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Detention and Selection: An Overview of the Italian Hotspot System



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Guest post by Carlo Caprioglio, Francesco Ferri and Lucia Gennari. Carlo is a researcher and activist. He is currently a PhD Candidate in Legal Philosophy at Roma Tre University. Carlo’s research focuses on migration law, administrative detention, labour exploitation and clinical legal education. Francesco is a legal consultant for asylum seekers and refugees in a reception centre for unaccompanied minors in Taranto. He is an activist of the solidarity network ‘Campagna Welcome Taranto’, which deals with migrants passing through the city of Taranto. Lucia is a lawyer and activist based in Rome. She is part of the legal firm ‘Antartide’, which specializes in migration and asylum law. She is a member of the Association for Juridical Studies on Migration (ASGI). This is the fourth post of Border Criminologies' themed series 'Hotspots and Plethora of Freedom-Restricting Measures', organised by Izabella Majcher.

While the term ‘hotspot’ (or ‘crisis points’, according to the Italian definition) has featured in Italian and European debates for at least two years now, the way in which the hotspot approach works, as well as the specific procedures that are carried out in each hotspot facility, remain unclear. Three aspects of the Italian system complicate its analysis: first, there is no legal provision that defines or regulates hotspots; second, the lack of a common framework leads to each centre operating in a different way; and third, access to civil society organisations and researchers is severely constrained. This post will seek to analyse the Italian hotspot system through a juridical perspective. The application of legal categories and frameworks is, in our view, an essential perspective from which to understand the ongoing transformations of EU migration policies.

A word on the genesis of the hotspot system in Italy is first necessary. In May 2015, the EU Commission’s ‘European Agenda on migration’ presented the ‘Hotspot approach’ as one of the cornerstones of the management of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’. Consequently, the Italian government issued two documents that defined the operation and structure of hotspots in Italy: Italy’s Road Map in September 2015 and Standard Operating Procedures (S.O.P.) in March 2016. These are mere ‘policy documents’, which do not have any normative or legal value. Nonetheless up until now, they represent, the only documents that provide regulation for the hotspot system in Italy; thus, they act as the only point of reference on the issue.

Both policy documents were drafted by the Ministry of the Interior in cooperation with EU agencies, UNHCR and IOM, and they detail the operational procedures to be carried out in hotspot facilities, such as: medical screening, pre-identification, Eurodac registration and photo-fingerprinting of migrants. In order to implement the ‘hotspot approach’, the Italian government set up four ‘hotspot areas’ near ports in Southern Italy: Trapani and Pozzallo in the Sicilian region, Taranto in Puglia and, finally, Lampedusa. Furthermore, the government established the so-called ‘hotspot teams', made up of Italian police officers and officials from European agencies that deal with migration and security issues (Frontex, Easo and Europol). These teams do not only work in ‘hotspots areas’ but they are also located in Rome and Milan, where they assist in tracking down undocumented migrants.

As outlined in these documents, the hotspot approach aims to make a ‘first distinction among the different categories of incoming third country nationals’, with specific regard to the categories of ‘asylum seeker’, ‘subjects in clear need of protection’ (eligible for the Relocation program) and ‘economic/irregular migrants’. After the pre-identification and registration procedures, ‘asylum seekers’ are channelled towards first reception system/centres, whereas the so-called ‘economic migrants’ receive an expulsion decree, followed by – at least in theory – their removal.

In light of reports made by several independent observers (such as NGOs and human rights organisations), the selection processes carried out in the Italian hotspots are unlawful and arbitrary. The key component of this informal differentiation is the compiling of the so-called ‘foglio-notizie’ by the Italian police. This occurs just after the disembarkation of migrants, before they receive proper legal information on international protection and the consequences they may face if they do not apply for asylum (expulsion, detention and removal). The ‘foglio-notizie’ is a pre-printed form containing, in addition to questions regarding personal information, a list of pre-established ‘reasons’ for illegal border crossing, which migrants need to fill out at the port immediately after their arrival. The pre-established reasons are presented in the following order: ‘work’, ‘family reunification’, ‘escape poverty’, ‘other’, ‘asylum’. It is easy to see how the decision to leave the ‘asylum request’ as the last option makes it look like a residual option among the others. In addition, choosing one of the other options leads to the migrant being qualified as ‘irregular’.

This key aspect of the hotspot procedure, which has significant consequences (i.e. asylum or expulsion), is highly influenced by the behaviour of police officers present and the kind of information available. Over time, we have observed that the outcome of this stage of the procedure depends on the country of origin of each migrant. Therefore, it is possible for certain nationalities (such as those from Maghreb countries) to be classified as ‘economic migrants’ with greater frequency. This practice is becoming increasingly problematic in light of the arrival of an increasing number of Tunisian citizens, who have been subject to expulsion and repatriation procedures. It is worth noting that, according to EU and Italian law, police authorities are not entitled to conduct any ‘pre-evaluation’ of the validity of asylum requests on the grounds of a migrants’ nationality. On the contrary, police authorities should only register the migrant’s willingness to apply for international protection and then transfer the request to the competent body, which is the Commission for the recognition of international protection.

In legal terms, Italy’s Road map and the S.O.P. raise another two relevant issues. The first one relates to the practice of depriving migrants of their personal liberty in order to be identified, as migrants are not allowed to leave the hotspot facility until the end of the identification and fingerprinting procedures. Closely related to this, the second issue relates to the use of force, to overcome migrants’ resistance to the identification procedure.

Ventimiglia (Photo: Associazione Iris)
In the first few months of the hotspot system, activists and NGOs received several complaints about migrants being illegally detained and falling victim to police violence within the hotspot facilities. Despite the fact that over time the length of detention seems to have been reduced, a form of de facto detention persists. For instance, during the first months of the operation of the Taranto facility, migrants were arbitrarily detained for more than a week, while the identification procedure was concluded within 48 hours. At the moment, the detention in the Italian hotspots usually corresponds to the time needed for the identification procedure: so it tends to last around 48 hours. However, that is not the case in Lampedusa where, due to its geographical location, migrants are often detained for longer periods. Furthermore, the length of informal detention is much longer – sometimes lasting for months – for unaccompanied minors, who find themselves detained inside the hotspot until they are transferred to a reception centre for minors.

In conclusion, the hotspot system in Italy seems to be based on three key factors, which, in turn, reflect the main practices and goals of the Italian system of migration management: the differentiation between asylum seekers and ‘economic migrants’, informal detention and the forced identification of a large number of migrants arriving on the coasts of Southern Italy. These factors and procedures create a system where the figure of the irregular migrant – always at the core of the public debate and the target of control and disciplinary measures – takes shape. However, while it is important to look at the hotspot system as a whole and understand it as a point of contact between migration routes and border control policies, the structural heterogeneity between Italian hotspots evidences the need to delve deeper into the analysis of each individual facility in order to identify similarities and differences between them. We will address this challenge in the next post, which focuses on the hotspot of Taranto.

Note: This post has been written before February 2018. In March, two hotspots – Lampedusa and Taranto – were closed for renovation, following unrest and several reports by NGOs and activists regarding the living conditions in both facilities.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Caprioglio, C., Ferri F. and Gennari, L.  (2018) Detention and Selection: An Overview of the Italian Hotspot System. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/04/detention-and (Accessed [date]).

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