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REFUGEES: Italy Reluctantly Lets In a Trickle

Elisa Marincola

ROME, Jun 18 2005 (IPS) - Aki, a young Kurd, is among the lucky few to have got political asylum in Italy. But after months of pain and anxiety he is bitter even after his success.

“When we Kurds seek asylum, we say we hope to live in Europe because there is democracy here. But now I know that in Europe and Italy democracy is not for everybody.”

Many seem to know that before they apply, and Italy gets few applicants as a result. The 2004 report of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) says 7,408 asylum applications were received in Italy last year, which is 0.12 per thousand inhabitants, compared to the European average of 0.6 percent.

Last year just 780 applicants succeeded in obtaining asylum, and another 2,352 obtained humanitarian protection. These are small numbers, but represent more than half of the refugees whose cases were considered by the Central Commission for the Recognition of Refugee Status.

The waiting period before a hearing is 18 months on average. While they wait, applicants at most places are not allowed work or education, and their movements are restricted. Some just disappear; there is no way of tracing applicants who are not sheltered by local governments or non-governmental organisations.

The Italian government was accused of violating the 1951 human rights convention after thousands of asylum-seekers from Asia and Africa who landed on Italian coasts were sent back to Libya. Most were not even allowed to request refugee status. UNHCR representatives were barred from speaking to them.

Libya in turn sent most of these refugees back to their countries of origins. More than 100 of them are reported to have died crossing the desert on their way back.

Further mass deportations from Italy have been stopped for the moment after the European Parliament and the European Court of Human Rights declared that Libya was not “a reliable third country” to send refugees back to.

Italy is the only European Union (EU) country that lacks a comprehensive asylum bill, though the constitution recognises the need to protect refugees. A draft bill is still pending after eight years of debate.

Some new provisions came into force April 21 this year. Under these, seven regional commissions will replace a central one, and the UNHCR has representation on them. Applicants will be processed within 35 days, but with no appeal possible against a decision.

Humanitarian organisations have expressed concern that the new identification centres will turn into detention centres. Only three of the seven centres have provisions to provide work for the applicants.

“The sad truth is that those centres are coming up in the same areas where reception centres for immigrants are located, which are often sheds, containers or caravans notorious for overcrowding and hard survival conditions,” Father Francesco de Luccia, president of the Centro Astalli Foundation, a part of the Jesuit Refugee Service told IPS.

The regional commissions have begun to process applications received after April 21. But applications made before that date could get further delayed as a result.

Between 22,000 and 25,000 asylum-seekers are waiting for their applications to be heard. At places hearings are now taking place at the rate of 50 a day, says Christopher Hein, director of the Italian Council for Refugees (ICR) which represents several non-governmental organisations working with asylum-seekers. This can lead to a summary dealing of applications, he says.

“Many refugees go where they can in Italy looking for a job,” Hein said. “They change jobs, they change their address, or they go abroad.”

Humanitarian organisations are asking for a fast but just procedure to deal with applications that provides for a possibility to appeal and provides a guarantee against deportation in the meanwhile. They want a welcome system that does not amount to detention, priority for minors and extension of the refugee status to families.

ICR wants a new law that goes beyond dealing with people who have landed in Italy. “Legal arrival in Italy needs to be provided,” Hein said. “Conditions need to be created to provide for seeking asylum in third countries or even in the country of origin through the Italian embassies.”

The UNHCR has made “courage” the theme of the refugees day this year. It does take courage to request asylum in Italy.

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