Italy: wait, wait, wait, the asylum procedure
08 October 2014

Man waits at CARA di Mieno (Oscar Spooner / Jesuit Refugee Service)
Rescued – What next? Protection seekers stranded in Sicily
Soccorsi e poi? Voci di rifugiati arrivati in Sicilia
There was only a handful of lawyers at CARA di Mineo to deal with the first-instance asylum claims of some 4,000 people.
Sicily, 8 October 2014 – Italy's asylum procedure was clearly a source of frustration, bewilderment and worry for the people we interviewed. Nothing new in this – asylum seekers in other host countries would say exactly the same about the unfriendly and confusingly bureaucratic systems they trust will deliver the protection they seek.

The reasons why are not hard to find. Most of the asylum seekers we met filed their application at CARA di Mineo and were inevitably called for their interview months later than promised. After a nervous time of waiting for the result, the asylum seekers were bitterly disappointed if they "got a negative" – as they put it. This is only natural: the solution they had pinned all their hopes on had been taken away, they wouldn't get the longed-for document. But their disappointment stemmed from something else too. Put simply, they just didn't expect it from Europe. They expected Europe to play the game, to consider their application fairly and according to human rights principles, so they felt short-changed when they got what they perceived to be an unfair rejection.

Government plans to at least double the number of refugee commissions should go some way in addressing delays in the processing of asylum applications. However, another source of frustration was that most asylum seekers did not receive the information and advice they needed to prepare for their interview before the local Refugee Commission and to navigate the asylum procedure. At the time we conducted our interviews, there was only a handful of lawyers at CARA di Mineo to deal with the first-instance asylum claims of some 4,000 people. Rejected asylum seekers who want to appeal may be referred to lawyers specialised in immigration law and some do benefit from this service. However not all lawyers are scrupulous in providing a proper service to their clients, with some picking up the fee per case provided by the state without paying much attention to their client's case. The upshot of all this – the delays, the lack of proper information and support, the rejections – is that some asylum seekers feel cheated.

All this is regrettable but still within the confines of the law. In the case of one young man we met, however, there was a clear breach of international law because he and some other Nigerians were denied the chance to apply for asylum. How many other cases like this occur, it is impossible to say.

Testimonies

Peter: "We came to Lampedusa on 19 June 2013, there were 84 people on our boat, but 22 were killed when we hit a ship and capsized. I am lucky; I could be a dead man now. I am at CARA di Mineo with my wife and five-month-old child and we have no documents yet... I went to the commission last month but have no result yet. Whenever I go to ask, they say wait, wait, wait... I've been waiting for 11 months, my mind is very hot now, it's not easy to be in one place for all this time, just to eat and sleep, eat and sleep. I am tired, I pray to God I can leave here and get a home and a job.

Samir:
"At CARA di Mineo, they gave us no guiding points about how to ask for asylum. So most of us just went for our interview without knowing anything about what the commission is and what the process is about. When I was there, I was appointed as my country's representative. Most of the migrants complained about documents. That was the biggest problem. They would come to tell us representatives to go and tell the commission to work faster. Once, we stayed up until 2am, trying to calm people down. If you see the migrants in the camp protesting on television, and you see the way they react, you probably think they're stupid or crazy. But it is what they face in the camp that pushes them to act in this way... the overcrowding, the isolation, the uncertainty over documents, the conditions... The authorities promised to do things but never did them and this discouraged me, because if you promise me something, I put it in my mind that I will have it and when it never comes, I get more and more frustrated."

Adam: "I was in Libya when the war broke out there. I was arrested and thrown into prison. Then I was taken to the beach with many others and told I had to go to Italy. I didn't want to go but I had to, I was put in a boat and reached Lampedusa. They fingerprinted me, asked me why I had come to Italy and then transferred me to CARA di Mineo. I was told that after six months, I would have my interview with the commission. This happened after nine months and my application for asylum was rejected. The day they gave me a negative decision, I couldn't believe it, because I thought there was peace and democracy in Europe; that Europeans know the law. I was very angry. I lost my parents and everything back home and I thought life would be better in Europe."

Issouf: "When I got a negative, I went crazy... I was supposed to leave the camp and return to my country, which I could not do – the others who had been arrested with me are still in prison to this day. For days I couldn't eat, I was thinking too much. Looking back now, I think it was because I was scared to tell my story in the interview. I thought they would check in the computer and send me back to my country. Then the Centro Astalli lawyer, who helped me with my appeal, told me it is ok to say my story, in fact I must tell it. I was not prepared for my first interview, I had no help, and I didn't know what questions I would be asked. I didn't know what I was saying. During the appeal, I explained my true story and I got a three-year document, which was later extended."

Abdul: "I told my story to the commission and I don't know why they rejected me. When we came here, we all accepted the law: they told us we had to stay here for six months. But I waited nine months for a negative reply and now I am still waiting."

Jonathon: "When I came to CARA di Mineo, they promised us that after five or six months we would go to the commission. I was called for my interview after 11 months and, after I went, I was rejected after three weeks. I've been unhappy and worried since... at midnight I wake up and I can't sleep. I can't go back to Nigeria so what shall I do? Should I kill myself or what? Someone committed suicide here, he hanged himself. Another tried to kill himself by setting himself on fire. I used to try to take an interest in things before but I don't anymore. I am too confused with the kind of life I am living. We are in a free land here but I feel there is no one to help us."

Godwin: "The Italian Navy rescued our boat and we arrived in Lampedusa and slept there. The following morning, they split us into three groups, put us in different boats and took us to Pozzallo. When we arrived there, they welcomed us, gave us clothes to change and something to eat. Then they started something like registration. The following morning, they segregated black people from the others, who made up the majority. Nigerians specifically were set apart. Some of the others were taken away by bus – to a camp, I was told when I tried to find out what was going on.

"The following day, another bus took away everyone except us Nigerians. We were the only ones left, 25 out of around 320 who were in the boat. We didn't know what was going on, what process or protocol they were following. I asked one of the women there and she said another bus was coming to take us to a camp because not everyone could go at once. Surprisingly, they called us and gave us a paper to sign, written in Italian words... I was the first one they called, I went into the office and there were a lot of policemen and other officers. I tried to ask them to translate the paper for me so I could understand what I was about to sign. But they told me there was no problem, I should sign, sign, sign. I tried to resist, saying I could not sign what I don't know and they should at least tell me what this is all about, but they pressurised me, saying I should sign. Looking at the police there, I felt intimidated and that I had to sign.

"When I came out, I looked for someone to translate and found a man who could speak a bit of English at the gate. I asked him to help me... after going through the paper, he told me it was an expulsion letter and that we should leave Italian territory within seven days. It was horrible. We had all signed and when we gathered together, we tried to say we were not going anywhere. But the police drove us onto the streets."