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CIR’s Director Christopher Hein: “Asylum requests in Libya to put a stop to the carnage at sea”

The Director of the Italian Council for Refugees (CIR): Italy can act immediately without waiting for Europe. The crime of being undocumented has nothing to do with the shipwreck. Blaming Kyenge or Boldrini is idiocy.


8 October 2013: by Elvio Pasca

"There's a change underway.  Of the 25 thousand persons who have arrived by sea since January, the number of migrants coming for economic reasons has notably diminished because Italy is less attractive to those seeking work, while at the same time the number of persons who need protection has increased. This is a growing trend, and the number of arrivals is now nearly reaching the levels seen during the Arab spring two years ago.”


This is the Director of the Italian Council for Refugee (CIR)’s analysis. “On the boats,” Hein explained to, “there are fewer people arriving from West Africa, such as Ghanaians and Nigerians, but increasingly more from the Middle East, mostly Syrians, and from the Horn of Africa. Even in Thursday’s shipwreck off of Lampedusa they were mostly Eritreans, and Eritreans, once here, almost always are granted international protection.”


Has anything changed in the transit countries?

“We know that some of the Libyan maritime zones are not under the central government’s control but (under the control of) armed militias. It can’t be ruled out that they are mixed up with traffickers, more than was the case with the Libyan police. Under Gaddafi there was the political will to open and close the faucet on these flows, but currently, chaos reigns instead. Even the detention centres in some cases are controlled by the Libyan government, and in others, by the militias.”


And is there any difference between the two managements?

“Very little. The conditions are catastrophic in both cases, but at least one can talk with the government; not so with the militias. The humanitarian organizations try to access these centres, but some such as at Benghazi or in the central south, absolutely can’t be reached.”


What can Italy do, immediately, to stop the deaths at sea?

“It can be at the forefront of changes in policy and laws at the European level, taking the first steps to lead the way for the others. For example in Tripoli, with certain regulations, one could open the possibility of requesting protection while in Libya through our Embassy, and then obtaining a visa to enter Italy. This would be an important advance.”


And can it be done immediately, without reforms?

“Yes, the Schengen Border Code already provides for the possibility of issuing humanitarian visas. They are valid only at the national level, so that those arriving cannot move to other countries of the EU, but during its upcoming term in the European presidency, Italy could pave the way for others to do the same. Anyway, Italy is more concerned with Libya than the others for economic reasons as well. It’s up to us to make the first move.”


What can be done at the European level?

“First of all, a modification of the new asylum directive so that a request for protection doesn’t have to be presented only at the borders of or within Europe, but also in third countries. Then, to demand more forcefully, in negotiations with transit countries, that the basic rights of these people are respected. Finally, more effective surveillance (of the sea) but to save lives, not to push people back; it’s just not possible that a ship with 500 persons could come within 800 metres of our coast without anyone noticing it.”


Shouldn’t the Dublin Regulation, that obligates the country of entry to take jurisdiction over the asylum request, be changed?

“I’m not optimistic on that front. The Regulation was revised, maintaining that approach, just a few months ago after four years of analysis. I don’t believe there’s a good chance of reopening that process. However, it is possible to work on the issue of freedom of movement for those who have gained protection. Today, an Eritrean who has obtained refugee status in Italy must wait five years and obtain a “long-term” permit of stay before being able to move to and work in another EU State.”


Where do those who arrive in Italy really want to go?

“That varies depending on nationality. For example, we know that Syrians have never had a real community in Italy, whereas in Sweden, Germany and other European countries, they do. More than half of the 8,000 Syrians who have arrived here this year do not want to stay in Italy, yet even if they are granted protection, they must remain here for at least five years.”


Regarding the recent controversies: does the crime of illegal immigration have anything to do with the deaths in Lampedusa?

“No. With or without the crime of illegal entry or presence, these persons would have left for Italy regardless; and it’s not even the case that the Bossi-Fini law, which of course should be changed, is to blame for the shipwreck. However, the fact that the survivors will be subjected to a criminal process is shameful.


And the Northern League’s accusations against Boldrini and Kyenge, that their attitude could result in more journeys of hope?

“They are idiotic. To say that Italy becomes more attractive to those fleeing war and persecution after statements by Boldrini or Kyenge is absolutely misleading. It shows that they have no idea of whom the people are that they are talking about. It means that they don’t know that there are women who arrive here pregnant because during the 4000 kilometre journey that they are forced to make to find safety, they are repeatedly raped. We can’t really imagine that they make distinctions about what our politicians say.”



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