From Libya to the limbo of hotspots: the fate of asylum applicants in relocation procedures

After having passed weeks at the mercy of the sea and of the European states’ decisions, descending from the ships is not the end of the migrants’ journey, but the beginning of another difficult phase of their migratory experience. After the landing, which is in itself an outrageously staged scenario, the fate of those who have been suffering an unspeakable violence for a very long time is entrusted to a series of procedures which should allow for the redistribution of persons to different European nations.
These procedures – put into effect due to improvised accords concluded from time to time after Italy’s government threatened to leave people at sea after their rescue – have the effect of extending the period of retaining migrants in hotspots. This measure does not improve the condition of those who are forced to live in a place/non-place where one feels completely suspended from time and space. These mechanisms confirm and perpetuate abuse to the detriment uniquely of those who have to endure re-traumatization after the experiences of their travels towards Europe.

This policy has been concerning numerous landings for the last year and a half – Sea Watch, Gregoretti and Open Arms to name a few of the last. It is the consequence of closing measures of the Italian government and its claim to “close ports”, resulting in an interdiction of landing for not solely, but especially humanitarian ships in line with criminalizing NGOs. According to the last Minister of the Interior, NGOs have been colluding with human traffickers (meanwhile, thousands of people continue to arrive in Lampedusa on their own).

Therefore, even though these European measures of redistribution of migrant people have been proposed as humanitarian solutions to end landings, in reality, they are nothing else than a counterpart to the securitary control that closes Italy’s and Europe’s southern borders: a policy perfectly matching the punitive governance of forcible confinement that defines the criminalization of migrants and of those rescued at sea. What migrants have to endure in Libya, then in the middle of the sea and, finally, inside Italian hotspots is a continuum: coercive power shapes a system of limitation of liberty that comprehends human beings not as autonomous subjects but as bodies that have to be disciplined, contained and allocated.

European redistribution procedures in Italian hotspots

These redistribution procedures constitute a novelty within the legal panorama of the EU’s asylum rights. If, in fact, according to the Dublin procedures, the country in which asylum seekers first arrive is the country which, with few exceptions, is responsible for their legal proceedings, then the closing of ports and the ongoing tug-of-war among national powers and European institutions has halted these criteria of redistribution.

Yet, it is not the first time that redistribution of migrants occurs outside of the Dublin system. In 2015, the European Commission had examined relocation procedures aiming at decreasing the migratory pressure on Mediterranean countries by relocating those nationalities most at risk and therefore with higher possibility to obtain the status of international protection (with a 75 % rate of recognition of asylum). But the results of this relocation programme have not been successful, only 2% of redistributions had been effectuated after one year.

The relocation procedures we have been assisting since Italy has become hostage of political forces showing disdain of international treaties do not bear any legal or normative grounding and thus are not regulated. More precisely, the procedures are based on a provision, article 17 of the Dublin Regulatory, which provides for the possibility of one Member State to take charge of a certain amount of asylum seekers without having to consider the provision of assignment of the treaty. This leads to an almost completely informal redistribution of migrants among the Member States without any selection based on the rule of law.

Our monitoring of the procedures put into effect in the hotspots of Pozzallo and Messina in cooperation with the project “In Limine” by ASGI* has verified the utter arbitrariness of the redistribution. First of all, the time of stay inside a hotspot has become considerably longer in the wait for the arrival of delegations from the European countries. Thus, it takes much longer to transfer the migrants.

In addition, since there are no real regulations, there isn’t a logical motivation behind the selection of the migrants for interviews by the various delegations: the decision is up to the Member States. They make their choices primarily based on criteria such as nationality, religion, ethnicity, and aspects related to security and terrorism. For example, the French delegation has always preferred to interview francophone migrants coming from former colonies or zones of French influence. Within this group, the capacity to integrate is verified by ascertaining if “Western values” are being adhered to. We have verified that the specific questions of the delegations have nothing to do with the personal history or the right to asylum of the person, they rather aim at the presumed “occidentality” of the migrant. Many French speaking Muslims have been asked, for example, if they would force their spouse to wear a veil if they were to marry a French person. Another question regards their reaction after their son confesses that he is gay or whether they would reveal the identity of a compatriot if he had terroristic ambitions.

These questions have no relation whatsoever to the proper purpose of the delegations. They also insurgently tend to render the interview uncomfortable. In substance, the migrants have to defend themselves from accusations instead of answering questions.

Adding to this critical point, there is a total lack of information regarding the relocation procedures of those who are ruled out by the delegations. Delegations are not obliged to take over a certain number of migrants determined in advance.

In this sense, although the agreement among the European member states aiming at releasing the impasse of ships facing closed piers had been regarded positively both by migrants themselves as well as by civil society, unfortunately, the arrival in Europe has become another obstacle to liberty and autonomy for these people.

The hotspot approach of Pozzallo and Messina: detainment and privation of liberty in a border regime

Together with the operators from ASGI* we have been monitoring the situation of the hotspots of Pozzallo and Messina in the project “In Limine” and met some people who are allowed to leave the structure. We found that the policies there define a regime of detainment inside the hotspots, marked by measures of control and surveillance through inhumane and degrading treatments.

The hotspot system and its underlying regulations as such present a grave constitutional breach, with regard to the provision of detaining a person for identification up to 30 days without judicial warrant. In practice, hotspots are places of confinement and selection, where migrants are left for months in conditions that violate their liberties and with lack of legal and sanitary assistance.

Before talking about Pozzallo and Messina, it is necessary to identify the terrible situation inside the hotspot of Lampedusa. It allows itself to offer substandard services (absent beds, people sleeping on the floor, inexistent canteen) from the moment it serves as a temporary hub before relocations to Pozzallo and Messina take place, since the interviews with the European delegations do not take place in Lampedusa’s hotspot.


Around 300 people are currently living in the hotspot of Pozzallo. They arrived at different times in various landings: 67 were on the Coast Guard’s ship Gregoretti, 70 on the ship of the Open Arms, dozens of North Africans from Lampedusa and 70 arrived last Sunday on the ship Eleonore of the NGO Lifeline. The people accommodated in the hotspot come from various countries: Sudan, Eritrea, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Senegal, Niger, Nigeria, Algeria, Gambia, Tunisia, Libya. The conditions in the overcrowded institution are cramped and depriving of liberty. Migrants report that there are not enough beds for everyone, they are forced to sleep on the floor, men and women in the same room. There are not enough bathrooms and the hygienic conditions are critical.

A very serious condition emerging from their reports concerns surveillance. Not just the fact that phones are confiscated is alarming. Additionally, the operators and the supervisors of the hotspot put pressure on them prohibiting them to talk with outsiders and threatening them, otherwise, to be punished. Moreover, during the last few days the migrants were controlled and searched during their daily coming to and going from the center.


In the hotspot of Messina, the medical and psychological situation is worsening. There are among 50 people at the center, of whom 42 arrived on board of the Sea Watch 3. They have now been waiting for their transfer for more than two months. Among the others there are 8 migrants who arrived on the ship Cigala Fulgosi and several families from the CAS* Villa Sikania. The currently present asylum seekers – from Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Cameroon, Mali, Niger, Ivory Coast and Guinea – live in containers of about 12 spots each.

The people we met during our visit, all of them asylum seekers, belong to those rescued from the Sea Watch 3 on June 29th. While talking to them serious medical problems emerged: open wounds and injuries, gynaecological infections and, furthermore, an urgent need for psychological care. One woman, who has several wounds on her chest and who would have had to take antibiotics, tells us that she has not been given any medication for her condition and that no paediatrician has ever taken care of her seven months old child. Another person tells us that she has no money to buy the medication she needs at the pharmacy and that staff told her that her ultimate host country would take care of her health problems.

A young woman tells us of the paralyzing fear she feels at night when she remembers the horrors in Libya and can’t sleep, even though she is in Europe now. „Sometimes I forget that I am in a democratic country. I still feel I am at danger and the fear comes back“ she says. The feeling of being lost, frustration and fear characterize the stories of the migrants, who often cannot manage to communicate their requests to those in duty. The cultural and linguistic mediator provided by the hotspot is unable to communicate with the people there. He or she has an insufficient grasp of the French language and therefore misunderstands requests made to him or her.

Nevertheless, many migrants pull themselves together and become aware of their rights. With sorrow they are waiting for the moment of departure towards other European countries. Many of them already have notified their relocation, without, however, knowing when it will actually take place.

They tell us that they have no information concerning their social and legal situation. Consequently, many do not know their rights and the system of redistribution at European level. In fact, in Pozzallo as well as in Messina information management becomes a medium of control over the lives of asylum seekers. Mostly, people are kept in ignorance. Many believe that hearings with the delegations of European countries coincide with the acceptance of their asylum request, others are convinced that it would be better not to pursue formalization of their application via the module C3, since that would by consequence mean having to stay in Italy. Many Migrants, both in Pozzallo and in Messina, have not received any document certifying them to be asylum seekers, or in any case they have only received an incomplete copy of the documentation relating to the application for protection.

Almost all the people we talked to told us that they were not informed about the waiting period and that in many cases they had not been given any translation, explanation or rereading of the documents they signed, either during talks with EASO* officials or with delegations from European countries.

Deprivation of liberty and detention practices beyond the time limit, informal selection processes by European delegations, degrading treatment, confiscations and searches depict the hotspots as detention and prison camps. In Pozzallo as well as Messina, arbitrariness of decisions functions as leverage, useful to repeat the violence of deprivation of liberty but also to clarify the illegitimate practices that European sovereignty has arranged along its borders, from the countries of departure to those of arrival.

In fact, the (absent) access policies necessary to control the flow of migration and determine the criteria of accessing the territory together with legislation guidelines describing the migrants’ resources and opportunities merely constitute a control apparatus that governs and manages populations in transit, and by this delays the migrants’ autonomy and emancipation.

The violence perpetrated from Libya to Italy

The European procedures for relocation, portrayed by Italy as a solution for their blocking of ship-landings, are nothing more than a continuation of the political measures of deprivation of liberty against migrants. Beginning with their imprisonment in Libyan camps, where they are subjected to abuse and torture of all kinds to the harrowing journey at sea, from the treatment on board of the ships waiting for a landing to the fact that landings are transformed into a spectacle, and finally during the prolonged imprisonment in the hotspots, people on their way to Europe experience processes of violent and ongoing traumatization.

These dynamics consolidate and redefine– under renewed forms and modalities – the mechanism of the deprivation of liberty. The violent measures of the bio-political management are repeated even after the crossing of borders. They are the constraint of mobility, the illegitimate imprisonment, physical and mental violence, the condition of externally induced vulnerability. With their continued suffering, caused by the power struggle between nationalistic parties and Europe, migrants once again have to pay the bill, even when they have finally reached the European democracy. This coercive power reveals itself in the neglect of treatments, in the lack of social and legal information, in the abuse by degrading living conditions, in the examinations, either verbally through the illegitimate questions posed by the European delegations or physically, through the inspections of personal belongings up to brutal punitive threats.

It is therefore necessary to turn on the spotlight and tell what happens after the landing, in order to let everyone know, what happens to the people who after their rescue and disgraceful impediment to a secure landing become pawns in the power struggle between the states, dehumanized and reduced to commodities, either to choose or to discard. It is the umpteenth act of dehumanization they are forced to suffer on their journey, even and especially by the civil Europe.

Silvia Di Meo
Valeria Grimaldi
Peppe Platania
Borderline Sicilia

*ASGI – Associazione per gli Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione (Association for legal studies concerning immigration)
*CAS – Centro di accoglienza straordinaria (extra-ordinary reception center)
*C3, modulo – form C3 for application for an asylum
*EASO – European Asylum Support Office

Translation by Alma Freialdenhoven and Christian Lamp