"Hundreds have already been expelled from reception centres"
Tens of thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers have lost their right to two-year residency permits and integration services in Italy after new legislation championed by the populist government's right-wing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini was signed into law this week.
But over the past two years thousands have already had government services to which they were entitled cut or curtailed, according to interviews with asylum seekers and legal experts over several months, as well as government responses to dozens of freedom of information requests.
One in every three asylum seekers who arrived in more than half of Italy's local government prefectures over the past two years has either left or been evicted from their government-run accommodation, according to information IRIN obtained from local governments.
A request for comment on these findings to the Italian interior ministry went unanswered at time of publication.
Aid groups warn that the new law will compound an existing crisis in Italy, which is struggling to cope with providing basic services to some 180,000 refugees and asylum seekers awaiting decisions and an estimated 500,000 undocumented migrants - many of whom have already fallen out of the reception system.
In addition to granting five-year residence permits to refugees and to asylum seekers who meet "subsidiary protection" criteria, Italy has for the past 20 years granted two-year residency permits to a wider group of migrants on comparatively flexible "humanitarian protection" grounds - broadly interpreted as those who aren't refugees but who can't be sent home either.
The controversial new Decree-Law on Immigration and Security, signed by President Sergio Matterella on Monday, scraps "humanitarian protection" altogether and introduces new "special permits" for a much narrower group that comprises: victims of domestic violence, trafficking, and severe exploitation; those with serious health issues; those fleeing natural disasters; and those who commit acts of civic valour.
"Humanitarian protection" residency permits - granted to one in four asylum seekers last year - abolished
Asylum seekers lose access to integration services until their application is granted
Network of reception centres drastically downsized
Withdrawal of refugee status made easier
Maximum detention time in "repatriation centres" doubled to six months
Fast-track expulsions for "socially dangerous" migrants
In 2017, 20,166 people - around 25 percent of the total who sought asylum - were granted "humanitarian protection". Those who lose their permits also lose their right to work and their right to stay in the best facilities that have services to help them integrate into Italian society.
Only 25,000 places are available in Italy's longer-term, government-run reception system, known by its Italian acronym SPRAR, which typically provides high standards of care. This means that more than 150,000 people waiting for decisions on their asylum applications, or 80 percent of the total, are housed in more than 9,000 supposedly temporary accommodation facilities, known by the acronym CAS. These are for the most part managed by commercial entities with no track record in providing housing and services for asylum seekers, and have been associated with corruption and substandard living conditions.
Some asylum seekers formerly granted "humanitarian protection" are already being forced out of the SPRAR facilities, meaning they also lose out on integration measures such as language classes and work skills courses.
"Hundreds have already been expelled from reception centres throughout Italy, and left homeless at a moment's notice," Oliviero Forti, head of the migration division for Caritas in Italy, told IRIN. "In some places, like Crotone, our charity shelters have been overwhelmed over the weekend. Some very vulnerable individuals, such as pregnant women or persons with psychiatric conditions, are being put on the street without any support measure and, incredibly, government-managed facilities are calling upon Caritas for help."
Italy overtook Greece in 2016 as the main European entry point for migrants and asylum seekers, receiving 320,000 people in the past two years - the vast majority entering on small, overcrowded vessels operated by smugglers across the Mediterranean from North Africa, or after being rescued en route.
Salvini, also deputy prime minister, leads the far-right League Party and campaigned on a strongly anti-immigration platform during the March general election. Shortly after taking office in June as part of a fractious ruling coalition with the populist and anti-EU Five Star Movement, Salvini closed the country's ports to migrant rescue ships.
Migrants who arrive in Italy by boat typically spend their first two days in initial arrival facilities known as "hotspots", mostly concentrated in Sicily, where identification procedures take place. Those who are prima facie determined to have a legitimate basis to claim asylum are entitled to a place in the SPRAR system, even if the majority don't get one.
These are small facilities evenly distributed across the country, organised by the Interior Ministry and managed by humanitarian organisations with experience working with migrant populations. They are known for providing a high standard of basic services as well as vocational training and psychological counselling. The 25,000 available placements have typically been reserved for the most vulnerable cases, such as minors who are victims of trafficking.
Under Salvini's new law, only people who are granted a visa - a process that can take several years -- may be placed in SPRAR facilities, not asylum seekers. Migrants and asylum seekers will be sent to a CAS.
Médecins Sans Frontières warned in a statement that the new law will have a "dramatic impact on the life and health of thousands of people". MSF said that "over the years it operated inside CAS", its workers found that prolonged stays in the centres "deteriorates migrants' mental health" and "hampers their chances of integrating successfully into society".
The coalition government promised that Salvini's new law would result in half a million deportations. Past deportation rates suggest it will be difficult to keep that promise, analysts say. What does seem likely, they say, is that larger numbers of asylum seekers will be detained for longer periods. Salvini's law doubles to six months the time new arrivals can be held in "repatriation" centres while their identities and nationalities are being confirmed.
Added to the 30-day detention period many face in hotspot facilities, this means asylum seekers can now be detained for up to seven months without having committed any crime.
Another measure within the new legislation suspends refugee protections for those considered "socially dangerous" or who are convicted of crimes, even in the first of Italy's three-stage conviction process.
Based on IRIN's analysis of responses to freedom of information requests received from 53 of Italy's 103 prefectures (the others did not reply), the Italian reception system is unable to retain its guests, partly due to a lack of integration opportunities and medical care. More than 28,000 residents have left the temporary facilities over the last 24 months, either because local governments withdrew their right to assistance for alleged violations of certain rules or because the migrants and asylum seekers decided to leave of their own accord.
Interviews with legal experts, social workers, dozens of migrants, and analysis of the withdrawal orders shows a pattern of widespread violations of migrants' legal rights in the reception centres, with local authorities sometimes complicit in the abuses.
The CAS centres - for the most part private-sector hotels and apartments identified and approved by local government - are in theory just one link in a complex and poorly regulated chain of migrant accommodations. But because the SPRAR centres are full to capacity, they have taken on a spill-over function.
A migrant can be entitled to remain in Italy as an asylum seeker or refugee, but can still lose, with a "withdrawal order", all institutional support, such as accommodation, training, medical care etc. Under EU law that is legally binding in Italy, withdrawal orders should only be issued as a last resort, to punish violent conduct or severe abuse of the reception benefits.
Dozens of interviews with former and current CAS residents - as well as withdrawal orders and communications between reception centre managers and government officials seen by IRIN - reveal that this regulation is frequently abused, sometimes to retaliate against residents who protest their treatment within the facilities. Minor infringements such as returning to centres late are routinely penalised, sometimes retroactively, with criteria that vary massively from one prefecture to another - including, sometimes, withdrawal notices.
The abuse of withdrawal orders "infringes both EU and Italian law, depriving migrants of basic human rights," said Dario Belluccio, a lawyer and the director of ASGI, a leading association of immigration law scholars.
Those who receive a withdrawal notice - the number could spike under Salvini's new law, with more asylum seekers being deemed "socially dangerous" or found guilty of minor infractions - instantly lose their place in a residence centre, a €75 monthly allowance, and virtually all institutional support.
Those who leave the centres often move to migrant shanty towns, which tend to lack water and electricity and where severe labour exploitation and sex trafficking thrive.
Helped by the unsatisfactory conditions in the reception system, the shanty towns have grown in size over the past few years. In these communities, migrants often find it difficult to obtain basic services such as healthcare as well as the legal assistance needed to follow up on asylum applications.
Even without a withdrawal order, more asylum seekers and migrants may soon find themselves without access to shelter or services provided by the government. That's already the case for Becky*, a Nigerian woman in her 20s who was trafficked to Italy for sex work. A social worker familiar with her case, who spoke to IRIN on condition of anonymity for security concerns, said that shortly after arriving in Italy two years ago Becky was forced by her trafficker to leave the reception facility in which she was placed to move to a large shanty town in the province of Foggia.
When local anti-trafficking authorities became aware of Becky's case after questions were raised during her asylum interview earlier this year, they offered her a place in a protection facility. But such facilities demand that residents give up their mobile phones to ensure that traffickers can't track them. Residents are limited to one weekly call to a family member while trafficking allegations are being investigated.
"It is not an easy choice to make, and she didn't take up that opportunity," said the social worker.
Days before the new immigration law was passed by parliament last month, Becky was issued a humanitarian residence permit by the local asylum commission. But under the new law, authorities are no longer able to distribute the permits, even after they have been granted. "It is not a matter of will, it is literally a matter of police no longer having a button on their computers to print a humanitarian permit," the social worker noted.
Without documents, Becky can't look for a job or new accommodation. So she remains in the shanty town, exactly where her trafficker placed her two years ago.
(*Name changed for security reasons)