CATANIA, Italy — Nineteen refugees from Eritrea waved to the cameras as they boarded a plane leaving from Rome. Bound for Lulea, Sweden, their trip marked the inauguration of a refugee plan in Europe, one that will redistribute Syrians, Eritreans and Iraqi asylum seekers from Italy and Greece to northern countries with stronger economies and better asylum infrastructure.
But only a week earlier, a different scene played out in Sicily, the island where many refugees traveling by boat arrive in Italy. Nearly 30 men and one woman from Africa crowded inside the small room of local Catholic charity in Catania, nervously listening to a lawyer explain the complex and sometimes arbitrary procedures for asylum processing in Europe.
“Sudan, Eritrea — they get help. Nigeria — half and half,” Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo, a professor of immigration and asylum law, told the group. “Countries like Gambia and Burkina Faso have almost no chance.”
As Europe’s border control agency, Frontex, seeks to implement faster methods in Italy and Greece to allow refugees from places like Syria, Iraq and Eritrea to receive asylum and move to other EU countries, there is a simultaneous effort to keep out so-called economic migrants. Yet the criteria to classify them and the process to return them are far from clear, leading to fears of discriminatory rejections and expulsions.
According to local activists and lawyers, police authorities in Sicily have begun to summarily classify some new arrivals as economic migrants on the basis of their country of origin, issuing them refusal-of-entry documents almost as soon as they arrive, without allowing them to exercise their international right to request asylum.
During the identification process, the would-be asylum seekers said they were fingerprinted and asked to give their names, birthdates and countries of origin. A man who said he was fleeing political persecution in Gambia and asked not to be identified said he saw his interviewer tick a box that indicated he left his country because of economic reasons.
Other asylum seekers from the same group of boats were separated and taken on different buses, likely to reception centers in northern Italy. Those remaining were simply handed refusal-of-entry papers and ordered to leave the country by the end of the week through the Rome airport, even they had no travel documents and no means of doing so. Police authorities did not provide any assistance.
“We don’t know why, but they did not have the possibility to formalize their political asylum requests,” said Giuseppe Carnabuci, a lawyer representing some members of the people Vassallo Paleologo met with. He added that if they were pre-emptively classified as economic migrants by the Italian police, “this is an interpretation by the Catania police force that we don’t agree with.”
Under Italian and EU law, anyone from any country has a right to apply for asylum and receive asylum reception benefits, regardless of their country of origin. Ewa Moncure, a press officer for Frontex, said that even if recognition rates are low for certain nationalities, “A migrant always has a right to ask for asylum … We don’t qualify anybody as an economic migrant.”
The police authority in Catania did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the circumstances of the refusals, but the Interior Ministry affirmed that migrants always have the right to seek international protection in Italy.
“The [asylum] procedures are launched on the basis of a careful case by case evaluation," a press officer wrote in an email. According to law, "the migrant cannot be subject to a refusal-of-entry decree or expulsion, pending the outcome of of the administrative procedure relating to the request.”
The Italian Council for Refugees and Amnesty International said it was nearly impossible that an asylum request could be filed and denied within 48 hours.
“It’s quite hard to believe that asylum cases are being prepared that quickly,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali, the head of refugee and migrant rights for Amnesty International. “If they had just arrived, they would not be able to prepare [their] claim, get the paperwork or try to get some kind of legal aid that quickly. It just doesn’t seem very credible.”
The men and woman left stranded on the street came from countries experiencing different levels of conflict and problems: Nigeria, where Boko Haram militants threaten many communities; Gambia, where arbitrary arrests and disappearances under a dictatorship are common; and Sierra Leone, where Ebola outbreaks have devastated many towns. All of them passed through lawless Libya, where some of the worst human rights violations occur. But lawyers advising them conceded that, without documentation, they had little chance of receiving asylum protection in Europe.
Still, Elsayed-Ali emphasized that even though some people may be eventually categorized as economic migrants and might not have the right to stay in Europe, each person must be told their rights upon arrival, given the opportunity to apply for political or humanitarian asylum and treated with dignity in asylum reception centers.
“Obviously, there are places like Syria and Eritrea where almost everyone is a refugee,” he said. “Then there are places where, yeah, maybe it’s not as straightforward, but that doesn’t mean that among the people there, there aren’t refugees.”
Vassallo Paleologo said since the end of August, he has noticed an increase in cases where specific nationalities, especially Gambians, Moroccans and Malians, were promptly denied the opportunity to apply for asylum. He has kept track of hundreds of cases in Sicily and estimates the number may have reached thousands. In some instances, minors were classified as adults and issued refusal-of-entry documents.
“Last year people with these characteristics were taken directly to reception centers, and [Italy] had to give them food to eat, a place to sleep, pay for them” while they processed their asylum claims, he said. “But this way, if you tell them they have to leave the country in seven days, you don’t have to guarantee anything for these people. You can leave them on the street.”
He worried that if this trend continues, those financially unable to return to their countries would be detained in centers for identification and expulsion or, because Italy has been forced to close many of these centers because of substandard conditions, they would end up working in the black market until the EU can afford to detain and deport them.
“They’ll work without any guarantees, without a contract, and this also is useful for the European Union, which wants to exploit workers for a low cost,” he said.
Either way, a crackdown on economic migrants is likely to do little to deter people from making the journey. Whether people continue to flee Africa will depend on their logic, calculations and circumstances.
“Everybody gets in his mind that Europe is the better place to live,” said one asylum seeker from the group, a French teacher. “I left Gambia to come here to Italy because I think Africa is not safe. If it’s not sickness, it’s war. If it’s not war, some people are unemployed. We are not working … How can you live?”