Uncertain future for refugees after Italy shuts asylum centre

Funding cuts led to imminent closure of Italy's second-largest centre for asylum seekers amid local protests.

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    The majority of the 540 people at Castelnuovo are asylum seekers who will be transferred to other centres across Italy [Vincenzo Pinto/AFP]
    The majority of the 540 people at Castelnuovo are asylum seekers who will be transferred to other centres across Italy [Vincenzo Pinto/AFP]

    The eviction of refugees from Italy's second-largest centre for asylum seekers has continued for a second day amid protests from locals and opposition politicians over the way the transfers are being carried out.

    The reception centre is located in Castelnuovo di Porto, a town near Rome, and the vast majority of the 540 people there are asylum seekers, including women and children.

    The centre, chosen by the pope in 2016 for the traditional Holy Thursday mass, in which the pontiff performs a foot-washing ceremony, is due to close by the end of the month following funding cuts.

    The evictions began on Tuesday when 30 people were taken away and another 75, including 10 women, were seen getting on buses on Wednesday without any knowledge of where they were headed.

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    According to UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, at least 10 people who hold "humanitarian protection" permits will be left without a roof over their heads.

    The recently passed "Salvini law" cracks down on asylum rights by abolishing such permits - issued to people who did not qualify for refugee status but were deemed as vulnerable - and barring those who hold them from receiving aid.

    The law is set to leave thousands of people undocumented and without rights in the next two years.

    Other centres across Italy are set to close in the coming months as well, including Italy's largest in Mineo, Sicily.

    Observers have criticised the way the government decided to carry out the transfers by sending in the police and the army with barely 48 hours of notice, and without prior coordination with the local authorities or the cooperative running the centre.

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    The transfers to other areas of the country will inevitably disrupt the lives of asylum seekers, some of whom have lived in Castelnuovo for over a year.

    They will also affect asylum applications that must be reviewed by local commissions.

    "Fourteen children will have to interrupt their school year," UNHCR's spokesperson for southern Europe, Carlotta Sami, told Al Jazeera.

    "There's no clarity on where they will be taken and what will happen to hundreds of asylum applications that were being examined by the local commission."

    More than 100 people, who were employed at the centre as language teachers or psychologists, are also set to lose their jobs.

    The centre had been open for over a decade, hosting at one stage up to 1,000 people.

    "The centre had become an integral part of Castelnuovo di Porto," the town's mayor, Riccardo Travaglini, told a local newspaper.

    "I'm not saying the centre shouldn't be closed, but it should have been coordinated. Castelnuovo has been at the forefront of this emergency for 10 years, 8,000 people came through here. Some respect was due to a community that has done much not only for Italy, but for Europe as well."

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    Trade unions have scheduled protests to take place on Thursday. Some locals, including the town's mayor, took part in a silent march on Tuesday to protest the closure of what many considered a model centre. 

    Italy's interior minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini defended the eviction, arguing that a drop in arrivals had freed places in other centres across the country.

    "It is a question of common sense and good administration that will save Italians six million euros a year, without taking away the rights of anyone," Salvini told a local radio station.

    "All the guests who have the right to, will be transferred with as much generosity and with as many rights to other structures," he said in a Facebook Live video.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News