Interview. ‘Operators don’t know how to act in the face of this new health emergency.’ We spoke with the president of the Italian Solidarity Consortium in Trieste.

Forgotten in the Italian coronavirus emergency: asylum seekers

“The government has in fact forgotten thousands of people,” says Gianfranco Schiavone, vice-president of the Association for Legal Studies on Immigration (ASGI), president of the Italian Solidarity Consortium NGO in Trieste and member of the national Forum per Cambiare l’Ordine delle Cose (“Forum for Changing the Order of Things”).

He said asylum seekers and workers in the field “don’t know how to act” in response to the coronavirus emergency because they haven’t been given any indications from the authorities.

“We don’t feel that we would be able to close down, because people from the Balkan route keep arriving here, and they must be able to access the asylum protection and reception procedure,” Schiavone said by phone from his Trieste office. “And we, as the first access point, must guarantee this possibility, respecting the law and, of course, all the necessary procedures.”

This possibility is being offered in Trieste; however, it is not the same throughout the country, where there is a serious lack of protection because of a severe institutional absence. “A ministerial memo would have been necessary, with concrete indications on how to respect the fundamental principles of asylum norms, obviously in a way that would be compatible with the current situation. But it never materialized.”

And so it happens that situations that cannot be postponed have now ground to a halt, such as requests for asylum protection and reception, which are deeply linked because without the former it is impossible to access the latter, with the serious risk of being left homeless. “Everything that can wait, such as the official reports or the interviews at the Commission, should be suspended: everything will be delayed, unfortunately, but these can wait. But it is not possible to block requests for asylum protection and reception, which can be organized if we think about different ways to do it.”

“In Trieste, for example, we proceed in agreement with the police, which suspends the report process, registers the person and issues a certificate confirming the request for asylum protection, with which reception can be accessed immediately.” This agreement was also made possible by the fact that “we are not in a territory where migrant reception is fragmented. But think of the areas where many different institutions are operating: without indications and with the prefectures closed, it’s all chaos.” Precisely for this reason, Schiavone is urging the government to issue “operational instructions to all the peripheral offices, both to the police, which is responsible for the requests for asylum protection, and to the prefectures, which are the contact points for reception.”

Another crucial issue has also become urgent: the exclusion of many people from the reception system due to the elimination of the humanitarian protection status by Salvini’s security decrees. In this case as well, these people are completely ignored by the presidential decree regarding the COVID-19 emergency.

To generalize, we are encountering critical issues that have been publicly denounced for a long time, but never addressed by the institutions: in particular, this is the case with the reception of asylum seekers, concentrated in large collective institutions, a situation even more widespread after the cuts and policies of the previous government—and the current government has not accomplished any serious course change in this regard. “We are talking about structures with a capacity of up to three hundred people, which are struggling to comply with the official provisions, with easily predictable consequences not only in terms of contagion, but also in terms of the impact on the healthcare system.”

These problems are well known, but so far they have been swept under the rug by the institutions; they represent burdens on a number of marginalized and excluded population groups, and there is the risk that they will now suddenly explode into full-fledged crises.

More generally, in addition to asylum seekers, there are problems concerning “low-threshold services, for example for homeless people,” Schiavone stresses, referring to all those situations that can also affect Italian citizens in need, for which “there has always been a derogation on everything: personal space, hygiene standards, sometimes even security measures.”

The government has not even issued a provisional order to authorize municipalities and civil protection units to provide facilities and shelters so as not to leave anyone on the street. “The government has not thought about the thousands of people who are in a condition in which they don’t have the option to stay at home. Provisions should be made for the extension of low-threshold services, including for covering the expenses.” 

This should have been done immediately. Instead, not only do we have thousands of people who don’t exist from the point of view of the decrees, but even now, the reaction of politicians to the needs that have been brought to their attention is non-existent. This is a serious political fault, “an even greater one if you take into account the fact that we have a center-left government,” Schiavone points out.

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