‘Salvini law’ could make thousands of refugees homeless

Warnings of humanitarian and security crises in Italy as new law ends protection for vulnerable migrants.

Soumayla in Rome
Soumayla in his room in Rome [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

Names* marked with an asterisk have been changed because of the interviewees’ pending legal status. 

Rome, Italy – Soumayla* was just 16 when he left Mali two and a half years ago.

He spent four months in Algeria, where he made some money as a builder, then eight months in Libya which left him with deep psychological scars. There was no pay and his captors often left him up to four days without food.

He managed to leave the western Libyan city of Sabratha to cross the Mediterranean on an overcrowded boat. After a day at sea, he made it onto a rescue ship.

“There are always some who are left behind,” says the 18-year-old, sat on a sofa in his temporary new home in a northern suburb of Rome. “But I decided not to talk about it, I prefer looking ahead.”

A “migration and security” decree, which came into force on October 5 and was written into law by the Italian parliament last month, plunges Soumayla’s future – and that of thousands of other young people like him – into uncertainty.

Known as the “Salvini law” after Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-right interior minister who drafted it, the decree introduces measures, including a crackdown on asylum rights by abolishing “humanitarian protection” – a stay permit issued to those who do not qualify for refugee status or subsidiary protection but were recognised as vulnerable.

After arriving in Italy, Soumayla went to Italian language school, worked in a summer camp for children, and is now studying towards his high school diploma.

Barbara, a retired psychiatrist, offered him an empty room in her apartment through Refugees Welcome, an organisation that places refugees in families or house shares, subsidising their rent.

He plays football with a local team, and dreams of playing professionally one day.

“Once I get my documents,” says Soumayla, who had his asylum interview last month.

Soumayla and Barbara in their apartment in Rome [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
Soumayla and Barbara in their apartment in Rome [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

“When they turn 18, they lose the protections that allowed them to stay, and if they can no longer obtain humanitarian protection it means in practice that they become irregular,” said Sara Consolato, a cofounder of the Italian branch of Refugees Welcome, which has an entire programme dedicated to young people who have turned 18.

“Even before, it wasn’t easy for them to get access to the [refugee reception] system because places were always lacking. Now it is the law that prevents them from doing so,” Consolato added.

Minors, victims of trafficking, families with young children, and people with mental or physical vulnerabilities would all have qualified for a humanitarian permit, which was the most common granted form of protection in Italy and finds equivalents in other European countries. It would last for two years and could be converted into a work permit. In its place, the law introduces special permits for restricted categories, valid for a shorter time.

Salvini argues the measure is aimed at ensuring that only “real refugees” will be granted rights and protections in Italy.

Critics say the law will end up condemning asylum seekers already on Italian territory to a life without basic rights – making them more vulnerable to labour exploitation and easier prey for organised crime.

Matteo Villa, a migration researcher at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), calculated that over the next two years, 70,000 more people could become undocumented in Italy than under the previous system.

As well as abolishing humanitarian protection permits, the law also bars those who hold them from accessing Italy’s reception system.

“People who are already in precarious situations could be hit very hard, also on the psychological level,” Carlotta Sami, UNHCR’s spokesperson for southern Europe, told Al Jazeera. “It will be impossible to repatriate tens of thousands of people in a short time. It would take many years, meanwhile effectively condemning local administrations to deal with people who will basically find themselves homeless.”

A large number could be young men who arrived in Italy as minors and could find themselves without any form of support when they turn 18. 

According to Italy’s ministry of labour and social policy, 85 percent of 11,339 unaccompanied minors whose presence was recorded in Italian territory at the end of November 2018 were 16 or 17 years old. At least 11,000 have reached adulthood since last year.

“We know that many of them have started a journey of integration,” Sami told Al Jazeera. “They go to school, attend courses, or have started working. Finding themselves undocumented will bring all that to a halt.”

Futures at risk

“I’m studying to get my diploma so I can work with a contract. Never without one,” Bakary*, an 18-year-old from the Ivory Coast, told Al Jazeera by phone from Palermo.

Aware of the conditions of exploitation African migrants have to endure, particularly in sectors like agriculture, he is studying to become a chef.

He left the Ivory Coast at 14. It took him two years to get to Italy.

“I want to live in a safe place, without fearing anyone. Right now [in Italy], I don’t feel that I have found that place,” Bakary said. “Salvini scares me with his lies. That we are here to steal jobs, that we don’t have a future.”

He turned 18 in the summer and holds a humanitarian protection permit which now bars him from accessing the reception system.

Last month, he found himself homeless when the centre for minors he’d been staying at shut down.

While the government aims at cutting the costs of refugee reception, it is estimated that 18,000 locals will lose their jobs across Italy as a result of the law, about half of those currently employed in the sector.

A drop in arrivals to Sicily, which began after the previous government struck a deal with Libya to keep refugees there, has also been responsible for the downsizing of the sector in the region.

“A lot of centres have been closing in Palermo, there are simply less minors,” said Alice Argento, a lawyer who met Bakary at the centre for minors, where she worked. She has now offered him an empty room in her apartment.

Both private citizens and organisations have been trying to find alternative solutions.

In Palermo, Argento says, a group of professors have put together funds to rent apartments for some of their students.

In the Rome area, the non-profit organisation InMigrazione is fundraising to keep families together and prevent them from becoming homeless.

“But local prefectures have begun issuing revocations. Numbers will swell and at some point we will no longer be able to contain the problem,” Argento told Al Jazeera. “A large number of disillusioned, distressed people on our streets can only generate a situation of widespread insecurity.”

In late November, 24 refugees with humanitarian protection permits were made to leave a reception centre in Calabria, southern Italy. They included a young couple with a five-year-old baby and women victims of trafficking. Up to 200 people are expected to have to leave the centre in Calabria in the coming weeks.

In Rome, councillor for social policies Laura Baldassarre said she was “concerned” that the law would make more than 1,000 people homeless.

But local authorities recently evicted refugees from a camp and from an abandoned building in the capital. While some of them were placed in shelters by the municipality, others found no alternative but the street.

Activists who ran one of the evicted camps, the Baobab near the Tiburtina station in Rome, are now distributing food and giving legal advice to a few dozen people who sleep in and around the station, or transit through it.

Of these, they say that more than 40 in the past month have been people evicted from centres. Most have disappeared without a trace, while others are known to have undertaken the journey to northern Europe, hoping for better luck.

Source: Al Jazeera