Still, I struggle to square the lush beauty of the North Italian countryside around us with the contrast to conditions I imagine in camps elsewhere in the country.

The Summer School closes with another visit to a Lai-momo project. An old house in a scenic hillside village hosts a fashion workshop complete with bags and other products made by refugee artists. After the closing event, I quiz a European Commission official delegated to assist Italian institutions in managing the arrival of people on their coast. My question is simple but proves unanswerable: what will the EU do for those refugees in Europe that are not entitled to asylum under the current rules? Short of a comprehensive reform of the immigration framework to those countries that people are trying to reach, nothing will stop the continued irregular arrivals at Italy’s shores. And as he points out, the EU thinks it cannot accord the people a legal status, neither in the form of options to apply other than for asylum nor in the form of amnesties for those whose asylum application has already been rejected. In short, European institutions refuse to do anything that will encourage further immigration.

For now, it is the luck of the draw that may let an individual refugee end up at a Lai-momo centre and enjoy the supporting services they offer. The Summer School has helped me understand better the motivations for people to make the journey to Italy which remain as complex as the factors that influence their journeys. But, sadly, the institutions that hold the power to change the situation still choose to employ a simplified narrative of ‘economic migration’ which they define as illegal.

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