Shirking responsibility towards the CEAS? EU hotspots, relocation and absconded migrants in Italy

by Giaccomo Orsini and Christof Roos, Institute for European Studies (IES), VUB, Brussels, Belgium

Italy has become the main gate of entry for undocumented migration to the EU since the EU Turkey statement from March 2016 decreased migration to Greece (EPSC 2017). Yet, for the two decades before the massive inflow of 2015, Italy has already been on the main route for thousands of unauthorized migrants. Despite stepping up reception facilities for migrants, especially in the southernmost Italian territories, the amount of entries have seriously and uprecedentedly stressed local reception capacity. Also for this reason, until late 2015, only a small percentage, roughly one third, of those reaching Italy from its shores were properly identified (COM 2016). Here, non-registration signified the purposeful non-compliance of various Italian governments with the Dublin regulation incentivising secondary movements of irregular migrants to other member states. These movements have challenged the Schengen area to the extent that their abolishment has become a political priority with EU and national policy makers. Effective migration management in Italy, primarily on Sicily, is considered a key factor in making the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) work and to maintaining the border free Schengen area.

The European Agenda for Migration from 2015 called for the better support of ‘frontline’ states in receiving irregular migrants and asylum seekers, the systematic identification of new arrivals by registration of their biometric data in the EURODAC system, and a more evenly distribution of asylum seekers among EU member states (COM 2015 (240)). The establishment of so-called ‘hotspots’ in Mediterranean member states is supposed to work towards these objectives. Migration management support teams that include staff from various EU agencies, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), Frontex, and Europol support the local Italian administrations in dealing with first identification and status definition of migrants (COM 2015 (240): 6). Similarly, teams of EU officials are available and work in selected disembarking ports. There, many of those rescued at sea are landed by state or private carriers. The establishment of hotspots and disembarking ports attempt at combining the humanitarian objective of offering first reception with the functions of the border, the control of entry and registration of the migrants’ identity. In this process, the admissibility of the migrant to the asylum procedure or their return to the country of origin is determined (Italian Ministry of the Interior 2017). Overall, hotspots are meant to bring order and EU oversight into the management of arrivals at the EU external border.

This brief assesses Italian implementation of EU policy and interaction with EU agencies in dealing with irregular migration. Basically, we ask whether EU support measures can effectively limit migrant absconding and their onward movement in the Schengen area. In this regard, we analyse data on the implementation of the EU hotspots on Sicily, the relocation mechanism and the asylum system in Italy. We also conducted few interviews with officials and observers to substantiate the findings. Our research shows that the effectiveness of support measures is limited also because of issues related to policy design and compliance. As a consequence, Italian authorities maintain practices circumventing their obligations towards the CEAS.

Firstly, the number of arrivals way exceeds the registration and detention capacity of the four hotspots operational on the islands – located in Pozzallo, Trapani, Lampedusa and Taranto (COM 2017 (74): 9). Secondly, the relocation mechanism is ill-designed contradicting the innovative aspect of the hotspot approach. The burden of running the asylum procedure and potentially hosting the refugee was supposed to be taken off from the frontline countries by the establishment of hotspots channeling migrants into the relocation mechanism. Yet, the qualification for relocation depends on the nationality of the migrant and its latest recognition rate for international protection in the EU. Only if this rate is above 75 per cent the migrant can be relocated to another EU member state (Council Decisions  (EU) 2015/1523 and 2015/1601, Art. 3). Currently, as of latest recognition rates from the fourth quarter of 2016, of those nationalities commonly reaching the Italian shores only Syrians and Eritreans qualify for relocation, while migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan or Somalia cannot be considered (Eurostat 2017). The 75 per cent threshold does not only limit the application of the relocation mechanism but also contradicts the reality that Italian authorities are facing. Most migrants rescued in the Strait of Sicily and brought to disembark at one of the ports of the island, are of a nationality that does not qualify for relocation. In fact, Eritreans, the main nationality qualifying for relocation in Italy, only represented 3.6 per cent of all arrivals in December and January of 2016-17 (COM 2017 (74): 2). The third major problem of the scheme is member states’ slow response to accept relocation. We identify non-compliance with the two Council decisions on relocation (Council Decision (EU) 2015/1523 of 14 September 2015 and Council Decision 2015/ 1601 of 22 September 2015). From roughly 40.000 places allocated for Italy in September 2015, only 5.000 migrants had been relocated until April 2017. The implementation of the scheme picks up faster in 2017 compared to none or slow response in 2016. However, some countries openly object to the scheme or asked for exemptions.

Taking the policy design and compliance problems into account, the four operating EU hotspots in Sicily can hardly deliver on lifting pressure from the Italian authorities. Despite the support that was provided by EU agencies and financial contributions, the task of returning and detaining non-admissible asylum seekers as well as the obligation to provide for an asylum procedure mainly remain the responsibility of Italy (i.e. law enforcement officials, the military, and the coastguard). We researched how Italy deals with these multiple challenges and how the country provides for the asylum procedure and eventual return of those that apply for international protection in the country.

Absconding and secondary movements from Italy

Given the involvement of EU agencies in the registration and identification process, Italian authorities are left with little room for non-compliance with the Dublin rules. In fact, the European Parliament reports that fingerprinting in Italy has risen to almost 100 per cent (EP 2016: 10). Thus, the former practice of purposeful non-compliance by non-registration was abolished. However, evidence suggests that Italian authorities aim at  limiting the number of people entering the national protection system. Corresponding to the opening of the first hotspots in Sicily, a significant increase in the number of deferred expulsion orders was recorded. The rapidity with which these orders were released soon generated concerns, to the extent that the practice was denounced as illegal by many NGOs (Mc Mahon 2016; Senato della Republica 2016). They criticized that asylum applications were assessed collectively, based on declared nationality.  For this reason, in January 2016 the Department of Civil Liberties of the Italian Ministry of the Interior had to  reprimand the Italian police with an internal memo to limit the use of such orders and treat all asylum applications on an individual basis (Consiglio Italiano per i Rifugiati 2016).

The sudden release of many expulsion orders has several explanations. One factor  seems to be that, using the legal instrument, Italian authorities are able to keep many out of the Italian asylum system – thus decreasing the national burden in maintaining reception facilities. What counts here is that almost none of those receiving the order actually leaves Italy and the EU: rather, the opposite happens. When receiving deferred expulsion orders, people are simply left free to circulate in Italy with the obligation to leave the territory of the country from its borders within 7 days (Débarge 2016). As hardly none of the evicted takes a boat or a flight back to Libya or their country of origin, many simply remain within the Schengen territory and try to move north. This explains why so many unauthorized migrants keep crowding the Italian border areas of Brennero or Ventimiglia, waiting to cross into Austria and France (Statewatch Observatory 2016).

Summing up the analysis of implementation of the hotspot approach in Italy we conclude that Italy maintains shirking its obligations towards Dublin and the CEAS. Our tentative explanation for this account is that the ill-functioning and design of the relocation mechanism negatively impacts on the idea of the hotspot to fairly manage mixed migration flows at the EU external border. Our assumption is that frontline member states will do anything they can to promote burden sharing by shirking their responsibility towards the CEAS as long as responsibility for providing international protection is not a shared responsibility. Accordingly, a system that does reflect neither their interests nor their capacities is bound to be circumvented.



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