Alessio D’angelo – MA Migration, Society and Policy Programme Leader Dr Alessio D’Angelo is a member of the Middlesex team working on ‘EVI-MED – Constructing an Evidence Base of Mediterranean Migrations’, an ESRC-DFID project. In his latest blog post, he reports from Sicily where the ‘hotspot approach’ has dramatically altered the landscape of Italy’s migrant crisis.

Over the last few months the so-called migrant crisis in the Mediterranean has been described in terms of ‘chaos’. These or related terms have been used with particular regard to the situation in Greece, which – according to the official statistics – saw nearly one million sea arrivals between January 2015 and January 2016. The ‘chaos’, however, is not in the numbers.
Reception crisis
This is, on the one hand, a crisis of international and European politics – the diplomatic stand-offs of the last few days show it quite clearly – and on the other, it is a reception crisis. As anybody who has been in the field would confirm, describing the reception system in Greece as under-resourced and disorganised is an understatement.

Shall we then hope that efficient and effective reception systems are implemented as soon as possible across the Mediterranean? It depends on how one defines effectiveness, of course. Certainly my visits to Sicily over the last few months have made me increasingly careful about what I wish for.

Since September last year the island – the main point of arrival for migrants and refugees in Italy – has seen the relatively rapid implementation of the so-called ‘hotspot approach’. Initially identified as a way forward in the European Commission’s ‘Agenda on Migration‘ (May 2015), this approach is at the centre of the ‘Roadmap Italiana’ recently produced by the Italian Ministry of Interior. The first Italian hotspot was opened in the little island of Lampedusa on 21 September 2015, followed by Trapani (20 December 2016) and Pozzallo (19 January 2016), and more are planned for the coming months (see Fig. 1). In the main these are not new facilities, but a rebranding of existing reception centres, following some minor refurbishment, and with a much bigger role played by European agencies such as Frontex and EASO.
Italian hotspots

Italian hotspots
Fig. 1 – ‘Hotspots’ in Italy (existing hotspots are marked red; planned hotspots are marked green)

The hotspot approach
So what is a hotspot? The official documents do not provide a very detailed description, but the general idea is to create designated ‘areas of disembarkation’ were migrants are screened, identified, and fingerprinted (against their will, if necessary). “Those claiming asylum” – explains an EU factsheet – are “immediately channelled into an asylum procedure”, while “those who are not in need of protection” are returned to the countries of origin. The devil is in the detail, and several human rights associations have been denouncing the hasty methods used to separate ‘real’ asylum seekers from those who are ‘just’ economic migrants.

One of the main tools used in the Italian hotspots is the foglio notizie (information sheet). It is a very short questionnaire, collecting some general personal details and, crucially, asking migrants what is the reason of their arrival. The questionnaire provides a number of tick boxes – family reunion, work and asylum are some of the options available, though different versions are used in different centres and, it appears, at different times. If, for any reason, you tick ‘work’ among your options, you are automatically classified as an economic migrant.
“People do not fully understand why they are completing the questionnaire”
“It is ridiculous,” explained one of the local activists I met earlier this month. “Several of these people do not even fully understand why they are completing the questionnaire and proper interpreting is not always available. We know of many refugees who select ‘work’ because they want to show their willingness to integrate economically, and for that reason they are denied the right of asylum.”

Communication networks among migrants work very fast, so many new arrivals are now extremely wary about any piece of paper which is placed in front of them. However, the foglio notizie is only one of the selection instruments. Interviews also take place, though even most of the lawyers working in this field are unable to provide a clear account of how these work. Also in this case, different practices are implemented at different times and in different places.

‘Blatant violation’
At the end of the day, everybody knows what the main criteria used to distinguish ‘real’ asylum seekers from the economic migrants is: the country of origin. Those who come from countries considered safe – more precisely, those who are deemed to be from those countries – are automatically classified as economic migrants and receive a document notifying their respingimento (rejection). The problem is, there is not such thing as an official list of ‘safe countries’. Nonetheless, if you are from places such as Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan, Gambia, your chances of being rejected are extremely high. This affects a considerable part of those who get into the hotspots, since the vast majority of the 154,000 arrivals in Italy in 2015 were from sub-Saharan African countries and, unlike in Greece, only a few thousands were from Afghanistan or Syria (largely recognised as ‘proper’ refugee countries). This, as explained to me by Professor Fulvio Vassallo, from the University of Palermo, “is a blatant violation of the right of asylum as an individual right, as defined by the international conventions”.

So going back to the initial point, is this system effective? Again, it depends on how effectiveness is defined. It certainly serves many of the intended purposes.

The rapid adoption by the Italian authorities of the ‘hotspot approach’ followed months of tensions with their European partners and EU institutions around the inadequate implementation of the Dublin Convention, particularly with regard to fingerprinting. If before the hotspot approach many migrants were able to get through Sicily – and indeed Italy – without being fingerprinted, this has now become extremely difficult. At the same time, the arrivals of refugees have become increasingly less visible. The chaotic, mass arrivals of little boats on touristic beaches – among the defining images of Greece these days – are simply not happening in Sicily. True, the numbers are much lower, but the coordinated efforts of the Italian coastguard and Frontex now intercept virtually every boat well before they can see the Sicilian shores. Migrants are taken on board and, in most cases, moved straight to the hotspots.

59 migrants are rescued by the crew of Peter Henry von Koss as part of Frontex's Operation Poseidon - Photo by Kripos_NCIS (Creative Commons 2.0)
59 migrants are rescued by the crew of Peter Henry von Koss as part of Frontex’s Operation Poseidon – Photo by Kripos_NCIS (Creative Commons 2.0)

Politics first
Thanks to the implementation of the hotspots – and with the worsening of the Greek front – the Italian government is not seen any more as one of the weak links in the European migration system (at least for now). Indeed, the fact that the mechanisms of international resettling are not working at all, is allowing the Interior Minister, Angelino Alfano, to blame the rest of Europe for not being able to stick to the plan. An interesting, though pointless, turning of tables.

As pointed out by the activists of the Italian NGO Borderline Sicilia, the ‘Roadmap Italiana’ has dramatically changed the reception system in Italy (and in many more ways that is possible to condense into this one blog entry). However, this was done without passing any new law. The complex Italian legislation around refugee reception has remained unchanged. “The Roadmap is a political agreement between the Italian Government and Europe which has bypassed and superseded the law”. It is a political agreement aiming first of all to resolve political problems. The human dimension of the migration crisis is secondary; human rights are simply collateral. In this respect, it is quite effective.

More details about the implementation of the hotspot approach, the management of refugee arrivals across the Mediterranean and other emerging findings from EVI-MED will follow in the coming weeks.

Borderline Sicilia takes part in the field research of the EVI-MED project.