Guest post by Ismail Oubad. Ismail recently graduated from the Department of Sociology at the University of Meknes, Morocco. His research interests include the governance of protection seekers in Italy. In particular, he is interested in exploring asylum determination and bureaucratic renewal procedures as experienced by Sub-Saharan refugees, privileging the testimonies of migrants.

The temporary legal status of protection constitutes a critical issue for refugees in Italy. When former Minister of Interior Matteo Salvini took power in June 2018, debates about how better to protect the country from ‘illegal’ migrants took center stage, placing further emphasis on the security and defense of public order. The Security and Immigration Decree, also known as Salvini’s Decree, converted into law in December 2018, was a direct consequence of this approach. The Decree, inter alia, substantially abrogated the ‘humanitarian protection’ permit for asylum seekers, reducing the scope of this protection to categories of special cases or special protection, rarely applied to migrants coming from so-called ‘safe’ countries of origin. As a result of this reform, humanitarian protection holders, including Sub-Saharan refugees, have been forced into complicated bureaucratic renewal procedures.

This post draws on research I conducted for my MA thesis in Venice, Italy, from November 2019 to June 2020. I conducted biographical interviews and ethnographic observations in order to explore the quest for legal protection by Sub-Saharan refugees who fled to Italy upon the fall of Gaddafi and Ben Ali regimes, and how this quest has been affected by the Security and Immigration Law.

My interviewees highlighted their experiences and challenges in navigating an increasingly complex system and relayed the challenges they faced. The shift from humanitarian protection to a residence permit for work purposes (which requires an employment contract) left many irregularised. They also recounted postponements, limiting the duration of documents and arbitrary immigration decisions. As Onbgwa (pseudonym) recounts:

I don’t understand how these people work… changing laws… I did not know about it at that time. The Questura did not accept the papers I brought to them. I spent all day queuing with a bunch of papers in my hands […] when I meet the officer; he said I have to talk to my lawyer and see with Ministero dell'Interno (Ministry of Interior) because I am no longer a refugee”.

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Migrants arrived the night before; they sleep on cartons in the hope of being among the firsts to enter the Immigration Office in Marghera, Italy. ©: Elenora Biral

In the quest to maintain his refugee status, Onbgwa went on to describe how he navigated the intricacies of the new provisions. In November 2018, he went to the appointment with the Immigration Office (Questura). Although the Security and Immigration Law entered into force only on 3rd of December 2018, the immigration officer who attended him refused to renew Onbgwa’s document. He was also told that he no longer complied with the existing legal protection channels since he was from Senegal, considered as a ‘safe’ country of origin. Notwithstanding the constraints, Ongbwa managed to secure a lawyer and challenge the argument of the Questura.

“After four months I received a special protection document. And now I have to renew it every year. Who knows they might take it from me and refuse to renew it someday […] a document valid for one year, why? For the nine years I spent in Italy?

Unfortunately, Onbgwa’s situation is not unique. The new reform has in fact affected many Sub-Saharan refugees, whose cases were considered not ‘sufficiently’ compliant with the renewal criteria in force. Unlike Onbgwa, however, other people were not so successful in challenging the decisions of the immigration authority. Abimbo (pseudonym), for example, did not manage to maintain a protection status. In the absence of legal assistance to challenge the Questura’s decision, he was deemed ineligible for protection and therefore was forced to shift to a residence permit for work purposes to avoid irregularity.

When I wanted to renew my umanitaria (humanitarian protection document) they refused, because of the new law. Luckily, I owned a work contract of six months, so I had to do the procedure from zero. Now, no longer umanitaria… I came from Nigeria and they say that I cannot have protection since there is no war in my country”.

Acquiring a residence permit to work, however, was not an easy endeavor. As a result, a lot of people who lacked employment contracts were forced into irregularity. The only chance for this group of people was to wait for the amnesty for regularization, which was one of the measures of the re-launch decree, implemented to revitalize the Italian economy after the Covid-19 lockdown. Asylum seekers with invalid documents could also benefit from this amnesty, on the condition that their employers declared their ‘clandestine’ employment situation.

Overall, the refugees I met and talked to described these bureaucratic procedures as a mechanism for sorting, filtrating and controlling their access and maintenance of refugee statuses and, to a certain extent, hindering their chance to engage in onward mobilities. As Sisco (pseudonym) emphasizes:

 “You see, it takes a while to have your papers done… I wait here till I get what is needed, but one day I will be done and I will have a good document, then I will move”.

At the time of the interview, my interviewees had been in Italy for an average of eight years. According to them, a legal status would not only allow them to settle in the country but also assist their potential mobility projects.

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Migrants queuing at the Immigration Office in Marghera, Italy. ©: Vanderlei Bailo

As my research clearly shows, ‘irregularity’ is not merely a condition which exists at the beginning of the asylum labyrinth. Testimonies from those affected by border control in Italy underline how irregularization can occur again at more advanced stages of the legal pathway. In fact, the enforcement of coercive immigration laws disrupt, fragment, and decelerate refugees’ projects and lead them into irregularity at various points in time. Nevertheless, people caught up in these legal intricacies struggle to navigate the existing legal channels and finds their way out. Their continuous pursuit of a legal status in a confining legal ‘maze’ is a resistance tactic against the coercive immigration law enforcement.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Oubad, I. (2021). Disrupted Protection: Lived Experiences of Sub-Saharan Refugees with Temporary Protection in Italy. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/06/disrupted [date]