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by Silvia Carta, LL.M. candidate at the Institute for European Studies (IEE) of the Université libre de Bruxelles and member of the Odysseus Network OMNIA Project Team

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In the past months, Italian migration policies have been in the spotlight with regard to the deterrence measures adopted to prevent sea arrivals of migrants. After the closure of ports to vessels transporting migrants and the reduction of search and rescue operations at sea, the government adopted a restrictive approach to the internal norms, reforming the architecture of the Italian system of protection.

On 24 September 2018, the Italian Council of Ministers unanimously adopted a new Decree-Law on Immigration and Security. Strongly endorsed by the Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, the final text of the Decree contains ‘urgent measures’ on international protection and immigration, as well as on public security, prevention of terrorism and organised crime. Following the approval of the President of Republic, the bill has come into force on October 5. The future of the Decree now lays in the hands of the Parliament, which will have to transpose it into law within sixty days of its publication or it will retrospectively lose its effect.

The securitarian approach adopted sparked strong criticism within civil society and the President of the Republic himself accompanied his signature with a letter addressed to the President of the Council, reminding that all ‘constitutional and international obligations’ assumed by Italy remain binding, even if there is no explicit reference to them in the Decree. This blog post provides an overview of the first two Chapters of the Decree-Law, dedicated to immigration and asylum. It will further analyze their impact on the rights of protection seekers and their compatibility with European law, International law as well as the Italian Constitution.

1. Provisions on humanitarian residence permits and fight against irregular migration

1.1 The abrogation of ‘humanitarian protection’

The main change introduced by the first Chapter of the Decree-Law concerns what is commonly referred to as ‘humanitarian protection’, namely a residence permit issued to persons who are not eligible to refugee status or subsidiary protection but cannot be expelled from the country because of ‘serious reasons of humanitarian nature, or resulting from constitutional or international obligations of the State’ (art. 5(6) of the Consolidated Act on Immigration).

The humanitarian residence permit was introduced as a safeguard clause in the Italian legislation, complementing international protection within the meaning of article 10 paragraph 3 of the Constitution, which stipulates that: ‘[a] foreigner who, in his home country, is denied the actual exercise of the democratic freedoms guaranteed by the Italian Constitution shall be entitled to the right of asylum under the conditions established by law.’ The important role of ‘humanitarian protection’ has been further clarified by the Italian highest court (Court of Cassation), which stated that the right to be issued a humanitarian permit, together with refugee status and subsidiary protection, constitutes a fundamental part of the right of asylum enshrined in the Constitution (see for example judgement 22111/2014).

In practice, humanitarian residence permits were a ‘flexible instrument’ which could cover several circumstances emerging from forced displacement where there was no sufficient evidence of an individual risk of persecution or serious harm. As explained by the Court of Cassation, prior to the entry into force of the Decree, humanitarian protection was granted to persons suffering from an ‘effective deprivation of human rights’ upon the fulfilment of two interrelated conditions: the ‘objective situation in the country of origin of the applicant’ and ‘the applicant’s personal condition that determined the reason for departure’ (see judgement 4455/2018). The Court further presented as possible example of human rights deprivation the situation of a person coming from a country where the political or environmental situation exposes her to extreme destitution and does not allow her to attain a minimum standard of dignified existence. As noted by the Court, the definition of environmental issues does not only contain natural disasters but it may also include non-contingent events, such as droughts or famines, which deprive the person from having a basic livelihood.

However, as already mentioned, the grounds for obtaining humanitarian protection were relatively open and could be adjusted to other situations entailing a deprivation of basic human rights, such as the inability of the country of origin to protect the right to health of applicants affected by serious conditions, or the family situation of the applicant interpreted in light of  article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Also, the level of social integration reached by an applicant during her stay in Italy, together with the situation of poverty or instability in the country of origin, were also to be considered as a ground to grant humanitarian protection.

By radically transforming article 5(6) and severely restricting the possibility for rejected asylum applicants to be granted residence permits in light of constitutional and international obligations or for humanitarian reasons, article 1 of the Decree-Law substantially abrogates ‘humanitarian protection’. Instead, the Decree provides for the creation of a ‘special protection’ residence permit, which can be issued only to those persons who cannot be expelled due to the non-refoulement obligations defined in article 19 of the Consolidated Act on Immigration unless the applicant can be returned to a country where she could receive ‘equivalent protection’.

The first article of the Decree-Law further creates new residence permits that can be granted in restricted ‘special cases’, as for example: persons affected by ‘exceptionally serious’ medical conditions; persons who cannot return to their home countries due to ‘exceptional natural disasters’; and persons who have carried out ‘exceptional civil acts’. The Decree, however, does not modify the grounds for granting special residence permits to victims of trafficking, violence or labour exploitation, as already provided for in arts. 18 and 18-bis of the Consolidated Act on Immigration.

The new Decree reduces not only the scope of protection and the number of potential beneficiaries but also the duration of the stay for third-country nationals falling into the above-mentioned ‘special’ categories. Whilst persons granted the ‘humanitarian’ status were provided with a two-year renewable residence permit, the permits issued in the new ‘special cases’ allow residence in Italy for shorter periods: six months for exceptional natural disasters or violence and one year in the other for ‘special protection’, ‘medical reasons’ and other ‘special cases’. Such permits are renewable and allow the holder to work but – differently from the humanitarian residence permit – they cannot be converted into a work permit when the circumstances for which they were issued cease to exist. Only in the event that the foreigner has accomplished exceptional civil acts, whose nature is not further specified, the person – at the discretion the Minister of the Interior – can be issued a residence permit lasting two years.

A final important amendment contained in article 1 of the Decree is related to those persons who are already beneficiaries of humanitarian residence permits at the time in which the Decree enters into force: their permits will not be renewable anymore on humanitarian grounds, even if the circumstances for which the permit was granted in the first place still exist. Therefore, unless the beneficiary is granted a conversion of her humanitarian permit into a work or study permit, or she falls under the new special cases listed in the decree law, she will find herself in an irregular situation and will risk being returned.

The abrogation of the ‘humanitarian’ residence permit is of particular concern as, since its creation in 1998, it has been an important legal instrument allowing to protect and regularise all third-country nationals who could not be returned to a third country. Suffice it to say that, in 2017 only, Italy has granted 20,166 residence permits on ‘humanitarian’ grounds, whereas only 6,827 persons were granted asylum and 6,880 subsidiary protection. To counter this trend, last July, the Minister of the Interior had already sent a letter to all administrative authorities involved in the asylum procedure, requesting them to adopt a stricter approach when granting protection on humanitarian grounds. Such decision has been justified with the rationale of conforming Italy to European standards, which do not provide for this third form of protection. Arguably, even if humanitarian protection is not harmonised at the EU level under the Qualification Directive, there are obligations imposed on all Member States by international refugee law and human rights law that prevent them from returning third-country nationals under certain circumstances. Looking at the practice of EU-28 Member States, in the course of 2017, 63 thousand asylum seekers were given authorisation to stay for humanitarian reasons under national law. This number could be even higher as it only encompasses first instance decisions for those persons who have been previously reported as asylum applicants, and does not take into account those who have been granted a permission to stay for humanitarian reasons without having lodged an asylum application.

Moreover, the abrogation of humanitarian protection is likely to open a protection gap under article 10 paragraph 3 of the Italian Constitution. As noted by the Italian Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI), the substitution of humanitarian protection with a restricted list of ‘special’ residence permits, means that the right to asylum set out by the Constitution is ‘no longer fully implemented by the legislator’. This could open the possibility to bring legal actions to ascertain the right of asylum guaranteed by article 10 – which can be invoked directly in front of an ordinary court even in the absence of implementing legislation – or raise questions of constitutionality.

1.2 Making returns more effective

The second part of the first Chapter of the Decree-Law focuses on improving returns and facilitating the return of third-country nationals in an irregular situation. In order to achieve these objectives, article 2 of the Decree extends the maximum duration of the foreigner’s detention in return centres from 90 to 180 days. Article 4 further foresees that, in case the reception capacity of pre-removal centres is exhausted and prior to authorization of a judicial authority, foreigners may also be held in other ‘appropriate facilities’ and in border offices. In addition, article 3 of the new Decree-Law modifies the Decree Implementing the Reception Conditions Directive and the Procedures Directive (Decree-Law 18 August 2015, n. 142), by expanding grounds for detention in hotspots. Thus, foreigners who have been found in an irregular situation on the national territory or rescued during search and rescue operations at sea may be subject to detention in order to determine their identity and nationality. The maximum duration of detention is set to 30 days. In case it is impossible to verify such information, the person concerned can be transferred in a return center for a maximum of 180 days. Finally, article 6 increments the funding for returns, providing for the re-allocation of 3,5 million euros between 2018 and 2020. These funds – originally provided for assisted voluntary return and reintegration – will now be allocated to facilitate not further described ‘return measures’.

Even if the possibility to detain applicants for international protection in order to ascertain their identity and nationality is provided for in the Reception Conditions Directive, deprivation of liberty in such cases could be inconsistent with international refugee law read in conjunction with the Italian Constitution. According to ASGI, provisions connected to the deprivation of liberty in order to verify the identity and nationality are in violation of article 31 of the 1951 Geneva Convention and of article 13 of the Italian Constitution. In fact, since it is common to almost all asylum seekers not to possess valid documents proving their identity, such circumstances would not be proportionate to the ‘conditions of necessity and urgency’ required by article 13 of the Constitution to deprive someone of their liberty without judicial authorization.  That been said, the debate on the lack of documentation to prove asylum seekers’ identity is likely to be of interest in the near future, as it is also fuelled by the European Commission recent proposal for a recast of the Return Directive, where the lack of documentation is included among the criteria establishing the existence of a risk of absconding to avoid return procedures.

2. Provisions on international protection

2.1 Provisions on asylum seekers who committed serious crimes

The second chapter of the new Decree reforms, with a restrictive turn, the rules on the revocation of and exclusion from international protection. Article 7 extends the list of crimes that,  in case of final conviction amount to the exclusion from or to the revocation of international protection. These include: production, trafficking and possession of drugs; injuries or threats made to officers in performance of their duties; serious personal injury offence; female genital mutilation; robbery, extortion, burglary and theft, if compounded by the possession of weapons or drugs; slavery; exploitation of child prostitution.

Furthermore, article 10 of the new Decree introduces an accelerated procedure in the event that an asylum seeker is convicted – even prior to a final sentence – for one of the above-mentioned criminal offences and for the other serious crimes amounting to the exclusion from international protection already provided for in articles 12 and 16 Decree 251/2017. Thus, when the applicant is convicted in first instance, the Territorial Commissions for the Recognition of International Protection has to immediately examine the asylum claim and take a decision. In case the decision of the Commission rejects the request for international protection, the applicant is required to leave the country, even if the person concerned lodges an appeal against the asylum decision.

The Decree Law, by abrogating the suspensive effect of the appeal for a person who has been convicted in first instance arguably goes against article 27 of the Italian Constitution, which considers the defendant not guilty ‘until a final sentence has been passed.’ Moreover, pursuant Article 45 Asylum Procedure Directive, as a general rule Member States shall allow applicants to remain in the territory pending the outcome of the remedy. An exception might be allowed under article 46(6)(a) of the Asylum Procedures Directive, if the application is determined to be unfounded on grounds that the applicant is ‘for serious reasons’ considered to be a danger to the national security or public order of the Member State. However, article 46(6) also stipulates that even in such case there is no automatism and the decision whether or not the applicant may remain on the territory of the Member State should be taken by a court or tribunal. Therefore, insofar as the Decree provides for the automatic return of rejected asylum seekers pending an appeal, without a judicial decision authorising their removal, it is incompatible with the right to an effective remedy provided for by the Procedures Directive and enshrined in article 47 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

In any instance, the return of a person – regardless of the fact that she may have committed a crime – cannot be performed when the individual concerned is at risk of refoulement as defined by article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 19 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. As follows from the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), the prohibition of non-refoulement has an absolute character. The conduct of the person is irrelevant and even the involvement in serious crimes, such as terrorism, does not affect the prohibition to return individuals to states in which they faced a risk of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment (see ECtHR judgements in Saadi, Chahal, and Soering).

2.2 Provisions on subsequent applications and border procedures

Article 9 of the Decree implements into Italian legislation some restrictive provisions on subsequent applications that are allowed under the Asylum Procedures Directive (APD) but that had so far been regulated in a more favourable manner.

First of all, the Decree provides for new grounds of exclusion from the right to remain in the Italian territory, following almost verbatim the exception from the right to remain contained in article 41 of the APD. This includes all persons who have lodged a first subsequent application merely in order to delay or frustrate the enforcement of a decision which would result in their imminent removal, or make another subsequent application after their first subsequent application has been considered inadmissible or unfounded.

Secondly, article 9 establishes new rules on accelerated procedures for applicants who have introduced a subsequent application for international protection without new elements or findings supporting their claim. In case that the applicant was stopped following an attempt to elude border controls, this procedure also applies in border or transit zones. This is a novelty in Italian law, that until now did not provide for the possibility of carrying out the evaluation of an asylum claim at the border. According to the explanatory note to the Decree, this amendment follows the rationale of article 31(8)(g) APD. This article, however, provides for the possibility to apply accelerated and border procedure in case an application is lodged to avoid an earlier removal decision – which appears to be a stricter ground than the one provided for by the Italian decree.

Also, the Decree sets out a new ground for the inadmissibility of an asylum application: a subsequent application is inadmissible if it is lodged to prevent the enforcement of a decision which would result in her imminent removal and it shall be dismissed without being further examined. This is not consistent with article 40 APD, which provides at least for a preliminary examination on the presence of new elements substantiating the asylum claim.

Lastly, following the definitions of article 41 APD APD, the Decree limits the suspensive effect of appeals lodged in two circumstances. First, by all persons who have lodged a first subsequent application to delay the enforcement of a decision which would result in his or her imminent removal. Second, by asylum seekers whose application has been considered inadmissible as a subsequent application where no new elements or findings have arisen or have been presented by the applicant, whilst prior to the entry into force of the Decree-Law this only happened when an application was assessed as inadmissible for the second time.

2.3 Reception conditions for asylum seekers

One of the most discussed provisions of the Decree on immigration concerns the reception of asylum seekers, which undergoes substantive changes. The decree de facto abrogates the possibility for asylum seekers to access reception provided under the System for the Protection of Asylum Seekers and Refugees (SPRAR). The system, operated by local institutions, in cooperation with non-governmental and voluntary organizations, had not only the aim to provide basic reception but also to favour the social integration of asylum seekers and beneficiaries of protection. With the amendments introduced by article 12 of the new decree, only already recognized refugees and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection, as well as unaccompanied minors, will be granted accommodation within the SPRAR. Asylum seekers will, therefore, be only hosted in collective reception centres (CARA, CDA). In case of unavailability of places, applicants can also be hosted in temporary reception centres (CAS) where, according to the law, only basic levels of reception conditions have to be met.

These amendments fail to take into account the pre-existent structure of the Italian reception system. As a matter of law, the SPRAR was the only durable solution provided for asylum seekers, while the other types of reception centres have been designed only for initial or temporary reception (see articles 9 and 11 of the Decree implementing the Reception Conditions Directive). Considering the length of asylum procedures in the country, asylum seekers will be left with no alternative than remaining for months (or in some cases even years) in facilities which are often inadequate in terms of both capacity and structural and safety conditions.

This decision is of great concern as it is likely to put further strain on the Italian reception system, which already has a record of not providing an adequate standard of reception conditions to asylum applicants – as recognised in 2014 by the European Court of Human Rights. More recently, a Dutch court annulled a transfer to Italy pointing out that the new Decree raises questions about the structural deficiencies in the Italian reception system, in particular as it restricts access to adequate reception conditions to vulnerable asylum seekers.

Final remarks

Whilst the number of arrivals to Italy is at the lowest level registered in the past few years, the phenomenon of migration has reached the dimension of an emergency in the internal public debate, with the Decree-Law on Immigration and Security representing a major downturn in the architecture of the Italian system of protection.

The implementation of further grounds for exclusion and withdrawal of protection, the reduction of procedural guarantees, and the general restrictive approach on the rights of migrants and asylum seekers adopted in the Decree generate serious concerns. Above all, some of the provisions contained in the Decree may entail a risk of violation of the principle of nonrefoulement, which is not only a cornerstone of the international refugee regime but also a fundamental guarantee that protects all human beings from being subject to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment.  What is more, some of the changes introduced with the Decree might have far-reaching practical consequences on the rights of the migrants who are already present or will arrive in the country. In particular, the repeal of ‘humanitarian’ residence permits, which have been widely used in the past years, is likely to have the unintended side-effect of increasing the number of migrants who will find themselves in an irregular situation. The new bill has been presented by the Interior Minister Matteo Salvini as ‘a step forward to make Italy safer’ – however it will arguably increase the number of cases of destitution, vulnerability, and exploitation.

It remains to be seen whether the Parliament will confirm the text of the Decree when ultimately converting it into law. However, considering that the time for discussion is limited (60 days only) it is doubtful that the bill will undergo substantial improvement. Also, as the Decree has become one of the flagship measures of the current Government, it is unlikely that it will be repealed in toto. The choice itself of the Government to use a decree having force of law – rather than of the ordinary legislative procedure – does not seem to stem from a situation of ‘obvious necessity and urgency’ as provided for by the Constitution. Rather, it appears to be a shortcut to obtain immediate results on matters where it is difficult to achieve political consensus through democratic debate. Against this backdrop, the new bill on Immigration and Security – with questionable democratic legitimacy – restricts the rights of asylum seekers and people displaced, making protection increasingly inaccessible.