Post by Lucia Beretta, Loretta Bondi, Francesca De Masi, Federica Festagallo, Oria Gargano, Marta Mearini, Rosa Paolella and Carla Quinto members of the Social Cooperative BeFree. This is the fifth instalment of the themed week on assessing border control practices in Italy. 

BeFree is a feminist Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) created in 2007. Its mandate is countering gender violence with a multidisciplinary approach. Steeped in the knowledge of economic, political and historical gender inequalities, BeFree’s activities include legal, social, and psychological support for women survivors of gender violence tailored to mitigate and correct such disparities in law and practice. Since 2008, BeFree has been working with foreign national women held in Rome’s Ponte Galeria detention centre [euphemistically called Centro di Permanenza per i Rimpatri-CPR] with a long-term project, named “Fuori Giogo”, funded by successive local administration institutions (Provincia di Roma and now Regione Lazio), and now called “Piano Regionale Antitratta Lazio” (see here). Indeed, all too often, foreign women survivors of gender violence, including human trafficking, are regarded as merely ‘illegal migrants’ and, as such, they are detained in Italian CPRs in order to be deported back to their countries of origin, where the cycle of violence begun and where they actually risk their life. BeFree’s work inside Ponte Galeria consists in offering these women psychological, social and legal assistance. Our approach is comprehensive and rejects a scope narrowly limited to the examination of these women’s ‘irregular’ status in Italy. Rather, we strive to offer a multi-layered, integrated and individually-tailored roster of services aimed at helping women to draw from their resourcefulness and resilience and pursue their aspirations. Our final goal is to help these women to build pathways to freedom and liberation, re-plan their lives, and claim their rights.  

Throughout the years, one of the main challenges that Befree’s advocates have faced in their weekly work at Ponte Galeria is that trafficked women detained in CPRs have no access to the so-called ‘social path’ to protection and integration that the Italian law provides under Article 18 of the 1998 Immigration Act. This norm grants foreign persons victims of trafficking a residence permit that is intended to both protect them from their perpetrators and allow them to escape conditions of exploitation. To obtain this residence permit, two alternative itineraries are available: the so-called social path (involving local authorities, associations and NGOs as main reference points) and the legal path (which is led by a public prosecutor). While in the first case victims ask for help and protection to social services or NGOs; in the latter case, the residence permit can be obtained when, from statements made to law enforcement or legal authorities during a criminal proceeding, it emerges that the person is in danger. In the face of this legal scenario, the staff of BeFree have worked to ensure that either the protection net provided by Article 18 be applied to women victims of trafficking detained inside Ponte Galeria, or that other forms of legal recourse be made available to these women, including international protection as asylum seekers.

However, and though BeFree’s feminist approach is based on empathy and solidarity, it is usually hard for women in detention to relate their traumatic experiences in conditions that do not facilitate trust-building. Many of these women often are not aware of being a victim of an international crime. Most ignore that they are entitled to protection, and even when they know the possibilities provided by the law, they are reluctant to press charges against their exploiters for fear of retribution for themselves and/or on their families. The reluctance in lodging a complaint is compounded by the fact that this does not grant them an immediate release from detention. Indeed, the decision to release and grant these women a residence permit rests on the immigration office, which has the discretion to decide whether or not to await the decision of the public prosecutor. It is only after the approval of the public prosecutor that women can be released in the community. It is also noteworthy that, in some cases, women’s repatriations have gone ahead even when a judicial procedure against traffickers had already been set in motion or when an appeal against an expulsion order was still pending before the court.

Ponte Galeria detention centre.

In August 2017, the UNHCR published the “Guide Lines for the Identification of victims of trafficking between applicants for international protection and referral procedures”. These guidelines stipulate the need for asylum commissions to address the phenomenon of trafficking, previously largely neglected in the asylum process and relegated only to the mechanism of Article 18 of the Immigration Act. Although an improvement towards the understanding of the trafficking phenomenon, and the acknowledgment that many survivors claim asylum upon entering Italy, the guidelines present many problems in their implementation. Overall, what BeFree has come to realize and expose is that this normative framework fails to fully acknowledge the complexity of the experiences of women victims of trafficking, which are never identical—and thus cannot be standardized. Rather, such experiences are marked by survivors’ multiple and layered strategies of resistance to violence and exploitation, as well as the mustering of their individual resilience.

Furthermore, in many cases, whether through the application of Article 18 or through the attainment of international protection, survivors of trafficking face many day-to-day hurdles. All too often, the process leading to a residence permit is lengthy and requires several steps (e.g., two or more hearings before the territorial commissions, i.e., semi-judicial bodies that oversees asylum requests) thus exposing women to prolonged waiting periods in unsuitable facilities and possible re-traumatization.

Demonstration against Border Control in Rome.

This situation has been compounded by a growing climate of restrictive policies towards migrants and increasing xenophobic narratives in public discourse. Today, early identification, support and protection for all victims of trafficking are jeopardised. On September 24, 2018, the Council of Ministers approved a new Decree on Security and Migration (later converted into Law 132/2018) which severely curtails rights in violation of the Italian Constitution and international law. One of the most troubling provisions of this legislative reform pertains to the scrapping of humanitarian protection that can now be granted only to specific categories of asylum seekers, such as those who stand out for “acts of particular civil value”, victims of domestic violence or serious labour exploitation, people in need of medical care, and, finally, people who come from a country that is in a temporary situation of “contingent and exceptional calamity”. A vast variety of civil society organizations have pointed out how the effects of this Decree will push further underground asylum seekers, prolong administrative detention, benefit traffickers and criminal organisations, and further exacerbate social tensions. Further, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees noted that a newly introduced additional security-oriented piece of legislation, the Legislative Decree n. 53 of 15 June 2019 – which curtails and penalises non-authorised rescue at sea operations – is in breach of international law in particular of the principle of non-refoulement. It is reasonable to expect that this law will also reverberate negatively on the rights and protection entitlements of victims of trafficking in human beings, and gender violence more generally.

For instance, negative effects are already emerging for what concerns the so-called ‘reiterated claims for international protection, that is, those applications that are presented after a first asylum claim was rejected (according to the Italian law a second claim can be presented if the person demonstrates that new relevant elements have arisen and that, therefore, another assessment of her claim is needed). Indeed, Law 132/2018, envisages that when a reiterated asylum claim is presented by a person who is subject to an expulsion order which is in the process of being enforced – that is the case of women detained in CPRs – this claim should be considered as inadmissible ex lege. The rationale behind this provision is that these claims are manipulative in their intent and primarily aimed at delaying the person’s removal from Italy. The effects of this provision on women victims of trafficking and gender violence are extremely detrimental. Women survivors of trafficking at the time of the first asylum claim – which usually take place when they arrive in Italy – are not in the condition of revealing their story of violence to the authorities interviewing them, as they are threatened by their traffickers and instructed to report ‘manufactured stories’ that are usually considered not reliable by authorities that, therefore, reject their claims. Preventing these women from presenting a second claim, and thus obtaining a second interview when they are ready to tell their story, represents a violation of their rights. Above all, such provision exposes women forcibly deported to their countries of origin to grave risks.

Concluding, it is important to emphasise that, against this background, it is urgent that these “security” laws be repealed. It is also crucial that victims of trafficking and other forms of gender violence be quickly identified and their rights upheld, including access to residence permits, justice, health services, food and adequate lodgings. To this end, well-trained staff who possess a gender-sensitive perspective must be made available throughout the migrants’ reception processes.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Beretta, L., Bondi, L., De Masi, F., Festagallo, F., Gargano, O., Mearini, M., Paolella, R. and Quinto, C. (2020). Women survivors of gender violence and the feminist work of BeFree inside Ponte Galeria detention centre in Rome. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/02/women-survivors(Accessed [date])