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From the Field

Refugee Encampment on Europe’s Borders

Much media attention on the issue of migration is focused on attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea and the often dramatic consequences that result. This article sheds light on the trajectories of exiled individuals living in “reception centers” in the south of Italy, which have become an economic sector in their own right.

In Italy, the migration issue has undergone a rapid politicization process since the transformation of the central Mediterranean into one of the main routes to reach the European Union (EU) in the 2000s. [1] In the last twenty years, more than one million migrants, including 624,000 between January 2014 and December 2017 (Fondazione ISMU 2020), have landed on Italian shores or have been transferred there after being intercepted at sea. They started from the Libyan, Tunisian or Egyptian coasts and their nationalities vary according to the periods. The majority of the arrivals took place in the ports of Sicily, particularly in Lampedusa, a small island of 22 km2 located 300 km south of Italy. Since the summer of 2017, they have drastically decreased (-92% between 2017 and 2019), but the lethal risk of sea crossing from Libya has, in turn, sharply increased (ISPI 2018). This shift is linked to the policies pursued between December 2016 and August 2019 by Interior Minister Marco Minniti, from the Democratic Party, and then by his successor Matteo Salvini, from the xenophobic League party. Both have stepped up collaboration with Libya to stop the flow into Italy. Salvini also implemented a policy of criminalizing NGOs that chartered boats to rescue boats in distress in the Mediterranean and closed Italian ports to those boats.

In this context, many now commonplace images are on the front pages of the Italian and European press, feeding the rhetoric of the "migration crisis. Overloaded boats on the high seas and prevented from docking, bodies recovered, migrants landing on beaches: the media overexposure of Sicily contributes to making it a front stage for the "spectacle of the border" (Cuttitta 2012). This article, while inseparable from this context, aims to go beyond the single moment of maritime arrival in order to focus on the aftermath. Once disembarked, the exiles are in fact distributed in different centers, grouped under the general term of "reception system". Their management has been delegated to non-state, associative and private actors, with varying status and interests, within which humanitarian, security and economic logics are intertwined.

This article is based on empirical material collected during a dozen visits to Sicily between 2010 and 2019: semi-structured interviews (with social workers in the centers, exiles, activists and institutional actors), observations in several centers and analysis of institutional documentation, reports from NGOs and activist groups and press articles. It addresses the "ordinariness of migration policies" through the management of these centers, showing that the reception of migrants has become an economic sector in its own right, a domain that is both routinized and subject to emergency legislation.

Diversity and uses of encampment [2] measures for foreigners

Up until the fall of the Berlin Wall, Italy was one of the few EU countries without a law dedicated to asylum. It dealt with this issue through a few articles inserted in the general migration laws. The situation changed in 1991, with the arrival of thousands of refugees from ex-Yugoslavia and Albania. The first "migrant centers" were created that year in the main region of arrival, Puglia. In 1995, a law institutionalized the administrative detention of foreigners arriving on the coast. In 1998, Italy became a European border by joining the Schengen area. It tightened its migration policy and made the centers a major tool for selecting and controlling foreigners. From then on, the number of centers continued to multiply and diversify. With the Europeanization of asylum policies in the early 2000s, their management was also structured by the European “reception” directive. [3]

The legislative frenzy in the field of migration and the numerous reforms that have affected the centers make their classification tricky (Campesi 2018; Accorinti 2015). We retain here a classic division into three groups, [4] which correspond to the three main stages of the migration journey.

First of all, the first-aid and “triage” centers installed in the main landing sites. Although first aid is provided, these centers are mainly used to identify, register and sort foreigners. The reception of some (asylum seekers) is conditional on the rejection of others (economic migrants who must be expelled from the country). These arrangements are characterized by legal vagueness and by the violation of the rights of foreigners (duration of detention largely superior to the legal time limit, insalubrity, promiscuity between women, men and minors, police violence). Transformed in 2015 into “hotspots” (Figure 1), these European triage centers (Tassin 2016) hosted staff from European agencies, sent to verify that Italian security forces were systematically identifying and fingerprinting exiles.

Figure 1. The Lampedusa hotspot (May 2016)

P = Vehicles belonging to the police and the guardia di finanza
1 = NGOs and IOs (Save the Children, IOM, UNHCR)
2 & 5 = Perquisition and pre‑identification
3 = Medical center/infirmery
4 = Toilets, changing rooms
6 = Identification
7 = Canteen/refectory
8 = Male dormitory
9 = Dormitory for families, single women and unaccompanied minors
– = Benches
Gray zone = was not accessible during our visit (May 2016); reconstruction may therefore be partial.

The hotspot is located just under 30 minutes from central Lampedusa on foot, far from residential areas, surrounded by vegetation and white rocks. In 2016, the people accommodated in the center had cut a hole in one of the fences, through which they left during the day and came back in the evening to sleep. By contrast, the main entrance to the hotspot always remained closed and under surveillance by tens of police officers and military personnel, just a few meters away from this more discreet exit.

Diagram and key: Marie Bassi and Paola Proietti. Photo: Vláďa Jurča in Google Maps.

In addition to the disembarkation sites, there are other reception centers in the country, divided into two groups, depending on whether they provide first or second reception (prima e seconda accoglienza). Under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior, the "first reception" centers constitute a new space for identifying and sorting asylum seekers before they are transferred to the "second reception" system. Managed by private organizations, selected by prefectures through tenders, they are often large. Thousands of foreigners are sometimes housed there. Fundamental rights are regularly violated [5] The exiles can go out during the day, but the centers are generally geographically isolated and poorly served by public transportation. The spatial relegation of these centers, the concentrationist logic that prevails there and the absence of actions supporting integration accentuate their dependence on humanitarian organizations and hinder interactions between the exiles and the outside world.

The second reception centers, created at the end of the 1990s through spontaneous initiatives by local authorities and NGOs, are presented as the flagship of the Italian reception system. Of limited size (they accommodate between 10 and 60 people, depending on the demography of the municipality) and often offering accommodation in scattered settlements, they aim to offer an "integrated reception" to asylum seekers and refugees (legal advice, psychological assistance, help with professional training, language courses, cultural mediation). Although the number of places available has been increasing since the mid-2000s, they have remained far below the needs, forcing many exiles to stay in the first reception centers until the end of their asylum procedure. In fact, unlike the first reception centers, the second reception centers are only created if a municipality expresses its intention to host a center on its territory and presents a project to this effect.

Hosting a reception center: multiple motivations

The reasons mayors apply to join the Asylum Seeker and Refugee Protection System (ASRP) are varied and often intertwined. A wide variety of municipalities are applying. Some defend the SPRAR system on the grounds that these centers are more responsive to the needs of exiles than to the needs of the first reception. This is a "political" choice. In general, it is the municipalities led by left-wing or center-left majorities that adopt these positions.

For others, small towns of a few hundred inhabitants, deserted by young people, marked by low economic activity (especially in the Ragusa mountains), the opening of a SPRAR center makes it possible to offer some employment prospects.

Lastly, for some mayors, it is a question of avoiding the establishment of a first reception center or a CAS (centri di accoglienza straordinaria; extraordinary reception center) on their territory. In fact, there was a "safeguard clause" by virtue of which voluntary adhesion to the SPRAR system made it possible to avoid the establishment of a first reception center or a CAS.

The development of the reception system was based on the idea of functional complementarity between the three types of centers. However, in the last decade, the recurrent use of crisis rhetoric and the use of exceptional measures have unbalanced the system.

The permanent emergency, characteristic of reception policies

Since the beginning of the 2010s, the various governments have institutionalized and disseminated exceptional regulations by multiplying the number of emergency centers, to the point that they have become much more numerous than the ordinary centers. They have used not laws, but decrees and circulars that limit parliamentary oversight and bypass the consultation process with local authorities that is supposed to take place when the government decides to create a new center.

Accordingly, in 2011, following the Arab revolutions that resulted in the arrival, in a few months, of more than 60,000 migrants on the Italian coasts (Marchetti 2014), the government instituted a state of emergency. Thanks to this exceptional measure, centers were created all over the territory, without tenders and without consulting local authorities. On this occasion, very large centers were opened, such as the one in Mineo, in the province of Catania, which housed up to 4,000 people (Bassi 2015).

Extended several times, the state of emergency ended in 2013. However, when maritime arrivals resumed in 2014 with the implementation of the Italian humanitarian operation Mare Nostrum (Cuttitta 2014), a new type of center was created: the extraordinary reception centers (CAS). The prefectures are then responsible for identifying temporary places in the various regions to house migrants and place them there, under a national distribution plan. Vacation homes, hotels, sports halls and other unsuitable structures are transformed into CAS through direct agreements, without competitive bidding, between managing bodies and prefectures. Very often, the specifications of the CAS are limited to offering food and accommodation, without any integration services, and do not require the managing organizations to have any experience in the migration and social field. Finally, these centers have been set up far from the city centers, contributing to the isolation of the exiles.

Foreigners are placed in these centers after the first aid phase, in the absence of available places in the first or second reception. At the end of 2017, SACs accounted for 76% of the reception capacity of the Italian system (Campesi 2018). Far from being temporary, these centers still exist at the beginning of 2020, five years after their creation, demonstrating that the emergency is not a state of exception derogating from the rule of law (Agamben 2003) but has become normality, a structural feature of the Italian reception system. The growing reference to the "crisis" (migratory or economic) in political and media discourse is accompanied by a trivialization and routinization of emergency measures in public action.

The political economy of encampment

The crisis has thus stimulated the extension of the Italian reception system under a permanent emergency regime. It has also increased the economic importance of the reception system. The multiplication of centers has indeed offered new opportunities. Several non-state organizations have specialized in the "market" of encampment. More than 36,000 people were reportedly working in the reception sector in 2018 (In Migrazione 2018). Italy’s worsening economic situation, especially in the south, has increased the attractiveness of this new market. In very poor regions such as Sicily, the opening of centers has provided professional opportunities for young graduates who have been offered new training to work in the reception sector (mediators, educators, psychologists, etc.) and has thus reduced the unemployment rate and youth emigration. [6]

There exist two primary means of funding the centers, which affect the local economy differently. In the first reception and CAS, the managing organizations are selected through calls for tender issued by the prefectures or through direct assignment procedures (direct contracting) and then receive public funding corresponding to the services they are supposed to offer to the exiles, defined in the specifications. They receive a fixed sum of 35 euros per day for each foreigner of legal age who is housed. [7] This funding system encourages organizations to fill up the centers as much as possible, to not report runaways, and to offer lower standards of reception than those provided for in the specifications in order to maximize their revenues. On the other hand, in the secondary care centers, the municipality proposes to the Ministry a reception project accompanied by a provisional budget, having pre-selected the managing organizations through calls for tender. At the end of each year, these organizations present a financial report on the activities they have developed: if they have spent less than the budgeted amount, the reimbursement by the Ministry will be less. Since the per diem/per capita principle does not exist, this billing and budgeting system encourages the managing organizations to develop services and not daily attendance.

The problems encountered in the first reception have been accentuated by the emergency regulations, as they encourage private agreements between the prefectures and the management organizations, and weaken the controls that the public authorities are supposed to carry out in the centers to verify the quality of the services offered and the actual presence. In addition, several scandals of misappropriation of public money and favoritism in the awarding of contracts for the management of the centers have emerged in the last ten years. Finally, the emergency centers have been proportionally more expensive than the regular system (Marchetti 2014, p. 12). The Mineo center illustrates this economics of encampment. It is infamous for its deplorable reception conditions (difficulties in accessing the asylum procedure, suicides, prostitution) and for the corruption scandals that the Capital Mafia trial exposed in 2015-2017 (Meridiana 2016). [8]

The economics of encampment thus has ambiguous effects, between the "social cost" of reception facilities (the hostility of the population) and their economic benefits. The last five years (2014-2019) have accentuated these contradictory effects: after a period marked by the rapid multiplication of centers (2014-2017), the reduction of maritime arrivals (2017-2019) has led to the closure of a substantial number of centers, especially in arrival areas such as Sicily. Interviews conducted in July 2019 showed that this turnaround was a source of concern for many local actors, who lamented the disappearance of an important professional outlet. Several social workers, now unemployed and seeking professional retraining, were distraught by this sudden shift and worried about the weak support they received from unions in the face of the closure of an economic sector. The bad reputation of the organizations managing the centers ("at best business-like, at worst dishonest," as one respondent who heads several centers told me) probably turned the unions away from this cause. These testimonies invite us to question the socio-economic and political consequences of the "Minniti" and "Salvini" laws in Sicily. The end of the so-called "migration crisis" of 2015, which leads to the reduction of the reception system, seems to provoke another "crisis", framed in economic terms and less social and cultural.

Accordingly, the centers have become a central tool of Italy’s migration policy, performing functions of sorting, control and humanitarian assistance, often in defiance of human rights. Behind the scenes of the "border show", a whole sector of activity and employment has gradually been structured.

The repercussions of the "security decrees" passed in 2018 and 2019 on the rights of foreigners and on social work tend to reinforce the dynamics described. First of all, these laws have sharply reduced the amount of money allocated to the organizations managing the centers, especially in the SACs. These cuts have led to a reduction in the number of staff working in the centers, especially the most qualified (lawyers, medical staff, teachers), and therefore in the services offered to exiles, especially those dedicated to integration (legal aid, language courses, etc.). Secondly, the reduction in funding has encouraged the managing organizations to offer low bids to win the tenders. The logic of economies of scale has favored consortia and the opening of very large centers, to the detriment of small and medium-sized organizations, which have been forced to cease their activities. On the other hand, more and more large private companies are beginning to enter this juicy market (Liverani 2019). Moreover, the majority of exiles are, for various reasons (MSF 2018), excluded from this reception system and live on the streets or in squats. As such, they receive—at best—only limited and erratic voluntary assistance from the associative and activist sector.


Article translated with the support of the Luxembourg National Research Fund: C17/SC/11608387/REFUGOV • Traduction soutenue par le Fonds national de la recherche, Luxembourg : C17/SC/11608387/REFUGOV

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To cite this article:

Marie Bassi & translated by Oliver Waine, “Refugee Encampment on Europe’s Borders”, Metropolitics, 4 February 2022. URL :

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