Guest post by Alberto Mallardo. Alberto is working at Mediterranean Hope, a project of the Federation of protestant churches in Italy. In Lampedusa, he provides support to migrants that pass through the island, enhances local community’s involvement and empowerment and informs and raises awareness on migration populations. Alberto graduated from London Metropolitan University with an MSc in Health and Social Services Management and Policy. This is the second instalment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on 'Seeking Refuge in Europe' organised by Monish Bhatia.

As possibilities for legal means of migration to Europe have become more and more restricted since the 1990s, especially for economic migrants, the use of illicit means of transport has increased. Although EU member states have a shared responsibility to welcome asylum seekers, few of them have taken in a significant number through resettlement programmes. Furthermore, to apply for asylum in any EU member state, a refugee must physically reach Europe. Without access to visas, the only alternative left to many is to risk their lives at sea.

Drawing by Francesco Piobbichi

Migration journeys are lengthy, costly and psychologically devastating. Along the way, people may be abused and exploited by organised crime networks, smugglers, armed groups, officials and local population. While in transit, migrants may be placed in squalid prisons, locked up for months, transferred from one place to another until they are forced to embark on precarious journeys on rubber boats. In the last 16 years, more than 46,000 people have died globally attempting to cross a border. According, to the IOM ‘Missing migrant’ project, the Mediterranean Sea is the world’s most dangerous route, claiming the lives of 3770 people in 2015, more than 5000 in 2016 and so far, 600 in 2017.

These deaths are a direct consequence of the international community's collective failure to implement a credible plan of humanitarian aid to refugees. As noticed by Roberts, Murphy and McKee, the refugee crisis has raised urgent questions about the quality of political leadership to ensure effective and adequate measures ‘both to stabilise the countries from which migrants are coming, thereby reducing the pressure to move, and to make the positive case for migration in a continent experiencing a rapid decline in birth rate.’ Civil society organisations have often filled the void of this political inaction, by providing adequate basic services to those in need. Their involvement should not abrogate states or for this matter, the EU from protecting people on the move. These initiatives instead indicate a new direction for effective and responsive interventions to the refugee crisis.

One of the best examples of civic actions can be found in the ‘Humanitarian Corridors’ (HC) pilot project, carried out in Italy by the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy, the Community of Sant'Egidio and the Waldensian and Methodist Churches based on an agreement with the Italian Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs. This initiative responded to the May 13, 2015 recommendation by the European Commission that ‘member states should use to the full the other legal avenues available to persons in need of protection, including private/non-governmental sponsorships and humanitarian permits, and family reunification clauses.’ It envisaged the safe and legal arrival in Italy, over a two-year period, of thousands of refugees in so called 'vulnerable conditions' from Lebanon and Morocco regardless of their religious and ethnic backgrounds. These two countries were selected due to their role as transit countries for people fleeing the Syrian conflict and the Sub-Saharan violence. There were also numerous NGOs and churches already involved in supporting refugees there.

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As Vicki Squire has recently emphasized, the rationale of this ecumenical initiative is very different to other tools of private/non-governmental sponsorships and should be considered as distinct and complementary to resettlement. On the one hand, it grants a safe and legal entry to Italy to vulnerable people ‘in evident need of protection’ who have been identified in a first stage of assessment as prima facie refugees. On the other hand, it takes into deep consideration all those individual cases determined by personal situation, age and health status which are not a priority in the Geneva Convention. Therefore, the initiative involves vulnerable people such as: 1) victims of conflict, persecution, torture and violence; 2) women, particularly pregnant women and single mothers; 3) unaccompanied minors; 4) trafficking victims; 5) disabled people or those affected by serious diseases. This means that people who meet one or more of those criteria could be entitled to an entry visa with limited territorial validity, according to article 25 of EC Regulation no. 810/2009 of 13 July 2009, which established the ‘Community code on visas’. This essentially gives a member state the possibility to issue visas for humanitarian reasons or national interest or because of international obligations.

To analyse the holistic approach adopted by ‘HC’, we should take into careful consideration its ‘three steps’ structure which guarantees to a selected number of vulnerable people a safe journey to Italy and support through settlement and integration once arrived. First, the ‘HC’ staff carry out exploratory visits to refugee camps in the chosen countries. At this stage, building a strong local network with UNHCR and other national and international NGOs is vital to identify potential beneficiaries. Once identified the staff conduct interviews with them in order to assess the conditions of vulnerability linked not only with their health status but also with socio-economic factors. Individual cases are then passed on to the Italian authorities to be checked and approved.

Simone Scotta, member of the Mediterranean Hope équipe in Lebanon, stated: ‘Our role in Lebanon is not easy, or at least is not experienced as such.’ The same perspective comes from Francesco Piobbichi, member of the same équipe: ‘Hundreds of Syrian refugees we have spoken with, in these months, told us they live with the fear of being arrested as undocumented people. They are blackmailed, without any rights or protection, forced to work for 12-14 hours a day with an hourly wage around $2’.

In this context, the ‘HC’ project provides security to refugees, saving them from embarking on deadly journeys across the Mediterranean and preventing their exploitation by smuggling and trafficking networks. As DeBono notes, this initiative is safe not just for refugees but also for the people who welcome them.

The second step includes securing a safe flight to Italy. Instead of the smuggling odyssey which many migrants go through, under this project people experience this life-changing journey with dignity and luggage. They do not have to sell everything before leaving their homes since the team plans and organises the flight and social workers wait for the beneficiaries at the airport in Rome.

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The third and final step, unlike what happens in similar projects, is the support of beneficiaries through the phases of reception and socio-economic integration. Most of the beneficiaries are welcomed in structures ran by the Waldensian Diakonia - Diaconia Valdese (CSD). This strategic partnership between the proponents and other organisations in Italy benefits from the long-standing experience gained by the latter over the years. ‘The idea is to spread the hospitality over several locations’ explained Federica Brizi, responsible for the hospitality aspect of the project for the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy . ‘We cooperate with those who have been working for years with refugees and migrants, such as the diaconal center “La Noce” in Palermo, the Solidarity Network of Municipalities in Calabria and other churches and organisations which can count on specific expertise in asylum seekers’ reception and integration’, she continues.

By questioning the distinction between refugees and economic migrants, the HC pilot project broadens the existing avenues for applying for international protection. Furthermore, it seeks to counteract the political decision to block legal channels of access to the EU. As stressed by the coordinator of the FCEI's initiative, Professor Paolo Naso, ‘although the ‘HC’ project cannot represent the solution, it can be seen as an innovative ready-to-use tool included within the Schengen regulation framework’. Finally, the ‘HC’ project does not carry any costs for the Italian Government because all the expenses are covered by the organisations involved. A big portion has been funded directly by the Waldensian Church through the ‘eight per thousand’ tax while other costs have been covered by the Community of Sant’ Egidio. More importantly, the reception and integration services offered immediately upon arrival, challenge the existing Italian reception system to further develop innovative strategies for migrants’ integration.

Still, the small number of the project’s beneficiaries reminds us that governments still play the main role in providing safe and legal access to Europe. National schemes for the issuing of humanitarian visas have generally been deployed on an exceptional basis due to lack of political support for them. In a political climate that favours deterrence of asylum seekers and prioritises detention and deportation as measures to deal with large numbers of people, a project that focuses on the vulnerability of other human beings stands out. 

In conclusion, the Humanitarian Corridors project offers a sign of hope to create safe and legal routes to allow refugees to reach Europe in an alternative and sustainable way. The Italian example has been recently followed by France which signed a Memorandum of Understanding to open ‘HC’ that will ensure, within the next one and half years, the safe arrival of 500 Syrian and Iraqi refugees presently living in Lebanon. The idea is that other countries will follow the same example. Quoting Rev. Martin Luther King: ‘Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' Vanity asks the question, 'Is it popular?' But, conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one's conscience tells one that it is right’.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Mallardo, A. (2017) Humanitarian Corridors: A Tool to Respond to the Refugees’ Crisis. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/05/humanitarian (Accessed [date]).