Refugees in Italy see uncertainty after evictions
Yaya Barry left his home last month in the small Italian suburb of Castelnuovo di Porto when it was still dark, as he did every morning, to go to work in Rome. It was a long commute to a tough job — handing out flyers and putting up posters — but it had taken him months to find work, and he was grateful.
That mid-January night, when he returned to the large refugee center he’d called home for the past two years — a short drive north of Rome — he noticed a flurry of activity. Some people were packing their bags, others were making frantic phone calls to their lawyers or friends. A few were in tears.
“That’s how I found out the center was closing, and we had to leave. … My name was on a list, and I was told I would be taken away the next day, but they didn’t tell me where I was going,” said Mr. Barry, 31, who fled from Guinea after being arrested for attending an opposition rally in 2015.
Like Mr. Barry, the 535 inhabitants of Castelnuovo di Porto refugee center — the second largest of its kind in Italy — were only warned a day or two in advance of their impending move, and they were not given details on where they were going. All they knew was that some would be sent to various migrant and refugee centers throughout Italy.
The sudden and forced evictions from Castelnuovo di Porto are a direct result of the so-called “security decree,” also known as the “Salvini decree,” which was adopted in November 2018 and is named after farright politician Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and leader of the rightwing League party.
The decree, among other things, cracks down on asylum seekers’ rights by abolishing “humanitarian protection” residency permits — issued to asylum seekers who do not qualify for refugee status but are deemed vulnerable and therefore permitted to stay in Italy. The decree says these humanitarian permit holders are no longer eligible for assistance, which means that some people evicted from Castelnuovo — around 150, according to some sources — are now effectively homeless.
Mr. Salvini called the decree a “gift to Italians,” and said in a Facebook post that the new rules would help “reduce the costs of exaggerated migration, expel more quickly criminals and fake refugees [and] strip the citizenship of terrorists” — improving security in Italy.
But critics believe the decree will have the opposite effect by pushing vulnerable people to the margins of society and giving them no hope of legally working or staying in Italy.
With Italy’s right-wing populist government adopting increasingly anti-immigration policies, the closure of Castelnuovo is seen by many as ominous. The remaining four centers in Italy are set to close in the coming months, pushing thousands stripped of their humanitarian permits to live on the streets. By abolishing these permits, the Salvini decree will cause thousands more to become “irregulars” — illegal immigrants — making it impossible to work legally, rent a home or continue with education.
“The prefecture called on Friday telling us that we would be closed by the end of the month,” said Costanza Fittipaldi, who works as a legal adviser at the center.
“We were told to prepare lists: 35 people were to leave on Tuesday, 75 more on Wednesday and so on,” she said. “As if these people were just objects. There is absolutely no logic to it. If there is, it’s a perverse one.”
Over the last 10 years, around 8,000 asylum seekers have passed through the center, said Castelnuovo di Porto’s Mayor Riccardo Travaglini, who has openly and heavily criticized the way the move has been managed: “We were not given any warning. These people are successfully integrated, they are part of our community. To do this is to destroy years of work.”
The move will be especially difficult for some residents of Castelnuovo di Porto. “Some of our guests are in extremely difficult situations; we have women who have escaped the sex trade, and people who have survived torture and abuse in their home countries and in Libya,” explains Ms. Fittipaldi.
Mr. Barry, whose lawyer is in Rome, fears the move will leave him in legal limbo.
“I just lost my job, I lost everything,” he said. “How will I travel back for my court dates?” He doesn’t know how to tell his wife, who is in Guinea with their two children. “I pay for my children’s school, but I don’t know how I’ll be able to do that now.”
Yaya Barry arrived in Italy two years ago from Guinea after fleeing political persecution. He began to rebuild his life while staying at a refugee center near Rome. Now, under the "Salvini decree," Mr. Barry faces eviction, along with thousands of other asylum seekers.