Migrants' (pre)occupations and the racialised approach adopted all along the Central Mediterranean Route.

While Italy has become one of the main access gate to Europe, a large part of the migratory flows originating from the Central Mediterranean Route proves to be mixed in nature, in between voluntary and forced relocation. Yet, the reception system in place obstinately mistakes all migrants for mere refugees, apparently against their own interests, as it is shown in the procedure of the ricorso (appeal). This striking paradox reflects an approach to the so called migratory crisis that has a seamless racialist foundation all along the way.


Moi, je veux être footballer”, Ismail says, while bouncing an old ball on the terrace that faces his accommodation in the Mugello region of Tuscany. He is a 19 years old young boy coming from Mali, a host of the Sistema of Accoglienza Diffusa.[1] He wants to become a football player. It is what he has been dreaming about prior to arriving in Europe. These days the so-called migration crisis has almost eclipsed on the mainstream media. It is said that news is a break in the routine. And migrants have become the routine nowadays. As a matter of fact, along the Central Mediterranean Route, arrivals are constant, more or less in line with the situation in the previous year.[2] By contrast – as a consequence of the entrance into force of the EU-Turkey deal – the Eastern Mediterranean Route, which leads to Greece, is basically drying up. Hence, Italy has become the main entrance gate towards Europe. And if, at this time of the year, holiday moods contribute to divert journalists’ attention away from old topics, the whole process remains mediatised at least on the African media. And among those left behind on the African continent, who watch on TV a boat approaching the coasts of Europe, there is always someone who says or just think “pourquoi pas moi?”, why not me?, how a young Cameroon guy puts it.

So the “boat-people” keep coming, leaving from Libya, often forced to do so by smugglers or other (in)human traders who have sold a form of contemporary slavery as a bright future in the land of the deposed Gaddafi.[3] After having been made believe that Libya, or Europe in the first place, is their promised land, they go ashore on the costs of Italy. Here, on the other side of their illusion, there is another system in place. It is based on an emergency approach. Once identified in the hotspots, migrants are distributed around the peninsula. From the Prefectures they are ‘dispatched’ to the Centres of Temporary Assistance (CAS) at local level, often in the countryside. While mayors are asked their availability to host refugees and unaccompanied minors within their administrative boundaries, new migration entrepreneurs, local associations, and cooperatives, join the group of the service providers on behalf of the Ministry of Interior. New centres are set up trying to accommodate the bleeding of people from the south of the world. Only in Tuscany, in the last two months, migrant figures have increased from about 7.000 to 10.000 units.[4] Then the same procedure applies to everybody without distinction, they all are informed about it and then made apply as refugees.[5]

Jobs and other Pastimes

But how is life afterwards? In some cases asylum seekers have been replaced, relocated elsewhere, to other destinations. In some other cases they have kept living under the same roof, doing or not doing the same things. There are those who claim to be ready to do anything to make a living, if they could find an occupation, those who dream to become footballers, and those who would like to go back to school, and get a master degree maybe, or any other form of education. Within this framework, asylum seekers de jure – whom, pending their application, have been granted a temporary residence permit – must be distinguished from new arrivals, who have not applied yet. The latter have no title to work, at least from a legal point of view.

Are the applicants actually working? Being in the countryside or in an urban context can make a difference. In the countryside migrants are rarely employed. Just to make an example, out of 50 people distributed in two different centres, after 10 months from their arrival (October 2015), only 1 person is in a job, in a farm, and for a probationary period.[6] The rest sit at ‘home’, almost without any opportunity to communicate with the locals or to intercept a labour demand, distanced by huge language barrier, expectations that sometimes sound as mere illusions, and the need to kill an apparently eternal time. “We are bored, we sleep, we eat, and then we sleep again, and then nothing else”, they complained.

In an urban context the situation can be slightly different. A minority may have gained access to some form of menial occupation or labouring. Nationality and cultural backgrounds seem to play a role here. Western Africans are apparently not interested by this process, whereas Pakistani and Bengali, who are supposed to have more initiative, seem to be recruited by Chinese companies in the province of Prato and Florence, active in the leather sector. They work up to 12 hours per day, they are paid 700-800 Euros, but they are insured for 400-500. If their salary goes beyond the 500 Euros-threshold they are supposed to leave the CAS, they cannot be qualified as in need of assistance anymore. The rule of the Prefecture is clear about this. Nobody is keen on disclosing certain details though, being not in the interest of the migrant, nor of the managers of the centre.

Refugee Status? A Paradox

Within this context, the Italian word diniego, which is used to mean the rejection of an application for international protection, has become widely familiar to all applicants. If during last winter the rejection’s rate reached quota 50%, it is now approaching quota 80-90%.[7] And yet, comparing the situation over this time period, there are neither substantial changes in the nature of the flows coming to Italy, nor in the situation in the countries of origin. Be how it may, more and more people are not recognised as refugees, or as recipient of subsidiary and humanitarian protection. But there is a way out of this impasse. Migrants can appeal the decision of the Territorial Commission, in a tribunal of first instance. This procedure in Italian is called ricorso, and again it is taken care of by the management body of the CAS. The good side about this is that pending their ricorso asylum seekers do not incur the cessation of their accoglienza, their right to reside in a CAS. And more interestingly, with the processing times of the Italian justice system, their permanence can be extended at least for another 1 to 2 years, until all the judicial processes have been exhausted.

A completely different scenario opens up instead when applicants are granted a form of international protection. In this case they receive a regular residence permit – between 2 and 5 years, depending on the profile – and then they must leave the CAS. In principle within 15 days! Of course nobody is attracted by such an eventuality. It would mean losing access to their shelter, full board, pocket money, and maybe the possibility to integrate their meagre earnings with some menial activities. Most probably the street would be their only other option.

Paradoxically, as things are now, those who are recognised as refugees, or as recipient of other forms of international protection, are more in trouble than those who can appeal the decision. Fortunately enough however, recognition rates are so low that those few people challenged by such a positive outcome have managed to remain and stay in the same centres, or to be transferred to the SPRAR system.[8] Yet, the contradiction in the structure remains striking. Asylum seekers, as they are all legally handled by the system in place, have all interest in seeing their request being rejected. In that case, and only in that case, they can make a ricorso, and extend the amount of time they can count on an assured form of subsistence.

Guilty Consciousness and Abdicating Self-Reliance

Many different variables are at play in this entire story: the situation in the country of origin, personal biographies, media coverage, level of education, ignorance, and manipulated expectations. Within this analysis I am focussing on the migratory flows that merge in Libya – from Western and Eastern Africa alike, as well as from other countries (Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.) – and then reach Italy across the sea, along the so called Central Mediterranean Route. Exception made for a few countries or regions (Eritrea, South-Central Somalia, South Sudan, Darfur, North-Eastern Nigeria, etc…), it can be maintained that these migrations are mixed in nature.[9] Of course, it can only be properly appraised on a case by case basis, and after listening to individual stories, when they are not made up. Nevertheless, with a certain degree of approximation, and based on the insights of both migrants and application’s officers, I am putting forward that these flows revolve around a strong drive to thrive, if not entirely in the motivations backing people’s departure, in their pursued goals and aspired outcomes. However, migrant’s expectations and intentions are not met – as it is manifest in the expedient of the ricorso – by the provisions of the international legal framework in force, which so obstinately mistake them for mere refugees.

Why on earth does this approach remain unchallenged? At a closer look, it seems that it can harmoniously accommodate a triple set of interests: of (mixed) migrants, of service providers all along the way, and of those more concerned with security issues, who aim to control the final steps of the process. It has become a vicious cycle. Safeguarding people’s dignity is supposed to be the underpinning value that justifies migrants’ reception. Yet, people’s dignity is rather questioned by a system that has a seamless racialist foundation all along the way. Work experiences in Libya, sea crossings on board of rubber boats, and hosting facilities in destination countries, they all recall forms of discrimination, segregation, and enslavement. Finally, once in Italy, the system in place is the reproduction of an asymmetric and postcolonial approach that is complemented by diffused level of vulnerability and helplessness. Circumstances that work as pre-conditions for the unquestionable acceptance of a prolonged state of captivity. The white man’s burden, as nurtured by a guilty consciousness, is matched by widespread dependence, inexperience, and abdicated self-reliance on the side of the migrants, who have finally made it to the land of plenty. There are exceptions though. However, many of these boys and girls, having ignorance as their best accomplice, believe that it would be enough to put a foot in the door of Europe in order to be well. And while doing so they tend to re-appropriate white social assistance narratives.

Migrations have always characterised the history of humanity, it is often stressed. And it should be the right of everyone to migrate where she/he would like to. By looking at history one is reminded of Latinos in the USA, Turks in Germany, or Italians in Australia, to speak about only a certain form of classed migration. They have never migrated like this new generation of migrants is doing though, notwithstanding all issues they were confronted with. Is this one at stake a new form of migration then? In the current scenario the mediatised emergency has contributed to confusion and to tarring everybody with the same brush. The dominant feature along the Central Mediterranean Route remains its racialist outlook. Slaves of the traffickers first, slaves of the system in place and of their own (original) false expectations afterwards. What can be done? It is a matter of lack of information and ignorance that are to be tackled starting from the countries of origin. But it is also a matter of enabling the irregular to become regular, of giving the people the possibility to migrate with dignity, skipping deadly crossing and inefficient limbos or ghettos. Finally, once in the destination country, the migratory process should remain primarily self-managed by the individual or the family concerned, with a good deal of self-reliance, like it has always been the case.


Photo: the image accompanying this article is a re-worked verions of an original picture, Migrants, by Jean Mohr, appeared on a re-edition of John Berger and Jean Mohr, A Seventh Man, Verso, 2010. The book was first published in 1975 by Penguin Books.

  1. The Refugees’ Reception System in place in Tuscany and elsewhere in Italy. For more details about it see my post Would-be Refugees and Migrants as Tourists in Tuscany’s Mugello on Security Praxis, February 2016. ↩︎

  2. See statistics from the Italian Ministry of the Interior, Cruscotto Statistico Giornaliero al 16 Agosto 2016; from Frontex, Number of migrants arriving in Italy up 12% in July, http://frontex.europa.eu/news/number-of-migrants-arriving-in-italy-up-12-in-july-Nkrpt5; from Migrant Report, http://migrantreport.org/map/GeoPortal.htmlv; all retrieved on 17 August 2016. All sources speak about 25000 migrants arriving in Italy in July 2016, and over 100.000 migrants in total in mid August since the beginning of the year. ↩︎

  3. Just a land rather than a proper country or state. ↩︎

  4. See Italian Ministry of the Interior, Cruscotto Statistico Giornaliero al 16 Agosto 2016, retrieved 17 August 2016 http://www.libertaciviliimmigrazione.dlci.interno.gov.it/it/documentazione/statistica/cruscotto-statistico-giornaliero. ↩︎

  5. First migrants are briefed about the possibility to apply as asylum seeker, during the so called Informativa. Afterwards they forward their application assisted by their management body. ↩︎

  6. CAS of San Godenzo (24 people), and CAS of Mucciano (25 people), in the Mugello Region, Tuscany. Data are in line with other centres as reported by officers and coordinators. ↩︎

  7. There are no available statistics so far, this data is drawn from interviews with operators held in August 2016. ↩︎

  8. The SPRAR, System for the Protection of Asylum Seekers and Refugees, manages a total of about 3000 places distributed nationally. For more details http://www.sprar.it/. ↩︎

  9. They present at the same time forms of agency and forms of coercion, factual or perceived. More on this in "Forced Migration and “Rejected Alternatives”: A Conceptual Refinement", by David Bartram, Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, 13:439–456, 2015. ↩︎