At a busy office in central Rome, the man who oversees Italy’s national network of committees that process asylum requests sits behind a desk with tall piles of folders.
Angelo Trovato says each committee has three members — representing police, local authorities and the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.
“Each applicant is interviewed by one committee member,” says Trovato. “But when it comes to deciding the destiny of an individual, the decision can’t be by a single person. It must be reached collectively.”
Rifling through his paperwork, he pulls out a sheet and points out that, in just two years, the number of committees has grown from 10 to 48.
In 2016, Italy overtook Greece as Europe’s primary place of entry for migrants, with nearly 180,000 arrivals, slightly more than Greece’s 175,000. An EU agreement with Turkey to prevent migrants from disembarking dramatically reduced the more than 1 million refugees who arrived in Greece in 2015.
In Italy, there are fewer arrivals from the Middle East and many more from sub-Saharan Africa. With Italy’s EU partners setting up stricter border controls, the majority of migrants cannot move to Northern Europe where there are more employment opportunities.
Several member states have also refused to take in migrants under an EU plan that would relocate 40,000 asylum seekers in other countries.
Italy is now tackling a surge in asylum seekers, though most migrants have no idea what the process entails. As of early December, some 116,000 migrants had filed requests for asylum this year, almost five times as many as in 2013.
Persecution or poverty?
Trovato says the committees must judge whether in their countries of origin applicants face persecution due to race, religion, ethnicity, membership in a special group or for political views, as established by international conventions.
Or whether they’re just fleeing poverty, and therefore should be sent home.
“In every interview,” says Trovato, “we guarantee the presence of an interpreter who speaks the applicant’s native language in order to determine whether he fulfills asylum requirements.”
One asylum committee is located just down the hall from Trovato’s office. Some 20 African migrants, mostly men, sit in chairs along a long corridor.
Many are restless, some whisper to each other, others hold their paperwork tightly. They’re all waiting to be interviewed.
One young man, speaking French, says he is from Guinea in West Africa.
Asked his name, he says Toure’ Sekou. Maybe it really is his name, but Sekou Toure’ is also the name of his country’s first president. Like many migrants, this young man is fearful and diffident toward strangers.
Asked to tell his story, he says, “I prefer to tell it to the interviewer, I don’t like to talk too much.”
The entire asylum process can take from a few months to more than a year. A positive result depends on how believable the applicant’s story is.
Barbara Boni, a lawyer who does pro bono work with asylum seekers, says the newly arrived are often still in a state of shock from the perilous sea crossing. And those fleeing persecution or conflict often don’t have documents to prove it.
“Asylum seekers often leave out details they don’t think are important,” says Boni. “If they’re not prepared beforehand, they generally speak very little and that hurts their chances.”
Figuring out the system
For help navigating the system and legal advice, migrants can go to an immigration services center in Rome.
One of the volunteers is Abiba Outtara, who has lived in Italy since 2007. Outtara was granted asylum thanks to medical records that proved she had been tortured in jail during civil strife in her native Ivory Coast.
Trained as a nurse, she says her job now resembles that of a therapist, carefully probing to discover the real dramas often buried deep inside many migrants. Most of them, she says, don’t even know what asylum is.
“Most of them have probably been living for years under a dictatorship,” Outtara says, adding, “They tell the interviewer a different story, because they don’t even know what persecution is.”
With migrant arrivals surging, so are asylum rejections. This year, committees turned down 57 percent of requests.
But under Italian law, all migrants have a right to appeal in the civil court system, and courts are generally more lenient than the committees.
According to the migrant grapevine, perhaps as many as half the committee rejections are ultimately overturned. But the process can take years.