The secondary movement of refugees from Italy northward is motivated by their desire to find a country that has a strong labor market and offers social support, according to Demetrios Papademetriou, the president of Migration Policy Institute Europe, a Brussels-based nonprofit think tank.
Germany’s unemployment rate of 4.7 is the lowest in the EU, and Italy’s 12.7 rate is one of the highest. Germany’s welfare system, Papademetriou said, provides refugees with education and training opportunities, which are not available in Italy because of lack of infrastructure.
“Most people don’t really want to end up in Italy,” he said, adding that many refugees usually prioritize finding an environment where they would “be able to settle down and make a productive life for themselves and their families.”
In Italy asylum seekers must wait six months before they are permitted to access the labor market, while in Germany they may legally work after three months, and in Sweden they may work immediately after the asylum application is registered.
But the biggest difference between the EU members comes after refugee status is granted.
In Italy and Germany, people with refugee status are entitled to the same rights as citizens. In Germany that means access to social welfare, child benefits, financial support and language courses as well as other forms of integration assistance. In Italy it’s a different story, said Luca Bettinelli, a policy expert on migration issues for Caritas Ambrosiana, a Christian nonprofit organization that manages a refugee dormitory in Milan.
“The social system in Italy is not good even for Italian citizens,” he said. “If you have never worked, you have no rights to unemployment benefits.” He added that refugees have a low chance of being employed because language courses are rare, and without speaking Italian, it is very difficult to work.
Had Ahmad known to avoid being fingerprinted upon arrival in Italy, he would have had a much better chance of having his asylum case reviewed by German authorities.
According to EU law, all unauthorized border crossers and asylum seekers must be fingerprinted, but in Italy that law is not strictly enforced.
In a recent interview with local media, Italy's Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said some migrants refuse to be identified in Italy, and he admitted that immigration officials, who want to respect human rights of migrants, cannot force them to submit fingerprinting.
Abraham, the Eritrean in Milan, said he knew before leaving Libya that he should not allow Italian authorities to fingerprint him. He left Libya on July 30, was rescued at sea two days later and was taken to a port in Sicily.
Italian immigration officers questioned him and the 350 others who were rescued with him and repeatedly demanded to take the newcomers’ fingerprints, to no avail.
“They said it is not voluntary,” Abraham recalled. “But when all the people together said, ‘We don’t want,’ and the ladies started crying and babies started crying, they leave us.”
He said that of all the people who were rescued with him, most of them Eritreans, only four were fingerprinted. This is not a rare occurrence, according to Riccardo Clerici, a legal protection officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Italy.
“Since 2014, authorities are confronted with a very specific phenomenon, which is the arrival of hundreds of persons of certain nationalities at the same time, disembarking in ports which usually are not equipped for such procedures, who en masse refuse to be identified,” he said, referring to Syrian and Eritrean nationals.
Ahmad wishes he had refused to be fingerprinted in Italy. There are 16,904 people in Germany who, like Ahmad, are due to be Dublin transfers to other European countries, including 4,574 who await transfer to Italy.
He said his only hope when he went to Germany was to enjoy basic living conditions, which were not available to him in Somalia or Italy. But with every day that passes without his situation being resolved, he’s losing hope.
“I don’t know what my future will be,” Ahmad said, with tears in his eyes.
“I am searching for a better life, but I still don’t get it,” he said. “Sometimes I cry a lot. Sometimes I think about killing myself.”