The GLIMER team recently visited Calabria to witness first-hand how displaced migrants are being accommodated in and around Cosenza. These projects are part of the Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees (SPRAR), a national network in Italy of local authorities that implement reception projects that is co-ordinated by the National Association of Italian Municipalities (ANCI) and overseen by the Ministry of the Interior.

The first SPRAR project we visited was Asylon, Cosenza: la città dell’accoglienza which is run by La Kasbah, a local third sector organisation, in conjunction with the Province of Cosenza. This was one of the first SPRAR projects to be set up in Calabria and has now been running for 14 years. In a building in the centre of Cosenza (loaned out by the local authorities), the volunteers of La Kasbah provide a number of services including Italian language classes, legal guidance including information and training on asylum claims and related bureaucratic procedures, and help with finding a permanent place to reside. What is unique about SPRAR projects, in fact, is their focus on ‘integrated reception’ (accoglienza integrata) which means that they do more than simply provide food and accommodation – those who are hosted by the project live in private rental apartments that have been sourced and furnished by La Kasbah. Since 2012 the organisation has specialised in receiving those who have been victims of torture and extreme violence and are supported by a team of volunteer medical professionals and psychologists. In our question and answer session with Alessandro Gordano, one of the founders of La Kasbah, we learned that many of the services offered to migrants, and even the existence of the SPRAR project itself, are under threat by the proposed new immigration law (see below).

Our next trip was to Mendicino, a small village in the hills just outside Cosenza which hosts two SPRAR projects including one specifically for unaccompanied foreign minors. Such cases of small scale reception in villages facing the challenge of depopulation have become emblematic of the SPRAR system in Calabria and made famous worldwide by the example of Riace. In Mendicino too, dwellings that were previously abandoned have been converted into apartments for those being hosted by the SPRAR project. After a tour of the village, led by the Mayor, we were treated to a meal prepared by our hosts and were able to hear some of the personal stories of those who had found a home in Mendicino after making perilous journeys from places as far away as Gambia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Iraqi Kurdistan. The work with the unaccompanied minors is carried out by a non-profit organisation called Il Delfino which also runs a number of other SPRAR and CAS (Extraordinary Reception Centres) across the Province of Cosenza. As well as providing accommodation and meals to the youngsters it hosts, the centre also provides extra help with language tuition and opportunities for on the job training in addition to their compulsory schooling. Although these children are thus being prepared to make a contribution to Italian society, it is not a given that all of them will gain permanent residency once they turn 18.

The financing for SPRAR projects depends largely on the Ministry of the Interior, but their everyday running is delegated to locally-based organisations, often in the non-profit sector, and local authorities. As in many of the cases we are studying for the GLIMER project, it is left to the third sector to provide many services for displaced migrants in Italy. Despite funding from the national government, many of these organisations depend on the generosity of volunteers who offer their time and expertise to facilitate the integration of asylum seekers and refugees. In recent years, and particularly since the ‘refugee crisis’, there have been allegations of public money, destined for the reception of those seeking international protection, being either misused or even siphoned off. As a result, those working in refugee reception have become a political target, notably by politicians such as Matteo Salvini, who have pledged to end what they refer to as the business dell’accoglienza i.e. profiting from the reception of migrants. Indeed, before becoming Minster of the Interior, Salvini promised to cut millions in state funding to reception projects and just a few months into his tenure he described the Mayor of Riace as ‘zero’. This week the Italian government finally announced draft legislation that was dubbed the ‘Salvini decree on immigration and security’. This includes a series of proposed changes including abolishing a form of humanitarian protection for those not eligible for refugee status to be replaced with a new permit system that will be restricted to ‘special cases’.

Although Salvini stressed that the SPRAR system would continue, he admitted that it would be restricted to those who are already recognised as receiving international protection (i.e. those with refugee status) as well as unaccompanied foreign minors. The SPRAR system will thus become massively reduced and probably renamed given that asylum seekers will no longer be eligible for this form of protection and assistance. They would also be unable to access any services provided by public funds such as the those offered by volunteers working for La Kasbah. It would therefore become illegal, for example, to offer legal guidance to asylum seekers as part of a SPRAR project, despite such aid being crucial in order to help individuals navigate the often complicated bureaucratic procedures in order gain/renew work permits or apply to have their families join them in Italy. The SPRAR system has generally been viewed as one of the few positive examples of successful integration practices in Italy and its scaling down will have deleterious consequences for displaced migrants.

The ‘Salvini decree’, which will be debated and voted on in the Italian parliament before coming law, is clearly aimed at deterring would be migrants from making journeys to Italy. It is also designed to enable an even higher number of deportations by, for example, doubling the number of days that migrants can be kept in the ‘repatriation centres’ (centri di permanenza per i rimpatri). However, as was explained by Marina Galati who hosted our stakeholder meeting at Progetto Sud on our last day in Calabria, such legislation could produce a number of unintended consequences. Greater pressure will be put on the already overstretched emergency reception centres and removing the condition of humanitarian protection will merely result in a massive increase of those considered as ‘illegal immigrants’. Those no longer deemed worthy of protection will consequently be left destitute and be forced to live on the streets as well as being at greater risk of trafficking and exploitation. In a forthcoming blog, our Italian team will go into further detail about what this proposed law will mean for the integration of displaced migrants in Italy.