Pages Navigation Menu

il contenitore dell'informazione e della controinformazione

.

In Italy, Anguish on Both Sides of Asylum Pleas – The New York Times

As Giorgio De Francesco, who oversees an asylum commission, hears migrants’ impassioned requests for protection, he grapples with knowing that he must vote against many of them.

ROME — Traffic noise floated through an open window as a Bangladeshi migrant named Nanue Matabor took a seat inside a tiny immigration office in central Rome. Only 19, Mr. Matabor had waited months for this hearing. He was asking for the right to remain in Europe. His life was in the balance. He stared at the floor, terrified.

First came the formalities. Mr. Matabor speaks only Bengali, so an interpreter explained the asylum system to him — and the possibility that his application could be denied. Then basic questions: Was his name spelled correctly? Was his birth date correct? Did he belong to a certain Bangladeshi ethnic group?

“I’m an orphan,” Mr. Matabor replied. “I don’t know my ethnic group.”

For the next 46 minutes, Mr. Matabor sat inside one of Rome’s Territorial Commissions for the Recognition of International Protection and pleaded for asylum to an audience of one — a smartly dressed Italian civil servant named Giorgio De Francesco. One man asking for protection; another man charged with deciding his fate.

Across the world, more than 65 million people migrated to escape conflict, hardship or persecution last year, either inside their own countries or across borders, the most since World War II. More than one million refugees arrived in Europe on smuggler boats, a fourfold increase from the previous year, as record numbers also applied for asylum — an exodus that has continued this year.

Continue reading the main story

Photo

Nanue Matabor, from Bangladesh, second from right, before getting his asylum decision in Calenzano. Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

For the moment, a hierarchy of human misery prevails: People fleeing well-defined conflicts, like the civil war in Syria, or oppressive states, like Eritrea, have a far higher chance of success, while the fate of many others can hinge on their individual stories.

Mr. De Francesco’s job amounts to parsing the misery, picking winners and losers from a pool of applicants who had lost so much already.

In early May, Mr. De Francesco was busy as I sat in his hearing room and listened to Mr. Matabor tell his life story. Usually, asylum hearings are confidential, but Italy’s Interior Ministry allowed me to attend nearly a dozen hearings this spring so long as I had the permission of the applicants. I then kept up with those applicants as they waited for answers.

One Nigerian man, Franck Iyanu, described how thugs had killed his brother as his stepfather tried to steal his land. He feared the police as much as his stepfather.

One afternoon, three Syrian families appeared — part of a group of Syrians whom Pope Francis had brought to Rome from a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. I was one of the reporters traveling with Francis on that trip in April, and the Syrians had clambered onto the papal plane, dazed by their good fortune. Now, I unexpectedly met them again in the hearing room.

During his hearing, Mr. Matabor described growing up illiterate in a Bangladeshi orphanage until a family informally adopted him. But the parents died, and he lived with his adoptive brother, a figure in opposition politics. Men came looking for the brother and instead found Mr. Matabor, beating him unconscious and threatening to kill him.

Mr. Matabor borrowed money, fled to Libya and worked in a hotel. The hotel was destroyed in Libya’s civil war. He escaped on a smuggler boat and arrived in Italy last year. In his absence, his young wife in Bangladesh had given birth to his son. He has never met the baby.

“They will kill me,” Mr. Matabor said, explaining what would happen if he went back to Bangladesh. “They want to find my brother, but they will kill me for revenge.”

Mr. De Francesco listened quietly, typing notes on his computer until the hearing ended and he hit a button. The printer whirred to life, spitting out three pages.

Those pieces of paper represented Mr. Matabor’s old life, and would be added to his official application for a new one. He signed his name, and later that day Mr. De Francesco presented the case for a vote to the five-member asylum commission he oversees.

The odds were not good: Nearly two-thirds of asylum applicants in Italy are refused asylum or lower levels of protection. Mr. Matabor’s answer would not come until October.

Migrants from Nigeria, Mali, Sierra Leone and Bangladesh in Calenzano, praying at the start of Ramadan. Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

‘Hardest Thing to Do’

During one of his worst days, Mr. De Francesco walked to Piazza della Minerva. There, surrounded by the decaying grandeur of the ancient city, he said, he nearly broke down after hearing the case of a Nigerian woman.

“She had suffered a lot,” he recalled. “She had lost her parents. Her family had mistreated her.” He needed to step away to compose himself because he knew he would have to vote against her, and that her application would be denied. “These are not things that qualify you for international protection,” he said.

Refugees have always existed, but the right to asylum was established by the United Nations as a response to the Holocaust and the aftermath of World War II. Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee was defined as someone who had been persecuted, or had a reasonable fear of persecution, because of race, religion, ethnicity, membership in a certain group or political views.

Mr. De Francesco, 52, grew up in Rome as part of the post-World War II generation, born when an optimistic Europe was rebuilding and the political integration of the Continent was considered the best safeguard against another apocalyptic conflict. He “dreamed of a united Europe, like a federation of states.”

Niang Ousmane, 30, left, from Senegal, presented his asylum case to Giorgio De Francesco in Rome.

Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Trained as a lawyer, Mr. De Francesco spent years in Italy’s Interior Ministry, writing legislation for Parliament. But as he watched the arrival of migrants stir a political crisis in Europe, Mr. De Francesco requested a transfer to the overworked asylum system.

“The refugee problem is a real emergency,” he said.

Now Mr. De Francesco worries that public anxiety over migration is threatening the ideals of the European project. Denmark introduced a much-criticized measure allowing the authorities to seize cash and valuables such as jewelry and wedding rings from asylum seekers as payment for housing them.

Italy has led the rescue efforts of migrants in the Mediterranean. Yet a July poll by the Pew Research Center found that more than 60 percent of Italians were worried that refugees would increase the risk of terrorism, and even more thought refugees could become an economic burden on the country.

Last year, Italy registered about 83,200 new asylum applications, the highest number ever recorded. Overwhelmed, the Interior Ministry rapidly expanded the number of commissions hearing asylum cases to 48, from only 20 two years ago.

Yet the question is as much about the quality of the commissions as the quantity, as inconsistencies plague asylum systems in Italy and across Europe.

“The same case can be presented in Britain, and in Italy, and in Germany, and in France — and there could be four different results,” said Bruce Leimsidor, an expert on European asylum law at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. “The same case could be presented to four different commissions in Italy, and you could get four different results.”

To keep pace with an unceasing workload, the five members of Mr. De Francesco’s commission hear cases separately and then present their findings on each case to the full commission for a vote.

“We don’t want to have only one person deciding the life of someone else,” said Mario Morcone, the Interior Ministry official who oversees the immigration system.

Yet for now, that is close to the reality — as well as Mr. Francesco’s burden. “I know I will apply the law well,” Mr. De Francesco said.

“But there are certain human cases that don’t fall under the right categories. That hits me hard. That is the hardest thing to do.”

‘A Shifting Dynamic’

A Syrian family, at right, that Pope Francis had brought to Rome. Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

On the morning of May 6, I sat in the asylum hearings of some of the Syrians whom Pope Francis had brought to Rome. For Mr. De Francesco, the Syrians fell directly in the “right categories.” One woman, Wafaa Eid, reached into her bag and presented her Syrian identity card and a packet of documents, which included a short statement of support from the pope.

Dressed conservatively in a head scarf and knee-length black sweater, Ms. Eid spoke of how she had fled the outskirts of Damascus with her family and then paid a smuggler in Turkey for passage to Greece. There, to her surprise, the pope scooped them up.

“If we returned to Syria,” she said, “we would no longer have a home, and we wouldn’t know where to go.”

Some asylum hearings last hours. This one lasted 26 minutes.

“Very good,” Mr. De Francesco said.

Ms. Eid jumped out of her chair.

“Thank you! Thank you very much!” she said, giddy and smiling.

Few people have endured more misery and death in recent years than the Syrians, and earning asylum is mostly a foregone conclusion for them. In Italy, about 90 percent of Syrians were granted protection during the first five months of this year.

“For everyone coming from Syria — if we are sure they are coming from Syria — they deserve protection,” Mr. De Francesco told me.

Less easily classified are the situations in Nigeria, Gambia, Bangladesh and so many of the countries that are the biggest suppliers of migrants into Italy. Only 2 percent of Nigerian applicants were granted refugee status during the first five months of this year (though others did receive lower levels of protection).

A Bangladeshi man texted relatives in June in the sleeping quarters he shared with other migrants in Calenzano. Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Many of these people had been working in Libya during the long dictatorship of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, when the country was a destination for laborers from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. But with Libya now in chaos, those workers are fleeing to Italy.

Some scholars argue that the definition of a refugee is outdated and should be re-examined. Traditionally, people who leave a country because of poverty are deemed “economic migrants” and do not qualify for asylum.

But new factors, intertwined with poverty, are pushing people to leave, like weak governance or a lawlessness that invites impunity.

“We have a shifting dynamic, where more and more people are fleeing countries that are fragile,” said Alexander Betts, a migration expert at the University of Oxford. “Collectively, the world has a real challenge in how we categorize people who cross international borders.”

Dr. Betts added: “We will see displacement and mobility as defining issues of the 21st century.”

Waiting, and Struggling

Nanue Matabor, pen in hand, stared blankly at a piece of paper. He was failing Italian class. A teacher stood at the other end of the long table prepping Chinese and African students for an exam. One of Mr. Matabor’s classmates, a migrant from Mali, leaned over and jabbed his finger at the empty paper.

Scrivi,” the man said in Italian. Write.

Nanue Matabor’s wife and son, born in his absence, are in Bangladesh. He applied for asylum in Italy. Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Mr. Matabor cannot read or write in Bengali, and his teacher told me that he was often absent from class. The humiliation of trying to learn a second language when you can only speak your first apparently discouraged him.

It was June, more than a month since the hearings, and I had gone to Tuscany to visit some of the asylum seekers I had met in Rome. They were living in reception centers run by charities and private entrepreneurs, and studying Italian. But mostly they waited for word on their asylum application.

“Eat, sleep, eat, sleep,” Mr. Iyanu, one of the Nigerians, said in frustration, describing his daily routine.” “I don’t know when they will call me. I don’t know.”

Mr. Matabor lived in a reception center in the town of Calenzano, not far from Florence, which was run by Caritas, the Catholic charity. Forty migrants slept on bunk beds and took meals of pasta and salad on plastic plates. For midday prayers, Mr. Matabor and other Muslims spread small rugs or towels on the hallway floor. A dirt backyard served as a truncated soccer pitch.

Barely three years ago, Italy’s asylum system accommodated about 27,800 people as they waited for resolution of their cases. Today, there are nearly 176,700.

For migrants, it is a crapshoot. Some are placed in well-run centers that provide good services and help them prepare for asylum hearings. Others are not. Some have their asylum hearings before well-trained commissions. Others do not.

A denial of asylum is not an end to the process. A person can choose to appeal in the Italian legal system, which could take a year or longer.

Or a person can simply melt into the streets, without documentation, living illegally. Some have taken up drug dealing. Others sell trinkets on city streets. Still others struggle to subsist, depending on soup kitchens for meals or working illegally for small shops or factories for paltry wages.

“One option is not to have a document and to be a slave here,” Katia Fitermann, a counselor who works with Mr. Matabor and other migrants. “They get paid two euros an hour. You come out of one exploitative situation and you get back into another one.”

Mr. Matabor understands the importance of a “yes” from the commission. “If they don’t give me the document, and I return to Bangladesh, these political people will kill me,” he said. “But if I stay here without a job or documents, it is like dying.”

Patrick Yeboah, left, who is from Ghana, at the house he shares with other African migrants in Vinci, Italy. Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Decision Day

The first person I heard from was Patrick Yeboah, a Ghanaian who spent nearly three years working construction in Libya.

“Today is bad news for me,” he said in an audio file he sent me on WhatsApp on Sept. 20. “I am granted my results. It is negative.”

The two Nigerians, Mr. Iyanu and Monday Osayomwanbor, got the same bad news. The Syrians earned full refugee protection and were settling in Rome.

“We are happy,” Ms. Eid said.

For Mr. De Francesco, the applicants kept coming. Since I had left his hearing room in early May, his commission had heard about 1,200 more cases.

He knew his job was to uphold the law but still anguished over cases where an applicant had suffered so much yet did not qualify for protection.

“The day I no longer feel that, I’ll ask to stop,” he told me. “I would have lost my humanity.”

Finally, on Oct. 6, I went to Florence to meet Mr. Matabor.

At the immigration office, Africans, Bangladeshis and Afghans loitered outside. Most of them had waited for months for an asylum decision. It took barely two minutes to receive the answer. One Moroccan woman came out sobbing. A man from Mali came out smiling.

Finally, Mr. Matabor went inside. His wife in Bangladesh was waiting for the answer. A minute passed, maybe two, before he walked out, holding a piece of paper. As a translator spoke to other Bangladeshis, explaining the process of appeal, or how the government would buy them a ticket to return to Bangladesh, Mr. Matabor stood alone, his back turned, and quietly cried.

Mr. Matabor at the immigration office in Florence, after learning his asylum decision. Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Sorgente: In Italy, Anguish on Both Sides of Asylum Pleas – The New York Times

Spread the love
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
< >

Leave a Comment

Il tuo indirizzo email non sarà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *

adv