By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) – Life is tough for asylum seekers in Italy – most are denied refugee status, barred from legal employment and, polls suggest, face discrimination. Now things look set to get even worse.
Fresh from her election victory, Giorgia Meloni is expected to become prime minister later this month at the head of a right-wing coalition that has vowed to crack down on immigration and tighten Italy’s borders.
Among promised measures are accelerated repatriations and more stringent asylum rules. Meloni has also called for a naval blockade of North Africa to prevent migrants from putting to sea and for renewed curbs on charity rescue ships.
“The outlook is extremely difficult,” said Michael Buschheur, founder of German humanitarian group Sea Eye, whose boats have saved thousands of migrant lives in the central Mediterranean over the past six years.
Buschheur sees Italy’s expected clampdown as part of broader European efforts to keep out refugees.
“At present, I cannot see one single thing that makes me hope things are about to get better for the migrants.”
The speed and scale of any Italian clampdown is likely to depend on who becomes interior minister.
Meloni’s main political ally, Matteo Salvini, who heads the rightist League, held the job in 2018-19 and introduced a raft of anti-immigration measures. Some have since been diluted and Salvini has said he wants the position back to reinstate his so-called security decrees.
But political sources say Meloni is resisting his demand and favours a less confrontational approach in the hope of securing European Union backing.
“I think Giorgia Meloni is more cunning than Salvini,” said Andrea Costa, president of the Baobab Experience, an aid group that helps migrants in Italy. “I think the new government will be careful and have an eye on the rest of Europe.”
A wave of asylum seekers in 2014-2016 turned migration into a burning political issue and fueled the rise of both the League and, to a lesser extent, Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party.
At the peak in 2016, 181,000 migrants reached Italy by sea. Containment measures led to a sharp fall and in 2019, the year Salvini limited charity boats’ access to Italy, just 11,500 arrived.
After a relative lull, numbers are on the rise again, with 72,430 people arriving so far in 2022, mostly from North Africa, which at its closest point is 180 miles (290 km) from Italy’s southern-most island, Lampedusa.
Latest data estimates that 519,000 people live in Italy without documentation, less than 1% of the total population.
Speaking to Reuters ahead of the Sept. 25 election, Meloni said she wanted the EU to pay Libyan authorities to stop migrants heading to Italy, with naval patrols policing the deal.
She brushed aside concerns about human rights abuses in Libya and said such a pact would mirror one signed with Turkey in 2016, whereby Brussels pays Ankara to house refugees and stop them leaving for Europe.
Under current EU regulations, she said, migrants reaching Italy must have their asylum requests processed here — a process that can take months or years.
“If we let them in but they can’t go north, Italy becomes the refugee camp of Europe,” she said. “That isn’t reasonable.”
Looking to deter would-be refugees, Salvini tightened the rules under which asylum status could be granted.
In 2017, the year before Salvini took office, Italy approved 41% of asylum requests, official data showed. In 2019, when the rules were fully in force, that figure fell to 19%, but in 2021, when his decree was partially unwound, it rebounded to 42%.
“The security decrees will return in the first cabinet meeting,” Salvini said before the election.
Papa Mamkeur Wade, 47, from Senegal, said he waited 11 years before finally receiving an Italian residency permit in July that allows him to get legal employment. But it is only valid till 2024 and he fears it will not be renewed by the new government.
“They use immigration like fuel to fire their election campaigns,” he told Reuters in the Rome flat he shares with six other migrants.
Wade believes Italy practises double standards, noting that Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion received automatic one-year residence permits and went to the top of the waiting list for accommodation.
“People die in African wars, but (in Europe) they don’t see it. We are invisible. The last in the queue,” Wade said.
Italy has taken in 171,000 Ukrainians since February — more than the number of boat migrants in the past three years.
Meloni has called the Ukrainians “real refugees”, telling parliament in March that the government should “take advantage of the moment” and expel all “illegal migrants”.
In her 2021 autobiography “I am Giorgia”, Meloni said mass migration diluted ethnic identity and that Italy should favour welcoming in Christians and people “as compatible as possible with our own national community”.
Aboubakar Soumahoro, a black Muslim from Ivory Coast, would not fit her national identikit. He came to Italy in 1999, worked as a labourer and gained Italian citizenship a decade ago.
He has also just been elected to parliament for a left-wing party and promises to fight any bid to curb migration rights.
“Welcoming in people on the basis of where they come from or the colour of their skin goes against the fundamentals of our constitution,” he told Reuters.
“Whoever needs a glass of water, gets one.”
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Gareth Jones)