“The problem is Dublin”, Mrs. Dabbicco at the prefecture of Bari tells us. She is talking about the Dublin regulation which determines the responsibility of the European Member States for examining an asylum claim. At the prefecture Mrs. Dabbicco is responsible for the division on civil rights, immigration and asylum law. “They think they would find the solution to their problems in Europe, but this is not the case. I simply don’t understand: Why do they leave home and come here? Why?!” The last word is more of an exclamation than a question and she looks at us, partly as if she hoped we would come up with a satisfying answer, partly desperate, knowing that her question was rather rhetorical.
The burden the small prefecture has to bear is clearly tangible at this moment, and following our visit to the overcrowded C.A.R.A di Bari-Palese – the center for first admission in Bari – just a few hours earlier, we can well understand her resentfulness. But the main issue is not, as we had expected, undocumented migrants travelling as stowaways via ferry from Greece to Bari: By September 2014, operation Mare Nostrum had saved over 91.000 lives in the Mediterranean Sea in the course of the previous year. Migrants are usually first collected on military vessels and then taken to several ports in Southern Italy. Bari has a suitable harbour for these purposes. But Mrs. Dabbicco tells us that cruise ship tourism is an important source of income for the city during summer months, such that direct transports to Bari had been suspended until November.
Nevertheless, as many other prefectures in Italy, Bari is asked to accommodate its share of incoming migrants – which is more than it is actually able to accommodate. The C.A.R.A of Bari-Palese, designed for 1200 asylum seekers, had 1669 inhabitants at the time of our visit. The prefecture therefore plans to increasingly incorporate private structures for the accommodation of migrants in Bari. Although this approach has the advantage of a more local, integrated and less isolated housing – the C.A.R.A. is located outside of the city on a huge, fenced military area – , it also opens the doors to people trying to make money at the cost of the migrants’ living conditions, while simultaneously the situation is much more difficult to control for authorities. According to the Dublin regulation, Italy is responsible for conducting the asylum procedure for all migrants who enter Europe via Italy.
When asked about undocumented migrants travelling as stowaways on ferries from Greece – more specifically Patras – to Bari, Mrs. Dabbicco seems to be almost surprised. Yes, of course there are some, she says, but very few. There is no real problem, she says, Mare Nostrum is more urgent. The ones who come from Greece are treated like everybody else, she continues. Now we are a little bit surprised, as due to our impressions at the harbour of Patras, Greece, this topic had been our initial reason for our stop in Bari. In Patras we talked to migrants who reported to try to find a way onto the ships leaving for Italy every single day, mostly by hiding in and under trucks. Some of them succeeded, just to be caught by the Italian port authorities and sent directly back to Greece, without the opportunity to explain themselves or claim asylum. Just recently, this problem has been part of a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights issued on 21 October 2014: In Sharifi v Italy and Greece, the court condemned Italy’s practice of sending undocumented migrants and asylum seekers directly back to Greece, which violates several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. It criticizes the automatic returns implemented by the Italian port authorities, which deprive migrants from any procedural and substantive rights and cannot be justified by the Dublin regulation.
Indeed, our visit to the Port of Bari and informal conversations with several people at the harbour suggests that stowaways are still a common thing in Bari: Random checks regularly lead to the finding of migrants hidden in or underneath trucks. Rarely, maybe 3-4 times a year, authorities find a truck with up to 50 migrants, hidden in a double floor, in hollow seats and even near the engine. The Polizia di Stato is convinced that many more migrants would be found if systematic checks were conducted, but they are neither logistically possible nor legally allowed at the EU internal border. The information as to what happens with intercepted migrants was inconsistent: Some officials at the harbour claimed that they were taken to reception centres, whereas some stated that they were taken straight back, on the same ship: “They’re not even here for a day”.
It appeared to be common ground that numbers had gone down since the start of Mare Nostrum. The Polizia di Stato explained that this is because the Italian Navy takes migrants found at sea to Italy, whereas coming from Greece, they risk being pushed back.
Human Rights Watch Video on Dublin Push-Backs to Greece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=kapV1goPbq0