Caught between worlds: How asylum seekers in Italy fall through the cracks

Story highlights

  • Italy's Interior Ministry estimates that it has a backlog of more than 40,000 asylum applications
  • But even when refugees are given political asylum, the journey isn't over

Rome, Italy (CNN)Sakou Saidy, a 33-year-old Gambian national, has been waiting more than a year for word about his political asylum application.

He is one of an estimated 40,000 applicants who are caught in a bureaucratic purgatory as Italy struggles to process those who have arrived safely against an insurmountable tide of new migrants. Saidy lives in the Mineo refugee center near Catania, Sicily, where he is sometimes picked up by local farmers who need extra farmhands for tomato and orange harvests.
    "I just want to know the answer," he told CNN. "If it's no, then I'll move on, but if is approved, then I have a chance at bringing over my family."
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    Italy's Interior Ministry estimates that it has a backlog of more than 40,000 asylum applications, according to a report submitted to the European Commission asking for another emergency meeting to help Italy deal with the recent wave of more than 38,000 migrant arrivals since the beginning of 2015. The Commission is meeting May 13 with the intention to adopt an Agenda on Migration.
    An emergency meeting on April 23 prompted the European Council (EC) to triple its funding for the European Union's Frontex border control mission and send more ships to help search and rescue missions between the coasts of Libya and Italy. Member states also promised to investigate ways to stop human traffickers and destroy the smugglers' boats.
    In comments after the meeting, EC President Donald Tusk added: "The European Union will help front-line Member States under pressure and coordinate the resettlement of more people to Europe on a voluntary basis, and with an option for emergency relocation. For those who do not qualify as refugees, we will operate an effective returns policy."
    But humanitarian groups were disappointed that the EU did not focus enough on how to help those who survive the journey. In a statement criticizing the EU's 10-point agenda, Human Rights Watch said: "The EU should also work quickly to set up safe and orderly methods for people to seek asylum in the EU without having to put their lives in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers."

    Tagging migrants

    Italian officials who rescue the migrants are often so overwhelmed by the sheer number of people they are dealing with, they concentrate on medical needs, food and clothing and do not take asylum applications at the ports or on board the rescue vessels. Rarely are names even taken right away, and most migrants are given a tag with their date of arrival and a number which is correlated to their country of origin to help determine distribution among the country's over-crowded temporary refugee camps.
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    Sometimes so many people arrive at once, officials have no choice but to write the numbers on the migrants' hands with permanent ink.
    They are also asked to identify the boat navigators and anyone involved in the smuggling of migrants. At ports like Augusta in Sicily, local authorities have hired migrants to help as translators to help identify countries of origin in cases where they believe the migrants may be lying. Migrants who have documents are often given priority.
    At certain ports of entry, the numbers are matched to names. More often, the identification numbers are used until the migrants are distributed to refugee centers across Italy. Generally only then will they be given an opportunity to formally apply for asylum with government officials who travel to the camps.
    Because many of the camps are not locked all of the time -- if at all -- migrants can spend some of the day outside the camps and often pick up seasonal work in the agricultural sector in Italy. Some migrants move among the camps, finding friends and family, or just trying to escape overcrowding. Some find beds in Catholic Church-funded centers across the country and are asked to work in exchange for room and board.

    EU standards

    The Italian foreign ministry says it refuses around half of all asylum applications because they do not meet the standards set forth by the European Union. In 2003, the Dublin regulation was enacted that required asylum seekers to register in the country in which they enter the European Union, though in practice most migrants apply for asylum where they choose to rather than where they first land.
    For example, in 2014, more than 200,000 migrants applied for political asylum in Germany according to the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, even though they arrived first in other countries. Germany's Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière told the European Union that he expects double that in 2015.
    In 2014, more than 123,000 Syrians requested political asylum in Europe, according to Eurostat figures. Not all of them arrived by boat. Many migrants who can afford it try to reach Europe by air as well. Border Police at Fiumicino airport in Rome say they stopped 2,731 asylum seekers in all of 2014 and have already stopped more than 1,000 in 2015. In 2014, 539 were granted asylum, they say, but this year only 160 of the 915 who have tried to enter illegally have been allowed to stay.
    Head of the Lazio region's border police Antonio Del Greco says most of the flying migrants come in on connecting flights with hand luggage and try to escape the airport during their layovers.
    In an investigative documentary about how migrants cross into Italy called "Borderline" by Internazionale magazine, Del Greco said, without exception, Syrians flying in are granted asylum. "It is difficult to refuse them," he said. He told CNN that most of those who fly have someone waiting to meet them. Those who are refused asylum must pay their own way to fly back to their country of origin or face arrest and potential jail time for illegally entering the country.
    The dream of a life in Europe rarely stops even for those who are denied asylum. Oliviero Forti, the head of the Catholic charity Caritas Italy, told CNN that most of those who are denied in Italy just disappear.
    Italy doesn't pay for repatriation, and he says there are no human smugglers offering the return trip. "By law, they are expelled from the European Union, but after their journey here, most have no means to go back, even if they wanted to," Forti told CNN. "They can't work legally so they support the underground economies. They enter a margin of society in which they can't stay and they can't go. They are the most vulnerable of all the migrants."
    But even when refugees are given political asylum, the journey isn't over. "Even when they get permission to stay, they only have a piece of paper," Forti says.
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    On May 6 in the small hamlet of Fontanabuona near Genova, several dozen refugees from Mali held a spontaneous protest, blocking a main highway with garbage bins.
    The local mayor Giuseppino Maschio told CNN that it wasn't because they had been denied asylum, it was because they were granted a document to stay.
    Their asylum status meant they had to leave the refugee center where they had been staying for more than six months -- to make room for other migrants who needed accommodation while they waited for a government response.
    "Normally the refugees protest because of overcrowding or bad treatment," Maschio said. "These are free to leave now, but they just don't have anywhere to go."