Guest Post/ASMIRA: Italy as a transit country for asylum seekers

Lampedusa in HamburgIn 2013, according to Frontex, over 38% of all detected illegal border crossings in Europe followed the “Central Mediterranean Route” leading to Italy and Malta amounting to over 40,000 irregular migrants. This year, the Italian Ministry of Interior has announced that already 59,880 irregular migrants and asylum seekers have reached Italy’s coasts.

These numbers account for the popular perception that a very high number of people (irregular migrants and asylum seekers alike) enter each year Italy’s borders overwhelming the national asylum system with increasing accommodation requests and asylum applications while neither the European Union nor the other Member States provide help or support. Politicians and decision makers around Europe (but mostly in European Mediterranean countries) blame this “excessive pressure” on the recently-reformed Dublin III regulation and demand a different system of “burden sharing” in line with the principle of solidarity enshrined in Article 80 of the TFEU.

These perceptions are wrong for a number of reasons relating to the fact that Italy has been considered – at least since the 90s – as a transit country by asylum seekers who then move over to other Member States to apply for asylum. While a fairly high amount of asylum seekers cross the borders of the European Union by landing on Italy’s southern coasts, most of them will subsequently leave the country to apply for protection in other Member States.

Indeed, according to Eurostat, since 1998 less than 6.6% of all asylum applications in Europe are submitted in Italy every year (except for 2008 and 2011 where they rose to 13.3 and 13.2% respectively). On the contrary, France, Germany and Sweden have had repeatedly over the years the highest percentage of asylum applications in the European Union. In 2013 alone, Germany received 29.19% of the total asylum applications in Europe followed by France (14.88%) and Sweden (12.49%), while Italy’s percentage of applications amounted only to 6.42%. A recent study by the European University Institute on the pressure sustained by different EU Member States (measured by the number of asylum applications per capita) shows similar figures: while Sweden is the Member State facing the greatest pressure, most northern-western European States (including Luxembourg, Germany, Denmark and France) face higher pressure rates than Italy.

Similarly, in 2013, due to the outbreak of the Syria conflict, 50,096 Syrians fled to Europe and were by far the most common nationality to request international protection; while many reached the Schengen area through Italy, only 635 applied for international protection there: a very low number compared to the 16,540 applications made by Syrians that same year in Sweden (and leading to Sweden’s Immigration minister’s outburst against Italy and Greece, the top receivers of EU funding for migration policies).

There are many reasons why Italy is seen as a transit country by migrants and international protection seekers. One of them, incidentally, lies in the Dublin III Regulation itself: there is a common misunderstanding among politicians in southern European countries that the Dublin Regulation requires Member States of arrival of asylum seekers to process their applications. On the contrary, the Regulation’s hierarchy of criteria for determining the Member State responsible for processing an application places at the top the asylum’s seekers family links (Articles 9, 10, 11) or legal residency (Article 12) in an European country, allowing immigrants arriving through Italy to apply in another country where they have lived or have family ties.

Another possible reason why asylum seekers tend not to ask for asylum in Italy might be the very high divergences in recognition rates between Member States of the European Union (the so-called “asylum lottery”). Although recognition rates vary greatly on a yearly basis, until 2012 first instance positive recognition rates in Italy had been traditionally low and/or unpredictable (32% in 2008, 51% in 2009, 43% in 2010 and 18% in 2011) and might have led international protection seekers to proceed to other countries with more favourable conditions and typically higher recognition rates (such as Norway).

Lastly, other factors such as access to employment, welfare and health services may also account to an asylum seeker’s decision to ask for asylum in other European Countries (notably in northern-European countries).

Contributor: Chiara de Capitani