After the spike in irregular migration to Europe in 2014-2017, many Western European countries have started to restrict the rights they grant to asylum seekers. Sweden tightened its laws already in 2016. In early 2018, France also adopted restrictive asylum laws. And this December, news broke that Denmark is planning to confine rejected asylum seekers to a remote island.
But what happens when a government lowers the level of protection for asylum seekers, especially if it is unable to increase returns of migrants to their countries of origin? The answer seems straightforward: an increase in undocumented migrants stuck in the country. That is precisely what is probably going to happen in Italy over the next two years.
Long story short. Between June 2018 and December 2020, the number of irregulars in Italy will increased by at least 140,000. Part of this increase (about 25,000) has already happened over the past months. But much of it is expected to take place between today and end-2020.
In a “baseline scenario” in which Italy retained its three layers of international protection (refugee status, subsidiary protection, and humanitarian protection), irregulars in Italy would rise by around 60,000. But an October 2018 decree-law (now converted into law) is estimated to add another 70,000 irregular migrants to the baseline scenario, more than doubling the number of new irregulars in Italy. At the current rate, returns of irregular migrants to their countries of origin will only marginally limit such an increase.
This means that, by 2020, the number of irregular migrants in Italy may exceed 670,000. This is more than double the number of irregular migrants that were estimated to be in Italy just five years ago, which was lower than 300,000. It is also the second highest figure ever, second only to the 750,000 irregulars estimated to be present in the country in 2002.
For a quick snapshot, see this figure:
Still here? Great, then you are interested in the longer version. Here you go!
In early October, the Italian government introduced a decree-law (Decreto-Legge n. 113, 4 October 2018) that was converted into law in early December (Legge n. 132, 1 December 2018). Among other things, the law does away with one of three layers of protection for asylum seekers in Italy.
Before the decree-law entered into force, the Italian system of protection offered three layers of protection:
a. Refugee status. Resulting directly from the 1951 Geneva Convention, the status is assigned to asylum seekers who can make the case they have a well-founded fear of being personally persecuted “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” (art. 1 of the Convention). To these, two EU Directives have added persecutions for reasons of gender and sexual orientation.
b. Subsidiary protection. Resulting from EU legislation, it is a second, EU-wide layer of protection. It applies to people who, while not qualifying as refugees, “would face a real risk of suffering serious harm” if they returned to their country of origin. This includes the risk of death penalty or execution, the risk of torture or inhumane treatment, and the risk of threat of life by reasons of indiscriminate violence during an armed conflict.
c. Humanitarian protection. This is the third layer of protection, legislated at national level. Many EU countries have alternative forms of protection after refugee and subsidiary protection, but they vary widely across Europe. In Italy, “humanitarian protection” is used as a residual category, and this protection was attributed for different and quite discretionary reasons, ranging from health issues to harsh economic conditions in the applicants’ country of origin. The maximum length of the residence permit tied to humanitarian protection is two years.
The current Italian government has decided to abolish humanitarian protection. The rationale behind this change is that, the government believes, the humanitarian protection layer was too benevolent towards irregular migrants who filed an asylum application. In its place, the government introduced six “special cases” (see table below).
Despite this seemingly vast range of cases, in practice the new “special cases” will probably be applicable to a very small minority of those who were granted humanitarian protection beforehand. On the one hand, it may take some time before the Italian protection system adjusts to a new context in which one layer of protection is almost entirely missing. On the other hand, provisional data seems to point to a scenario in which “special cases” will be very marginal. In the first two months of application of the decree law, humanitarian protection rates dropped from 25% in the previous months, to 12% in October and to just 5% in November.
To assess the effect of the disappearance of humanitarian protection in Italy on the presence of irregular foreigners, I made some quick simulations.
Clearly, I have to make some assumptions:
1. No new irregular entries or overstays. I assume that, between today and December 2020, nobody else will enter Italy irregularly, either by sea, by land or by air, and will therefore not apply for asylum. Also, I assume that no one entering regularly in Italy will overstay their visa. This is highly unrealistic. To stick to asylum applications, this November around 3,800 people applied for asylum in Italy, and while this is a much lower number than the average 11,000 per month that applied for asylum in 2017, it would still amount to almost another 100,000 new asylum seekers between here and December 2020. However, as sea arrivals have remained very low in Italy since mid-July 2017, the volatility of such estimates would be tricky to incorporate into my simulations. Also, these persons would still need to have their asylum request processed before becoming irregulars, so that they may still be regularly residing in Italy as asylum seekers by end-2020. Ultimately, this assumption will lead me to underestimate the number of irregular migrants in Italy in the near future.
2. No irregular migrant leaves Italy. This is an unrealistic assumption as well. But, again, it is hard to estimate how many irregular migrants would leave Italy in a two-year timeframe, especially as border countries in Europe continue to find ways to suspend Schengen rules and tightly control their borders. By official accounts, over the past year more migrants have been intercepted crossing from Austria into Italy than in the opposite direction. Despite this, we could say that this could lead to an overestimate of the number of irregular migrants in Italy in the near future.
3. Protection rates remain the same as in recent past (bar the policy change eliminating humanitarian protection). This is realistic, as protection rates have remained remarkably stable in the past three years.
4. Return rates do not improve substantially. This is realistic: despite electoral promises of rapidly increasing returns of irregulars to their countries of origin, in the first six months of the Conte government, returns have been 20% lower than during the same period of 2017.
For this simulation, I first need to split the June 2018 – December 2020 period into two time windows: the first is the past, between June and end-October 2018. In this period, about 26,000 asylum seekers in Italy were denied protection, thus becoming irregulars. Meanwhile, just 2,165 persons were returned to their countries of origin. The result is that irregulars in Italy increased by almost 24,000.
I can now turn to the present and future, during which humanitarian protection is being eliminated: November 2018 – December 2020. For my baseline scenario, recall that, in the past three years, about 55% of asylum applicants have been denied protection in Italy. In the face of this, as of October 2018, Italy had 107,500 pending asylum applications. This means that just short of 60,000 of these persons will likely become irregulars in the country, even before any policy change. Therefore, this estimate will act as my baseline.
I can then contrast the baseline with the estimated effects of the policy change. The abolition of humanitarian protection will have two effects:
a. Asylum seekers whose request is still pending will no more be able to receive a humanitarian protection, and will be at a higher risk of having their application denied, thus becoming irregulars;
b. Current beneficiaries of humanitarian protection will not be able to renew their protection, thus becoming irregulars.
With regards to (a), in the months before the start of the current government, about 28% received the humanitarian protection. So, out of the pending 107,500 cases, a bit more than 30,000 would have received a humanitarian protection in the baseline scenario, but will now see their application rejected, becoming irregulars.
As to (b), it is not possible to know with certainty how many persons are currently benefitting from humanitarian protection. However, given that this protection usually lasted two years, and that it could be renewed, a conservative estimate is to consider as beneficiaries all those persons that were granted humanitarian protection over the past two years. They amount to just short of 40,000. All these persons will not be able to renew their humanitarian protection once it expires, and will therefore become irregulars in Italy within the next two years.
By adding (a) and (b) together, I arrive at 69,751. Therefore, about 70,000 persons are at risk of becoming irregulars in Italy by end-2020 due to the elimination of humanitarian protection. Compared to my baseline estimate of 60,000 new irregulars by 2020, this is a more than doubling in numbers.
Finally, to get to the full number of new irregulars in Italy by end-2020, I need to subtract those migrants that will be probably returned to their countries of origin. As stated above, in the first 6 months, returns under the current government have been 20% lower than the same period last year.
The full picture is summarized here:
To get a sense of what this means for the total number of irregulars in Italy, take a look at the figure below, which is based on estimates by ISMU. Irregular foreigners in Italy had been declining between 2010-2013, but the increase in sea arrivals and in (rejected) asylum applications have reversed the trend between 2013 and today. ISMU estimates that, on 1 January 2018, irregular foreigners in Italy were around 530,000.
In the baseline scenario, the number of irregulars in Italy would increase again, to around 600,000 in two years. But the abolition of humanitarian protection will bring it to around 670,000 by 2020. The latter is equivalent to a 26% increase from 2018 numbers.
In absolute terms, 670,000 is not a totally unprecedented number. Similar figures have been reached or exceeded in 2002, 2006, and 2008. When this happened, however, the Italian governments of the time decided to proceed with mass regularizations: in 2002-2003, about 700,000 foreigners were regularized; in 2006, regularizations hovered at around 350,000; and, in 2009, they numbered 300,000. The rationale behind regularizations is that irregular foreigners can only make it through the day by relying on illegal employment or criminal activities, and are also exposed to much higher levels of marginalization. This is also why irregularity is associated with very high crime rate proxies.
It is time to ask: when will the next mass regularization in Italy take place?