Unsafe in Any Country

Post-Cutro Decree Italy

Silvio Berlusconi did it regularly. Matteo Salvini codified it with his bully-boy style. This month, it was Giorgia Meloni’s turn to attack Italy’s judiciary.

Always in danger. Via Milano, Torino.

“I’m not just talking about the ideologised left and the circuit, which has its own rich interests in matters of migration,” the premier said on Facebook.

Her target was Catania Judge Iolanda Apostolico, who had decided to invalidate the detention of four migrants imprisoned in Pozzallo.

According to the premier, Apostolico had overstepped the court’s remit by assuming it could rule on such matters.

The Cutro Decree

The latest in a series of government decrees intended to make the lives of migrants who reach Italy’s shores more difficult has been crassly named after the village where a shipwreck occurred in February 2022.

Eighty-four of the two hundred migrants abroad drowned. Thirty-five of them were children.

The so-called Cutro decree ushered through parliament by Meloni’s coalition removes or curtails special status protections for several categories of migrants, including people fleeing natural disasters, those seeking treatment for severe medical conditions, and some unaccompanied minors, making it more difficult for them to obtain residence permits.

As the ECRE reported last May, asylum seekers will now be subject to being “hosted” in the more restrictive Extraordinary Reception Centres system, which will make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to obtain a work permit.

The strategy is clear: to make the lives of asylum seekers more precarious and reduce them to trying to find marginal, illegal work or begging.

Word will filter back to West Africa that in Italy, there is no future for refugees or migrants. Voila, problem solved.

Among other provisions designed to starve migrants of possibilities, language courses and legal advice have also been scrapped in reception centres.

Unaccompanied minors’ rights are curtailed too.

While these categories of migrants are still entitled to special protection permits until they turn 18, which can then be extended for one more year, they are now unable to convert these into work permits.

In contrast to the otherwise restrictive aspects, the law offers a new possibility for victims of forced marriage to apply for special protection. But, of course, they have to prove it.

As the majority of the migrants are young unmarried men, coupled with the fact that a significant number of refugees arrive without papers because they often lose them on the harrowing journey – or were advised to destroy them – it is unlikely that this provision applies to many of the current migrants.

But those it does apply to will have the right documents to support their claims or are more likely to be believed in an environment where judges are being directed to crack down on migrant admissions.

What prompted Meloni’s hissy fit was Judge Apostolico’s ruling that the Cutro decree conflicts with European Union asylum law and practice. According to the decree, coming from a “safe” country is sufficient grounds to detain a migrant.

EU law allows for asylum applications on the basis that a region is not safe, that an applicant comes from a protected group or is unsafe for reasons particular to them, such as a political activity that has made them likely to face or be subject to government persecution.

They might also face danger from a violent group not in power, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army or Al Shabaab.

While Tunisia is a designated “safe country” overall, it has recently taken over from Libya to become the most common departure point for West Africans migrating to Europe.

As of January 2023, 51% of arrivals to Italy came from Tunisia, with only 37% departing from Libya. The migrants include Tunisian nationals and increasing numbers of sub-Saharan Africans, particularly from countries in West Africa.

Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration, points out that the increasingly harsh crackdown on migrants in Tunisia is a push factor:

“In Tunisia, migrants are telling us that lately there has been a lot of discrimination against Western African migrants,” Di Giacomo said. “Conditions are very harsh. Migrants are reporting they are being robbed, assaulted quite often, and they are tired of this situation, so they are trying to leave the country.”

Under current conditions for crossings, the increased number of departures has resulted in numerous shipwrecks off the Tunisian coast. In May, for example, the Tunisian government reported 210 killed in the last ten days of the month alone.

And there has been a steady stream of horror ever since, as migrant-laden boats sink weekly.

This all begs the question as to whether Tunisia is wrongly branded safe. Judge Apostolico clearly doesn’t think so. Hence, Meloni’s ire.

The decision casts a particularly harsh light on the European Commission’s deal with Tunisia to limit illegal migration, which Meloni helped negotiate. It has since collapsed, with Tunis returning 60 million euros it was paid to prevent migrant departures.

It also helps problematise a separate agreement the Italian government signed last week to take in 4,000 Tunisian guest workers to help stem illegal migration.

With continued pressure to please her anti-migrant base, there is no reason to think we have seen the last of Giorgia Meloni’s attacks on the judiciary.

After all, Matteo Salvini has always gotten consistent mileage from his multi-pronged attacks on refugees and migrants, including his 2019 battle with Sea-Watch Captain Carola Rackete.

The Lega chief’s high-profile attempts to curtail migration at its source, including making trips to Libya, have been essential to his high profile in domestic and European politics and key to his appeal.

There is no reason to expect anything other than more of the same from Italy’s right-wing politicians.

And it’s highly uncertain whether the EU will roll in with helpful assistance. Particularly with the 2024 election in the offing and a growing concern amongst centre-right parties to not lose voters to populist parties.

Meanwhile, asylum seekers’ impetus to seek refuge and opportunities elsewhere remains the same.

But their chances of being allowed to find work and stability in Italy are not what they once were for those lucky enough to survive the journey.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.