Why can’t Italy normalize its migrant reception system?
Corruption and democracy create opposing interests
Almost 600,000 migrants have reached Italy by sea over the last three years, but the Italian government is still struggling to establish an adequate migrant reception system. Italy’s flagship program, the Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees (SPRAR), consists of just 649 centers hosting around 15% of asylum seekers. The majority, around 80%, stay in temporary emergency centers (CAS) notorious for inefficiency, squalor and corruption. Why is Italy unable to move migrants out of temporary centers and into its national protection system?
When migration surged in 2014, Italy gave prefects – territorial representatives of the Ministry of Interior – the emergency powers to commission CAS. Unburdened by the obligation to consult local officials and adhere to the quality and financial reporting requirements that regulate SPRAR centers, the emergency centers quickly proliferated. So too did impromptu entrepreneurs like Pasquale Cirella, a Neapolitan ex-plumber whose yearly revenue increased from €44,000 ($52,010) to €5.5m after opening various CAS between 2009 and 2014, some of which were sequestered after police found them to be nothing but empty restaurants. Far worse episodes of migrants being held in abysmal conditions and punished for asking about their asylum requests are commonplace. Salvatore Buzzi, a businessman facing 19 years in jail for involvement in one of Rome’s largest mafia scandals, succinctly summed up the scope and character of the situation in a wire-tapped conversation, asking, “Do you know how much I make off migrants? Drug trafficking is less profitable.”
Italian politicians have long spoken of phasing out CAS, which now number over 7,000 and form the de facto basis of the country’s migrant reception system. Mario Morcone, ex-chief of immigration at the Ministry of Interior, said in 2015 that if it were up to him, he would replace all of them with SPRAR centers. But the law says that establishing permanent centers requires mayoral approval and so far just over 1,000 of Italy’s 8,092 municipalities have allowed them. Although SPRAR centers are much better regulated than CAS – for example having fixed staff-to-migrant ratios to prevent overcrowding – most citizens do not know the difference between the two. Constant reports of migrant protests and fraud have made them hostile to both. Practical mayors see no reason to challenge voters’ opinions, and find it safer to lament emergency centers being forced upon them than to take responsibility for welcoming a SPRAR center. Furthermore, funds from the central government are
chronically late, often by many months, and struggling municipalities fear being stuck with the costs. Attempts by the Italian government to mollify them through financial incentives have not been effective.
As long as mayors can oppose SPRAR centers, the government will build more CAS. The Italian Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration has been pushing for legislation that would force mayors’ hands, arguing that it is counterproductive to allow emergency measures to flourish while the national protection system is held hostage to popular opinion. More SPRAR centers would mean more migrants with asylum permits, language training and job opportunities, and fewer young men disappearing into the streets. But so far, lawmakers in Rome have been more preoccupied with stopping migrants in Libya than with caring for those in Italy. The problem will have to be tackled eventually, even if seaborne migration were to stop tomorrow. The sooner the better.