Refuting what he called populist “misinformation”, the first vice-president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, has stressed that: “Europe is no longer experiencing the migration crisis we lived in 2015, but structural problems remain.” The commission emphasises that the current level of arrivals is just 10% of what it was at its “peak” in 2015.
But these comments overlook the fact that the so-called “crisis” of 2015 was defined as one on the basis of a series of myths reverberating in debates about migration to Europe. For example, research my colleagues and I carried out in the Mediterranean during 2015-16 found the fear that large swaths of displaced populations were picking Europe as their “destination” of choice was simply unfounded, needlessly perpetuating anxieties on which the far-right thrive.
The consequences of policies made on such unfounded assumptions is now starkly evident in Italy. On March 6, the same day as Timmermans made his comments, bulldozers and paramilitary police demolished an informal “migrant camp” at San Fernando, near Gioia Tauro in Calabria, southern Italy. The country’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, described in a tweet that this represents a commitment to closing large centres while cutting costs and increasing transparency. “There are those who talk, there are those who do,” he claimed.
But what appears to be happening in Italy is far from an exercise of redistributing “migranti” from large camps to smaller, more financially viable and transparent ones. People are essentially being made homeless on a mass scale. Beyond the informal camp for around 1,500 people in Calabria, a large-scale regional reception hub hosting 500 people was also closed at Castelnuovo di Porto, near Rome, in January. Salvini said that those with the right to be housed would be relocated to “beautiful structures”.
But as part of the so-called “Salvini decree” passed in December 2018, humanitarian protection was abolished for people not eligible for refugee status. As a result, people who were previously eligible for protection have been cast out onto the streets. Even those who had already secured humanitarian protection status at the time of the decree have begun to bear the brunt of this legislation.
Left with nothing
Stories of people being left with nothing are common. One person I spoke to recently following my research on Italy’s humanitarian corridors programme, through which refugees are flown directly to the country from refugee camps in the Middle East and Africa, explained to me:
We are facing a very difficult situation in Italy. Just think that in January the governmental structure in Castelnuovo di Porto left more than 50 people on the road and we couldn’t find any alternative solution than welcoming some of them in our structure dedicated to (those coming via the) humanitarian corridors.
I know only too well what Italy’s current actions can mean for people who are suddenly turfed out of the centre that they have been staying in for some time. A young man who I met in Lampedusa during 2015, when he was only 15, has remained in touch with me. Since then, he has gone through the asylum process, gained documents allowing him to remain in Italy on humanitarian grounds, and completed his studies in Italy.
Prior to his final exam, my friend was told that he had to leave the centre that he had been staying in since he turned 18. He requested to stay until after his exams, which was agreed, but then several weeks ago he stopped sending me messages. In early March, I received one short message to say, “Honestly am not fine”, and then I did not hear from him for several more days. When I did, he told me that he had been “roaming” the streets of his nearest city for days after being evicted from the centre due to the increasingly hostile environment created by Salvini’s decree in Italy.
On March 6, he returned to the centre to try and get some rest. They took him in, only to threaten that they would call the police to remove him if he did not leave voluntarily in the next few days.
On the streets
This is just one example of what is happening in Italy on a mass scale. At dusk, Termini station in central Rome begins to come alive as people sleeping on the streets unpack boxes and line the pavements ready to try to get some rest.
The implications of Salvini’s actions are concerning, not only for “migranti” who find themselves on the street, but also for many Italians. A growing homeless population is not good for anybody. Salvini boasts that his closures will save the Italian government €6m (£5.2m) per year. But an industry has grown up around these reception centres in recent years, providing employment opportunities for local people. The closure of centres and the reduction of support for those in need of humanitarian protection limits government funding to these local communities.
This is not simply an Italian problem. It is also a European problem. European leaders must realise that once fears are stoked surrounding migration, they will continue to reverberate in ways that are beyond their control. The “crisis” may be over from Timmermans’ perspective, but for the “migranti” roaming the streets of Italy, a different type of crisis has been put into motion.