Historical Mirrorism: Reckoning with Migration and Integration in Italy

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Written by Trinh Truong

“Friendship is indispensable to man for the proper function of his memory. Remembering our past, carrying it with us always, may be the necessary requirement for maintaining, as they say, the wholeness of the self. To ensure that the self doesn’t shrink, to see that it holds on to its volume, memories have to be watered like potted flowers, and the watering calls for regular contact with the witnesses of the past, that is to say, with friends. They are our mirror; our memory; we ask nothing of them but that they polish the mirror from time to time so we can look at ourselves in it.” ― Milan Kundera, Identity


On a breezy day in late July, Abdul Sane bikes to a plot of land outside of Forte Di Acqui Park in Alessandria, Italy. The plot is flanked on both sides by vegetable gardens run by Caritas Diocesana of Alessandria, which distributes lots to economically vulnerable citizens for farming. Sane wears the top portion of a beekeeper’s suit and lights a hive smoker stuffed with dried grass. An experienced beekeeper of two years, he slips on a veil to protect his head and face, but forgoes gloves. He wanders over to an expansive apiary comprised of twenty bee hives. Surrounded by synchronized buzzing and puffing smoke along the way, he explains, “The smoke calms the bees, making my job easier.”[1]

Sane is head beekeeper of the Bee My Job program established and managed by the Associazione di Sociale Promozione Cambalache (APS Cambalache). The mission of Bee My Job is to promote the social and economic integration of asylum-seekers and immigrants. It functions as a professional training program that teaches participants the art of beekeeping through month-long classes and visits to regional apicultural centers. The honey that is produced is sold locally, and the entire social enterprise is exclusively managed by its participants. The program also promotes sociocultural integration by requiring enrollment in courses on the Italian language, pathways to citizenship, and occupational safety. The program is geared toward asylum-seekers and immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, but any individual who has been granted some form of legal status is eligible for enrollment.

Bee My Job was established in response to the growing number of asylum-seekers arriving on Italian shores in 2014. That year, over 170,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers arrived by sea, a number approximately four times higher than in 2013.[2] The majority were Syrians fleeing the violence of civil war, and others were Eritreans, Malians, Gambians, and Nigerians escaping combinations of dictatorship, armed conflict, and poverty.[3] Most traveled through Libya, Egypt, and Turkey. Since its launch, Bee My Job has trained over 100 beekeepers and has placed upwards of 90 of them into long-term, rather than seasonal, employment. The program has been recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as a model for successful integration.

Sane fled the political instability and poverty of Senegal in 2015. Despite Senegal being lauded as one of the most stable democracies in post-colonial Africa, the ongoing separatist violence in the southwestern region of Casamance has produced a sizable population of internally displaced persons (IDPs). In 2015, over a million refugees arrived in Europe by sea. Of the total registered, 84 percent came from the world’s top ten refugee producing countries, indicating that most were fleeing war or persecution.[4] Italy received about 154,000 of these individuals, and approximately 6,000 were Senegalese asylum seekers.[5] Sane has been granted refugee status in Italy but has no imminent plans to return to Senegal, as the situation has yet to stabilize. As of the beginning of 2018, it is estimated that there are currently 22,000 IDPs in Senegal.[6]

He leaves behind his wife and family, for Sane is unwilling to ask them to undergo the same journey through Libya. He says, “Working with bees is easy compared to the slave labor I was forced to do in Libya, where I was given one piece of bread a day and tortured.”[7] With his bare hands, he methodologically dismantles each beehive constructed out of upcycled wooden filing cabinets. Each cabinet is filled with metal reams that serve as scaffolding for honeycombs. As the bees buzz around him, Sane explains that he was trained as an electrician. When he arrived in southern Italy, he made his way north, and it was by chance that he received  an opportunity to realize his unknown dream of becoming a beekeeper.

Sane’s journey from his native country to Italy via boat is fairly common amongst most asylum-seekers and immigrants in Italy. What is less common, however, is that he has been granted a stable form of legal permanent residency and has been placed into an integration program that offers him opportunities for language acquisition, community and cultural engagement, housing, education, and gainful employment. Sane’s success exemplifies the best of the Italian asylum system that has struggled to accommodate the large waves of mass displacement and migration of recent years.


Alessandria, Italy, is a mid-sized Italian town of a population of about 100,000 people. It is usually not a destination, but instead a stop along the way because of its strategic location an hour away from from the major hubs of Turin, Milan, and Genoa. However, in recent years, it has become a desirable resettlement city for asylum-seekers and immigrants seeking a quiet transition to Italian life largely due to its close-knit community and the plethora of social integration enterprises operating within the city’s boundaries.

Bee My Job and Il Chiostro Hostel are two of about thirty local integration projects in Alessandria that implement traditional integration methodologies through innovative social enterprises. They prioritize independent, sustainable, and integrated living for the asylum-seekers and immigrants by providing Italian classes, housing, employment training and placement, opportunities for cultural exchange, and support navigating the Italian immigration system.

Mara Alacqua, executive director and founding member of APS Cambalache, explains that civil society organizations have had the largest hand in integrating asylum-seekers and immigrants. APS Cambalache, upon its initial formation in 2012, was comprised of just Alacqua and a colleague, both eager to serve the asylum-seekers and immigrants struggling to navigate new societies. The organization’s mission is to “promote the social integration of vulnerable groups; active citizenship; the social and economic rights of marginal groups and of society as a whole.”[8] The name of the organization is inspired by Alacqua’s time living and working as an immigrant in Argentina and Spain; it borrows from the Spanish word “cambalache,” meaning a swap or exchange and is also inspired by the Argentine tango song of same name that is critical of 20th century corruption.

Over the past six years, Alacqua has transformed APS Cambalache into an official integration organization funded by the Italian government. Its staff now includes an on-site psychotherapist, Italian teachers, a housing coordinator, a health coordinator, case managers, and administrators. APS Cambalache also manages seven apartments that house the 41 asylum-seekers and immigrants currently enrolled in their programs.

For Alacqua, community-based integration efforts are the best way to promote functional immigration policy. “We need more and more opportunities for NGOs to put people in proximity with each other,” she says.[9] In addition to running the Bee My Job program, APS Cambalache oversees a small garden managed by program participants. The organization also plans cultural events in the community that provide local residents opportunities to interact with asylum-seekers and immigrants to break down cultural stigmas. In the past, some of these events have included art and dance classes, as well as in-home cooking celebrations.

Around the corner from the APS Cambalache office is the Il Chiostro Hostel, a social enterprise run by Marco Ciavaglioli and Vanda Manieri. In 2011, Ciavalioli and Manieri purchased and renovated an abandoned building that is now the only hostel operating in Alessandria. When the local police and government requested that they open their doors for asylum-seekers and immigrants in need of temporary housing, not only did they agree, but they also decided to incorporate this as an element of their enterprise. The hostel has since functioned as any traditional hostel does, providing affordable accommodation for travelers, while also doubling as a housing and integration project for asylum-seekers and immigrants. Il Chiostro is home to about 30 asylum-seekers and refugees who help manage the facilities while enrolled in Italian classes and employed. The large courtyard area is used as a community hub that facilitates cultural exchange, often through movie nights and community dialogues.

Alacqua, Ciavalioili, and Manieri all remark that negative attitudes harbored by local residents towards asylum-seekers and immigrants are possibly related to past experiences of discrimination or feelings of jealousy. Alacqua, whose father is originally from Sicily, recounts the discrimination that Sicilians originally faced when migrating to northern Italy. Distinguished by the color of their skin and their labor-intensive skills sets, many landlords refused to rent to Sicilians, displaying signs that read “Housing, but not to Sicilians.”[10] She says the phenomena has emerged once more, but in the form of “Housing, but not to immigrants, refugees, and Africans.”[11]

Ironically for Alacqua, it is often previous groups of immigrants who are most hostile to new ones. Eastern Europeans immigrants who received little aid upon initial resettlement often resent asylum-seekers and immigrants, feeling as if they are unfairly benefiting from government welfare that was not offered to the immigrants of the past. Racial prejudices and biases against many of these newer arrivals only compound the hostility. While disavowing racist attitudes, Alacqua clarifies that the economic concerns of local residents should not be hastily dismissed; it is true that the recent influx of asylum-seekers and immigrants has created competition in the agricultural industry, as they are willing to work for lower wages.[12]

Alacqua also emphasizes that it is hypocritical for Italians for seek the closure of their borders when so many immigrated to other countries for work or education. She says, “There are more Italians that go abroad for economic reasons than asylum-seekers who arrive here.” Alacqua is right. In 2015, one of the peak years for oceanic migration to Italy, nearly 2.5 million Italians were residing as foreign nationals in other countries.[13] The top countries of residence were Germany, the United States, France, Canada, and Switzerland, which also coincide with the top destination countries of choice for many asylum-seekers and immigrants.[14]

Elsewhere in Italy, civil society groups are taking more radical approaches to aid asylum-seekers and immigrants,even encouraging increased migration. On the outskirts of Rome, there exists an enclave of tents and makeshift homes located thirty minutes south of the Tiburtina railway station. The community of denizens consists of male asylum-seekers and immigrants whose applications for legal residency in Italy are pending or have been rejected, and who are reluctant to return to their countries of origin for reasons of persecution or substandard living conditions.

The encampment is essentially an occupation in the style of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City. The walls of the buildings alongside the south end of the encampment are painted with graffiti promoting open borders, world peace, and rights for all. Men lounging around the encampment are engaged in a variety of activities: some are listening to music and surfing the internet on their cellphones, others are invested in a competitive game of soccer, and a group of men are huddled around a pot simmering with goat stew. While some of these men have arrived in Rome with wives and children, they do not stay in the encampment and are instead prioritized for placements in city shelters. The residents do not equivocate when they say that neither their informal encampment nor formal refugee camps are safe places for women and children.

Though there is no name for the encampment itself, the collective that lives and volunteers there is known as the “Baobab Experience,” an homage to the deciduous tree native to many parts of Africa, the native continent of most camp residents. The collective formed in 2015 in response to an institutional void in the Italian capital. There was no resource hub for migrants, so volunteers stepped in to provide immediate resources and aid for migrants who stopped in Rome while making their journey to other parts of Europe. On a daily basis, volunteers coordinate daily dinners, activities for the residents, and provide material and legal aid.

The Baobab Experience has a fraught relationship with the Roman police, who are unsure of what to do with the them. Local authorities have evicted the collective over 20 times since its original launch, for fear that it was encouraging asylum-seekers and immigrants to stay in Rome. This fear is not entirely unfounded; to date, Baobab Experience has aided over 60,000 individuals, and volunteers remark that the organization functions as a sort of informal migration and integration corridor for many seeking to journey to Europe.[15]

The new location for the encampment is secluded from the busiest parts of Rome,tucked away between an enclave of trees to disincentive further police raids. Volunteers believe they have finally found a safe location, as it is unlikely the police would travel so out of their way to execute another eviction. Make no mistake, the police are aware of the new location, but are making a compromise: the alternative would be for the collective’s inhabitants to be visible and homeless on the streets of Rome, public nuisances in one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.

Despite the optimism of the volunteers, feelings of frustration and hopelessness with the dead ends of Italian and international immigration policy permeate the camp. Upon entry into the encampment, there is a tattered cloth poster that hangs on a chain link fence, reading “Love us as you love [yourselves]. We are not the problem. We are your mirror. The future of all will become a big problem if we don’t generate love. No love. No peace.”[16]


Liberal western democracies across Europe and North America are confronting alt-right populist extremism stoked by anxieties about economic disenfranchisement and ethnocentric attitudes. Italy is no exception to this, and the political shift has played a large role in the formation of immigration policy fueled by xenophobia, racism, and fear. In June 2018, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (MS5) party and the hard-right Lega party struck a deal to form a new coalition government.

M5S launched in the wake of the Eurozone crisis in 2009 as an anti-European Union, anti-establishment party railing against the corruption of the Italian political elite. Lega was originally established as “Lega Nord,” or the Northern League, a regional party that distinguished itself from Southern Italians through racism and classism, and pushed for the secession of the more prosperous and historically homogeneous northern industrial Italian territories. The party recently dropped the regional label in order to more towards a more inclusive platform, bettering the chances of electoral victory. However, the boundaries of their inclusivity end at Italy’s borders. As part of their rebranding, Lega has championed an “Italy First” platform centered around opposing  immigration and European unity.

An incident in the northern Italian town of Macerata in February 2018, ahead of the March general elections, pushed immigration to the forefront of public discourse. On February 1st, the body of 18-year-old Pamela Mastropietro, an Italian native battling drug addiction, was found dismembered in two suitcases. She was reported missing from her drug rehabilitation program two days prior. The investigation has yet to conclude whether she died as the result of a drug overdose at the house of her dealer, a documented Nigerian immigrant, or whether she was murdered. Despite the legal status of her dealer, the event became a flashpoint amidst rising anxiety about an invasion of undocumented foreigners, evoking fierce public protest.

In retaliation for Mastropietro’s murder, Lt. Col. Michele Roberti, the local commander of Italy’s elite police force, the Carabinieri, drove through the streets of Macerata and fired about 30 shots over the course of 90 minutes.[17] He targeted dark-skinned pedestrians, wounding six African asylum-seekers and immigrants with non-life threatening injuries. Roberti was once a candidate for the Northern League, and upon his arrest on the steps of Macerata’s Fascist-era war memorial, bore the Italian flag draped around his shoulders.[18] After this attack, nearly every immigrant moved away from Macerata for fear of further violence.

During the 2018 March elections, MS5 captured 222 seats in parliament, the most of any party, while Lega won 124 seats. Together, their coalition captured more than the 316 seats needed to have a majority. Many Italians believe that the events in Macerata were the tipping point for undecided Italian voters. After the elections, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, a Lega party member, pledged to deport 500,000 undocumented asylum-seekers immigrants to the fanfare of many.[19] At a rally in northern Italy, he commanded asylum-seekers and immigrants to “get ready to pack [their] bags.” [20] This aggressively anti-immigration rhetoric contributed to the increase of Lega’s poll ratings up to 26% from less than 18% at the time of the general elections in March 2018.[21]


Historically, Italy has been no stranger to migration, both regular and irregular. According to Enrico Pugliese, a sociologist at Sapienza University of Rome who studies influxes of immigration into Italy, the major migration waves of the mid-twentieth century were beneficial to the economy. In the 1960s and 1970s, Tunisians came to Apulia to work as fisherman, farm hands, and construction workers. They were followed by women leaving Catholic countries in Africa and South America to work as waitresses.[22] In 1976, Yugoslavians immigrated to Italy to help with reconstruction work in the northeastern region of Friuli after a 6.5 magnitude earthquake.[23] With the exception of the Yugoslavians, most immigrants were undocumented and settled throughout southern Italy, as most arrived by sea.

A marked shift in the occupational patterns of immigrants occurred in the 1980s, a period of increased investment in the southern Italian economy that led to rapid economic growth. Immigrants, primarily from Senegal and Morocco, assumed the roles of street vendors, a class called the “vu’ cumprà,” which translates to “Would you like to buy?”[24] The term has become fixed in the Italian lexicon with racist and derogatory connotations and still remains in use. Throughout the 1980s, women continued to arrive in Italy from Catholic countries in South America, the Horn of Africa, and the Philippines, primarily working as domestic workers.[25]

Everything changed after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ensuing economic crisis in former Eastern Bloc countries. In Albania, inflation peaked at over 350 percent and the annual GDP decreased by over 50 percent annually.[26] For the average Albanian, this manifested in unemployment, food shortages, and social unrest. Cargo ships would transport tens of thousands of Albanian emigrants to Italy; in 1991,  Albanians began arriving on the shores of southern Italy.[27] On March 7th, 1991 alone, 20,000 disembarked from one ship in the southeastern port of Bari.[28]

At the onset of the migration, the Albanian migrants were welcomed by local residents and were offered temporary shelter by the government. However, officials in Rome quickly changed course upon realizing they were effectively opening a migration rather than a humanitarian corridor. The main point of contention, which is still present in contemporary immigration debates, was one of classification: Were Albanians official refugees, as defined by the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, or not? Qualifying individuals must be able to prove a “well-founded fear of being persecuted” in their country of origin “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”[29] The official Italian position was that, as their country was experiencing a transition to democracy, the Albanian arrivals were not political refugees, but rather “illegal economic migrants.”[30]

Following this pivot in immigration policy, military and police units were dispatched to deport as many individuals as they could via plane or ferry. Those who could not be deported immediately were rounded up in sports stadiums, which served either as detention or reception centers depending on what authorities decided for each individual. These migration flows leveled off until 1997, when the outbreak of the Albanian Civil War forcibly displaced Albanians who the international community undisputedly considered official, legal refugees. Italy, however, did not change course. The Italian Navy engaged in a proactive and preventative immigration enforcement campaign, effectively blockading any maritime vessels transporting Albanian refugees.

The criminalization of Albanian immigrants nearly thirty years ago has created a long-lasting irregular migration issue that largely remains unresolved. Most Albanian immigrants who arrived between 1990-1998 and who managed to remain in the country were undocumented. It is estimated that out of about 150,000 Albanian immigrants in Italy in 1998, only about 82,000 were registered with authorities. Even after the Italian government undertook efforts to legalize the status of most undocumented immigrants after 1999, a sizable undocumented Albanian population remained. In 2003, about one-fifth of all Albanians in Italy lacked legal documentation, indicating that the government’s hardline immigration policies to control “illegal economic migrants” have largely been ineffective. [31] These policies fail to expel individuals and offer pathways to legal status, perpetuating irregular migration and dysfunctional immigration policies.

The case of Albanian immigrants and asylum-seekers attempting to resettle in Italy in the 1990s echoes accounts of what has transpired on the Italian coast in the last decade. From 2000 to September 2018, over 977,000 asylum-seekers and immigrants from internationalized conflicts, such as the Syrian Civil War and the Arab Spring, reached Italy by boat via Libya.[32] The migration influx has steadily continued despite the hardline, security-oriented enforcement policies of criminalization and deportation that have remained in place and only expanded. While the Italian military and police are no longer being dispatched to physically round asylum-seekers up for deportation, the effective criminalization of these individuals has continued via the consequences of a dysfunctional asylum system beyond capacity and maritime immigration enforcement efforts.

These enforcement policies ignore the reality that migration will continue while failing to offer humane and lawful solutions for asylum-seekers and immigrants already present. They also fail to address the most pressing questions of contemporary Italian society: What should be done about established asylum-seekers and undocumented immigrants without pathways to legalization, without guarantees of safety and stability in their native countries, and without the means to go elsewhere?


Italy has a complex legal schema for adjudicating asylum claims that has developed substantively over the past few decades. It is bound by legal obligations to asylum-seekers at the supranational, regional, national, and local levels. In spite of such extensive legal obligations, the system has failed some asylum-seekers because of conflicting regional interests, changing public opinions, inadequacies within asylum law itself, capacity limitations, and of course, debates over immigration policy.

At the supranational level, Italy has ratified the most important international treaties designed to protect the rights of asylum-seekers and the principle of family reunification. It is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, whose Article 14 enshrines “the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”[33] Italy has also ratified the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which established the principle of non-refoulement, thereby prohibiting the expulsion or repatriation of a refugee in the event their “life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”[34]

However, the 1951 Convention also includes a provision that relinquishes countries from the aforementioned obligation for cases where there are reasonable grounds for regarding a refugee as “a danger to the security of the country in which he is, or who, having been convicted by a final judgement of a particularly serious crime, constitutes a danger to the community of that country.”[35] The broad scope and ambiguity in this provision leaves some asylum-seekers and immigrants at the mercy of narrow and politicized interpretations of international law. This provision fails to anticipate the contemporary political environment in which the rhetoric surrounding immigration has largely not been about upholding the rights of asylum-seekers and immigrants, but rather about expelling them as expediently as possible because of hypothetical and unfounded threats to public safety.

What makes Italy unique from other signatories of the United Nations’ legislation on asylum policy and from its members states in the European Union is that its national constitution guarantees a universal right of asylum. Article 10 of the Italian Constitution proclaims that “[a] foreigner who, in his home country, is denied the actual exercise of the democratic freedoms guaranteed by the Italian constitution shall be entitled to the right of asylum under the conditions established by law.”[36] To uphold this principle, the Italian government has created national and regional agencies to provide material and legal aid to asylum-seekers, to process and review their applications, and to monitor their status. Once an asylum-seeker is granted refugee status by the Italian government, they are entitled to access the same benefits as all Italian citizens.

However, the way in which the Italian asylum system operates has not always been orderly and within the bounds of due process. As the country has faced overwhelming influxes of sea arrivals and asylum-requests in recent decades, the scaffolding for the asylum framework has been built and modified as needed.

In its most recent iteration, the Italian asylum system has functioned through a two-step process. Upon arrival, asylum-seekers are to receive first-aid and assistance in centers at points of entry. The legal status of asylum-seekers is supposed to be determined at these centers, and they are only to spend the amount of time necessary for their processing to be completed. Three types of these centers exist, based on demand: First Aid and Reception Centers, also known as “hotspots”; Collective Centers run by the government; and Temporary Reception Centers run by local prefectures. In theory, the first two centers should be adequate for housing all asylum-seekers at any given time, and the third type of center is an emergency measure if the first two asylum reception centers are overwhelmed. 

Once asylum-seekers are processed and granted some form of protection, they are transferred to the Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees (SPRAR), which coordinates their resettlement and integration processes. In 2002, SPRAR grew out of the National Asylum Program (NAP), an asylum-seeker reception system originally conceived by Ngô Đình Lệ Quyên. Ngô Đình designed the program during her tenure at the Catholic humanitarian NGO, Caritas Italy. She was a human rights lawyer, the niece of South Vietnamese president Ngô Đình Diệm, and a refugee herself.

SPRAR is a publicly-funded network of local authorities and NGOs, which collaborate to foster long-term integration through small-scale, high-impact projects. As of February 2018, there were 876 SPRAR projects, including Bee My Job and Il Chiostro Hostel. Asylum-seekers whose initial applications are rejected are entitled to two appeals processes, during which they can continue to receive government aid.

However, the lack of places in Temporary Reception Centers has created a bottleneck effect in the asylum system, causing massive dysfunction. Instead of prioritizing the processing of asylum-applications, immigration officials instead must scramble to accommodate arrivals. In effect, many asylum-seekers have experienced wait times of years for asylum decisions. Many, unwilling to create a life in light of uncertainty, seek asylum elsewhere, disrupting the regional EU protocols for tracking asylum applications.

The failure of the Italian asylum system because of capacity limitations has affected not only the lives of immigration officials and asylum-seekers, but also Italian society as whole. The dysfunction has falsely confirmed for some native Italians that asylum-seekers bring chaos and disorder to society, and that there is no place for them in Italy. These illusory falsehoods create a positive feedback loop in which Italian authorities and public opinion criminalize asylum-seekers for systemic failures beyond their control, disincentivizing politicians from reforming a dysfunctional system. The dynamic between the Baobab Experience and Roman authorities exemplifies this dynamic.

Still, the spirit of Italy’s constitution and laws as well as its commitments to international human rights law is one of supporting asylum-seekers. If the capacity of Italy’s asylum system was adequate to address the large influxes of arrivals in recent years, it is unlikely that immigration would continue to be as controversial as it has become.


In 2017, Italy received the second-highest number of asylum requests behind Germany.[37] That year, only 41.8 percent of all applications for some form of immediate protection, or “first instance applications,” were granted.[38] Of 130,119 applicants, 75,730 were denied permission to remain in Italy, though it is unclear how many of the latter group have left.[39] As an EU member state, Italy should not be solely responsible for managing the mass migration to its shores. The unwillingness of other EU nations to provide monetary support and to offer refugee resettlement placements has contributed to the development of Italian immigration policies that needlessly endanger lives. Since 2014, Italy’s immigration policy has pivoted to focus on the externalization of its borders to deter oceanic journeys from earlier inception points.

The motivation to prevent arrivals is to clandestinely rid the country of having to fulfill the obligations of the EU’s Dublin Regulation, which assigns the responsibility for processing the claims of asylum-seekers and immigrants based on the country of first arrival. Once individuals disembark on Italian shores, they are entitled to due process regarding any asylum claims, and the Italian government must ensure its completion. While asylum claims are being processed and adjudicated, Italy has the sole obligation to house applicants in a reception center.

Critics of the Dublin Regulation often claim that there needs to be more responsibility-sharing when it comes to mass migration. Without regional agreements that would systemically resettle asylum-seekers and immigrants in other countries, the coastal EU countries remain disproportionately affected by irregular migration and its corollary responsibilities and costs.

For this reason, the Italian aversion to immigration has manifested in maritime interception efforts, obstruction of humanitarian rescue ships from docking, and the domestic legal criminalization of arrivals. The governments of Italy, Tunisia, and Libya have also cooperated to intercept ships of asylum-seekers and immigrants headed for Italy, often interfering with the efforts of humanitarian rescue operations and jeopardizing lives. Rescue ships that have reached Italian shores have been held up for days and weeks before being turned away and directed to have the migrants disembark in other countries.

In the fall of 2013, the Italian government launched the year-long Operation Mare Nostrum with the mandate of decreasing the number of oceanic deaths. It was a direct response to the capsizing of two boats off the coast of Lampedusa, where over 600 individuals died.[40] The Italian Navy, with the EU’s border security agency, Frontex, rescued over 150,000 asylum-seekers and immigrants. However, critics argued that it was incentivizing migration and too costly: the European Commission provided €1.8 million to run the operation for a year.[41]

The Frontex-led Operation Triton replaced Operation Mare Nostrum to the concern of many human rights advocates because it prioritized “border control and surveillance” rather than search and rescue.[42] Fifteen EU member states contributed to a much more limited effort: unlike Mare Nostrum, which patrolled waters right up to the Libyan coast, Triton’s ships only patrolled within 30 nautical miles of the Italian coast.[43] The objective of decreasing sea arrivals to Italy was achieved, but at an extremely high cost: the International Organization for Migration reported that deaths at sea in the Mediterranean region increased ninefold after the end of Operation Mare Nostrum.[44]

Other efforts to control and halt immigration have varied in success depending on the enforcement capacity of Tunisia and Libya. Detention centers have been constructed by both governments, with support from the European Union (EU), to control the influx of asylum-seekers and immigrants. Italy and Libya have faced a barrage of legal challenges as a result of their cooperation, with allegations of violating international and regional asylum and refugee law.

The looming question for Italian policymakers—spanning back to the Albanian asylum-seekers and immigrants of the 1990s—is what to do with those rejected for legal residence. Up until this point, there still has not been a large-scale campaign of detention and deportation in Italy, as with Albanian immigrants.

Under Salvini’s helm, that may soon change as he plans large-scale, systemic detention and deportation for all asylum-seekers and immigrants. His promise to deport 500,000 people from Italy may placate the worries of Italian citizens, but it is likely unviable because Italy does not have the infrastructure to deporting asylum-seekers and immigrants en masse. In 2017, Italy deported 6,514 migrants, and 5,817 in 2016.[45]

According to Federico Soda, the director of the International Office of Migration’s Mediterranean office, if Italy wants to increase these numbers substantially, the government would have to form deportation agreements with each migrant’s country of origin.[46] This would be a difficult task as many countries have no incentive to form these agreements. And, in 2017 alone, over 60 countries of origin were recorded at Italian ports.[47]

Not only will large-scale deportations be unfeasible, but they will also prove costly endeavors. According to Italian law, two government agents have to accompany each deportee as they travel back to their country of origin.[48] It is estimated that for a recent deportation flight involving 29 Tunisians, 74 government agents, including doctors, nurses, and policy officers, had to accompany the deportees. [49] The cost of the operation is estimated at $135,000, or $4,600 per deportee.[50] If Italy plans to deport 500,000 people, it could cost the Italian government nearly $2.3 billion.

Michael Flynn, executive director of the Global Detention Project, notes that money is not the only cost of such a policy, as deportation would “do irreparable physical and psychological damage to thousands of people, many of whom have already suffered unspeakable tragedy and trauma.”[51] Alacqua raised the point that while it is true some originally do not leave their countries as refugees, but as economic migrants, they may acquire refugee status during their journey based on the harsh conditions they endure. Furthermore, the weaponization of deportation as a politically expedient tool could cost Italy its  credibility as a liberal democracy that is committed to upholding international and regional human rights law and policy.

However, this is only important insofar as Salvini and other Italian leaders care about belonging to a comity of liberal democracies, which is doubtful. Salvini has proven that he will go to potentially criminal lengths to uphold his hard-line immigration aspirations. In August 2018, Salvini stalled the Ubaldo Diciott rescue ship carrying 177 asylum-seekers and immigrants onboard from disembarking in Catania, where it docked after being stranded at sea for five days.

Before disembarkation, which occurred six days into the confrontation, Salvini wanted assurance that other nations would resettle the migrants . As a result, an Italian court launched an investigation into whether he could be tried on charges of kidnapping, illegal confinement and abuse of power. Despite the court recommendation that he stand trial, Salvini doubled down on his actions, stating, “I did it, and I’d do it again.”[52] The Italian Senate eventually voted to halt the investigation in February 2019, against warnings from the International Court of Justice that this could undermine the rule of law.


The one consistent fact that has persisted throughout Italian history is the consistency of migration. Regardless of the political party in power, the public opinion of foreigners, and the demographic makeup of Italy, people have always arrived on Italian shores seeking new lives free from persecution and fear. However, in this political moment, Italy has the possibility to guide the course of Italian asylum and immigration policy for years to come. The deterrence campaign undertaken by Frontex has proven to be effective in deterring sea arrivals, which have significantly decreased in 2018 compared to 2017.[53] If Salvini delivers on his threat to undertake a massive detention and deportation campaign, sea arrivals will continue to decline.

Yet, what does “effective” immigration policy look like regionally or globally? Surely it cannot only mean the expedient and technocratic efficiency with which a country could process asylum applications, only to deny and deport those who have filed them. Effective immigration policy cannot be formulated without referring to ideas of equality and human rights: ideas member states of the European Union are committed to and champion as a moral foil to illiberal and authoritarian regimes. Decreasing deaths at sea is a first step towards effective immigration policy, but then how will these countries substantiate human rights for immobile refugees and immigrants experiencing violence and uninhabitable conditions? Italy and other developed nations have been attempting to treat the symptom of irregular and undocumented migration, rather than the inequality that is its root cause.

Very few would challenge that generalized conditions of violence and extreme poverty are justifiable reasons to exit one’s country, but many wonder why asylum-seekers and immigrants do not seek to do this through institutional and legal means. Regarding asylum-seekers, it is important to emphasize that the asylum process entails presenting one’s self at a port of entry in order to claim asylum. Within the bounds of the asylum process, there is nothing illegal about entering a country unexpectedly and unannounced: that is precisely the point. The process is designed so that individuals can immediately and expediently remove themselves from harm’s way before undertaking the bureaucratic processes of legalization that usually spans years.

It is true that some individuals who claim asylum are actually economic migrants. At the heart of this contention is a definitional category that was established in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention nearly 70 years ago. The Convention was responding to a different historical context with a unique set of challenges, precisely the persecution and genocide of Jews. The promulgators of that document could not have foreseen that its protections would have to be expanded in order to include today’s over 68 million displaced people in the world. Neither could they have anticipated just how dire the predicament of global inequality would become, nor the desperate lengths to which individuals would go to escape it. As the world grapples with mass migration in Italy and everywhere, the capaciousness of the Convention will have to be revisited, and ideally, expanded. The risk, however, is that if the Convention were to be made open to revision again, the exact opposite would happen.

Still, even for those seeking to be legal economic immigrants, the fact is that the process of obtaining an EU work visa is costly and complicated, favoring the wealthy and well-educated. For most EU nations, the requirements include: application forms, professional photos, a valid passport, roundtrip flight reservations, travel insurance, proof of accommodation, an employment contract, proof of academic qualifications, and proof of language proficiency. These EU work visas are specific for the member state to which one is applying, and employment must be secured in advance.

Germany has recently loosened their stringent visa requirements as a partial solution to large irregular migration flows. With the backing of business leaders, the German government passed an immigration law—Fachkräftezuwanderungsgesetz—at the end of 2018 that promotes the recruitment of non-EU labor to fill 1.2 million skilled jobs.[54] While this law does not apply to all economic migrants, it allows skilled, asylum-seekers and immigrants who have failed to obtain status a legal pathway to residency. Many EU member states are likely to be receptive to opening their borders in a similar fashion to skilled asylum-seekers and immigrants, who they view as more likely to integrate and provide economic benefit to the country. However, this line of thinking once again substitutes the logic of human rights for that of utilitarian transactionalism. It also fails to grapple with the reality that most immigrants are unskilled non-EU immigrants whose migration would be mostly regulated if a general Schengen visa existed.

If a general Schengen visa was designed with unskilled economic immigration in mind, and without onerous requirements, irregular migration would decrease substantially. Most economic migrants undertaking  the sea journey are unskilled workers, who are not seeking to arrive to Europe to benefit from welfare systems, but rather to acquire jobs that will allow them to make a modest living and send income back to their native countries. Some do not plan to stay in Europe forever, but rather to return home once conflicts have settled or they have earned enough to make a substantial difference in the lives of their families.

The immigrants who have arrived and are unable to both legalize their status and find employment are in the most precarious position of all: they are unwilling to avail themselves to Italian authorities for fear of detention, or deportation to Libya rather than their native country. Many resort to gang membership and prostitution in order to survive. As Nigerian gangs and Italian crime syndicates forge alliances, particularly in southern Italy, the hesitance to address a crisis of status legalization, rather than migration, is creating a problem of crime that did not exist previously. An accessible Schengen visa would ensure that individuals could safely have the opportunity to travel to Europe to find work, and a safe journey home if they were unsuccessful.      

Shifting not only the opinion of the Italian public, but also of Italian politicians to comply with commitments expressed in constitutional international human rights law is no easy feat. It will involve a reckoning with the critical and marginal histories of the past. Advocates, activists, and aid workers are already at work, catalyzing honest conversations about how integral migration has been to the culture and development of Italy. Some defiant Italian mayors have already y issued proclamations of sanctuary, resisting immigration enforcement mandates and allowing rescue ships to safely and illegally dock in their ports. Italians cannot expect to understand the present moment without reflecting on moments past, intertwined with the migrations of the Other who was the Southern Italian, the Northern Italian, the Armenian.

The reality of the global political situation is that there is an ever-widening gap between the aspirations of asylum law and policy and the willingness of nations to open their borders. The urge to collapse conversations about migration solely into matters of economic benefit and procedural expediency must be resisted, because what is fundamentally at stake are liberal democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. The question comes down to how willing nations are to understand themselves. When Italians look in the mirror, what do they want to see? A country alienated from its own history, fearfully in denial about how its development has been intertwined with the arrival of the migrant Other, or a country confidently ready to take on the migrations and mobilities of the era in stride?

Migration has always been a fact, but it has always been a problem somewhere, somehow. It is clear that the demands of human rights and the claims for economic justice must converge to generate global law and policy that allow for a common world where all can travel  for any reason without the risk of drowning in the sea. In the words of Elise Domenico, psychotherapist at APS Cambalache, “Italians cry because people leave, they cry because someone arrives. They’re always crying.”

About the Author

Trinh Q. Truong is a senior Political Science major focusing on theories and practices of migration, displacement, and citizenship. She is also a member of the Multidisciplinary Academic Program in Human Rights. Outside of the classroom, she is an anti-deportation advocate and does refugee integration research. Truong is originally a political refugee from Vietnam.


[1] “Interview with Abdul Sane,” interview by author, August 1, 2018.

[2] “Migrant Arrivals by Sea in Italy Top 170,000 in 2014,” International Organization for Migration, September 04, 2017, , accessed October 15, 2018, https://www.iom.int/news/migrant-arrivals-sea-italy-top-170000-2014.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jonathan Clayton and Hereward Holland, “Over One Million Sea Arrivals Reach Europe in 2015,” UNHCR, December 30, 2015, , accessed October 15, 2018, http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/latest/2015/12/5683d0b56/million-sea-arrivals-reach-europe-2015.html.

[5] “Refugee & Migrants Arrivals to Europe in 2017,” Refugee & Migrants Arrivals to Europe in 2017, January 2018, , accessed October 14, 2018, https://data2.unhcr.org/es/documents/download/62023.

[6] “Senegal,” Senegal | IDMC, , accessed October 15, 2018, http://www.internal-displacement.org/countries/senegal.

[7] “Interview with Abdul Sane,” interview by author, August 1, 2018.

[8] Mara Alacqua, “Homepage,” APS Cambalache, , accessed October 14, 2018, https://www.cambalache.it/.

[9] “Interview with Mara Alacqua,” interview by author, August 1, 2018.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Angelo Scotto, “From Emigration to Asylum Destination, Italy Navigates Shifting Migration Tides,” Migrationpolicy.org, July 10, 2018, , accessed October 15, 2018, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/emigration-asylum-destination-italy-navigates-shifting-migration-tides.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Interview: Baobab Experience to Fill an Institutional Void in the Italian Capital,” interview by Giadi Negri, European Civic Forum, January 26, 2018, , accessed October 14, 2018, http://civic-forum.eu/civic-space/interview-baobab-experience-to-fill-an-institutional-void-in-the-italian-capital.

[16] Photo of a cloth sign at Baobab Experience encampment, Rome, Italy, personal photograph by author, August 11, 2018.

[17] Griff Witte and Stefano Pitrelli, “A Gruesome Murder. A Hate-filled Shooting Rampage. And a Reckoning with Immigration before Italy Votes.,” The Washington Post, February 06, 2018, , accessed October 15, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/a-gruesome-murder-a-hate-filled-shooting-spree-and-a-reckoning-with-immigration-before-italy-votes/2018/02/06/d34f8598-0aa7-11e8-998c-96deb18cca19_story.html?utm_term=.9f10ef01a13e.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Holly Ellyatt, “Italy’s New Leaders Vowed to Expel 500,000 Illegal Migrants – but It’ll Cost Them,” CNBC, June 05, 2018, , accessed October 15, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/04/pack-your-bags-italys-new-leaders-tell-500000-illegal-migrants–but-itll-cost-them.html.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “Italy’s New Government Wants to Deport 500,000 People,” The Economist, June 07, 2018, , accessed October 15, 2018, https://www.economist.com/europe/2018/06/07/italys-new-government-wants-to-deport-500000-people.

[22] “Immigration to Italy: How It Has Changed over the Last Half-century,” interview by Alessandro Lanni, Open Migration, May 30, 2016, , accessed October 14, 2018, https://openmigration.org/en/analyses/immigration-to-italy-how-it-has-changed-over-the-last-half-century/.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Kosta Barjaba, “Albania: Looking Beyond Borders,” Migrationpolicy.org, March 02, 2017, , accessed October 15, 2018, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/albania-looking-beyond-borders/.

[27] Alan Cowell, “Italy Starts to Turn Back Albanian Wave,” The New York Times, August 10, 1991, , accessed October 15, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/1991/08/10/world/italy-starts-to-turn-back-albanian-wave.html.

[28] Alan Cowell, “Italy Starts to Turn Back Albanian Wave,” The New York Times, August 10, 1991, , accessed October 15, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/1991/08/10/world/italy-starts-to-turn-back-albanian-wave.html.

[29] United Nations, “Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees,” UNHCR, 3, accessed October 15, 2018, http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/3b66c2aa10.

[30] Kosta Barjaba, “Albania: Looking Beyond Borders,” Migrationpolicy.org, March 02, 2017, , accessed October 15, 2018, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/albania-looking-beyond-borders/.

[31] Ibid.

[32] “Irregolari E Sbarchi in Europa E in Italia – Presenze,” Fondazione ISMU, , accessed October 15, 2018, http://www.ismu.org/irregolari-e-sbarchi-presenze/.

[33] “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” United Nations, , accessed October 15, 2018, http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Italy, Parliamentary Information, Archives and Publications Office of the Senate Service for Official Reports and Communication, 6.

[37] The Local, “Italy Received More Asylum Requests in 2017 than Any Other EU Country except Germany,” The Local, March 20, 2018, , accessed October 15, 2018, https://www.thelocal.it/20180320/italy-2017-asylum-requests.

[38] ASGI, “Statistics,” Statistics – Italy | Asylum Information Database, , accessed October 15, 2018, https://www.asylumineurope.org/reports/country/italy/statistics.

[39] Ibid.

[40] United Nations, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “UNHCR Concerned over Ending of Rescue Operation in the Mediterranean,” news release, October 17, 2014, UNHCR, accessed April 8, 2019, ttps://www.unhcr.org/news/briefing/2014/10/5440ffa16/unhcr-concerned-ending-rescue-operation-mediterranean.html.

[41] European Commission, “Frontex Joint Operation ‘Triton’ – Concerted Efforts to Manage Migration in the Central Mediterranean,” news release, October 7, 2014, European Commission, accessed April 8, 2019, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-14-566_en.htm.

[42] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-30039044

[43] “Operation Triton: Europe’s Mediterranean Border Patrol,” BBC News, November 13, 2014, , accessed April 09, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-30039044.

[44] United Nations, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “UNHCR Concerned over Ending of Rescue Operation in the Mediterranean,” news release, October 17, 2014, UNHCR, accessed April 8, 2019, ttps://www.unhcr.org/news/briefing/2014/10/5440ffa16/unhcr-concerned-ending-rescue-operation-mediterranean.html.

[45] Holly Ellyatt, “Italy’s New Leaders Vowed to Expel 500,000 Illegal Migrants – but It’ll Cost Them,” CNBC, June 05, 2018, , accessed October 15, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/04/pack-your-bags-italys-new-leaders-tell-500000-illegal-migrants–but-itll-cost-them.html.

[46] ASGI, “Statistics,” Statistics – Italy | Asylum Information Database, accessed October 15, 2018, https://www.asylumineurope.org/reports/country/italy/statistics.

[47] Ibid.

[48]Soeren Kern, “Italy: “The Party Is Over” for Illegal Migrants,” Gatestone Institute, June 4, 2018, , accessed October 15, 2018, https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/12448/italy-illegal-migrants.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Holly Ellyatt, “Italy’s New Leaders Vowed to Expel 500,000 Illegal Migrants – but It’ll Cost Them,” CNBC, June 05, 2018, , accessed October 15, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/04/pack-your-bags-italys-new-leaders-tell-500000-illegal-migrants–but-itll-cost-them.html.

[52] Tim Hume, “”I Did It, and I’d Do It Again,” Says Italy’s Matteo Salvini about Kidnapping Migrants,” VICE News, January 25, 2019, , accessed March 26, 2019, https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/yw8gkm/italys-matteo-salvini-defiant-over-possible-kidnapping-charges.

[53] “Migrant Arrivals in Europe Significantly Down Despite Aquarius Controversy,” International Organization for Migration, June 14, 2018, , accessed October 15, 2018, https://www.iom.int/news/migrant-arrivals-europe-significantly-down-despite-aquarius-controversy.

[54] Kate Connolly, “Germany Passes Immigration Law to Lure Non-EU Skilled Workers,” The Guardian, December 19, 2018, , accessed April 09, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/19/germany-passes-immigration-law-to-lure-non-eu-skilled-workers.