An Act of Backpedaling: Italy’s Migration Policy in the Era of COVID-19
In 2018 and 2019, the previous Italian Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini, introduced and pushed through parliament several security decrees that decimated some of the most important aspects of migrant protection within the Italian asylum and reception system. What previously functioned as Italy’s third level of migrant protection--Humanitarian Protection--has been stripped of its structure through the application of extended limitations on residency permits and the exclusion of beneficiaries from reception centers with adequate support services.
SPRAR reception centers, which previously supplied education, shelter, and integration services to vulnerable people and recognized refugees, were replaced by SIPROMI centers, which placate only to recognized refugees and unaccompanied minors. This shift leaves innumerable asylum seekers without integration resources, access to legal and social services, and support entering the job market. Although there are systems in place intended to prioritize migrants deemed “vulnerable,” Italian immigration law holds no consistent identification process for this specialization, therefore vulnerable people that are not children, elderly, or pregnant are often overlooked. Without the option of regularization, asylum seekers are more likely to become trapped within criminal or trafficking organizations; Salvini’s far-right Lega Nord party has thus made a habit of commercializing off of migrants alleged involvement in crime circles to fuel anti-crime and anti-immigration propaganda.
Moreover, Salvini’s decrees contradicted norms of international humanitarian norms by doubling the number of time centers that may hold migrants in detention pending deportation. Perhaps most politically charged, these decrees attacked the humanitarian organizations and search-and-rescue missions that operate in the south of Italy through both funding cuts and the imposition of fines and jail time upon shipmasters. In doing so, the previously poor youth unemployment rate within southern Italy was further suppressed, as young people lost their jobs in humanitarian work. Although the government in which Salvini held the position of Minister of the Interior has since been dissolved, all of these decrees remain legally in place. Within the past year, Italy’s new coalition government has continually discussed reforms of these decrees without taking any action; This stall in policy change has only been supplementally delayed by the COVID-19 Pandemic.
As Italy was one of the first countries to undergo a devastating COVID-19 outbreak, public fears of the virus translated easily into public fears of foreigners. In this way, Italian politicians have utilized a healthcare crisis to fuel the designation of immigration as an issue of national security rather than an issue of human rights. In reality, the current prospects of life in Italy for migrants is dire. Earlier this summer, migrants were forced to stay aboard loitering ships for weeks before disembarking. Due to Salvini’s restrictions on residency permits and access to specialized reception centers, migrants are often unable to regularize into the Italian market or acquire Italian language skills. When the world went on lockdown, the discourse regarding Italy’s potential attempts to improve the livelihoods of migrants was frozen as well.
However, once Italian policymakers began addressing the consequences of COVID-19, it became clear the absolute necessity of migrants within Italy’s labor market. This past May, in the wake of COVID-induced halts to migration flows that supply laborers, the Italian parliament passed an urgent decree that allows for migrants residing in Italy with expired residency permits to apply for new, six-month residency permits. Despite the seemingly beneficial quality of such a decree, it applies only to the sectors of domestic and aquacultural/agricultural work, which leaves out thousands of migrants in alternative industries such as infrastructure and construction. Additionally, the specification of both holding an expired residency permit while also providing proof of previous work experience creates evidential barriers for migrants to pursue such permits. Essentially, this most recent decree exposes the half-hearted damage control that the Italian government is putting in place to protect migrants in a time of emergency--when it is convenient for the state to do so. Instead of fostering such transparent policies that execute no real change in asylum and reception policy, the Italian government should work to abolish--not reform--the Salvini security decrees.