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Sicily ‘hotspot’ to be prison-like centre

Justice & Home Affairs

Sicily ‘hotspot’ to be prison-like centre

Sicily's Pozzallo facility.

[Council of the European Union]

It will be one of Italy’s brand new hotspots for identifying newly-arrived migrants — but as the Pozzallo reception centre in Sicily prepares its fingerprinting kits, the EU-led plan for these facilities is still plagued with unresolved issues.

For now, the vast hangar overlooking the sea in southern Italy hosts the majority of migrants landing here each week, giving them time to wash and rest, before they are sent on to more permanent centres to file asylum requests.

From there, up to two thirds of the migrants ditch their newly found lodgings to continue their journey north towards a new life — creating a flow of undocumented people across borders that the European Union is determined to stem.

When Pozzallo becomes an official hotspot at the end of November, new arrivals will instead be obliged to provide their fingerprints as part of an asylum request, or be taken to a detention centre to await expulsion from Italy.

The hotspots will be closed-door centres, sharply reducing the chance that people can flee and head north off their own backs.

Those very likely to win refugee status — Syrians, Eritreans and Iraqis — will be fast-tracked and taken to a separate centre, where they will be divided up and distributed to other countries within the European Union.

But an experimental phase begun two weeks ago on Italy’s Lampedusa island has revealed potential stumbling blocks in the hotspot process.

What will happen if Syrian or Eritrean nationals refuse to give their fingerprints, seeing as they cannot be expelled? Would they be kept in a detention centre until they change their minds?

Once asylum seekers are sorted and placed in open centres, will Italy continue to look the other way if they hop the fence and head for the border?

And how easy will it be to convince those hoping to join relatives or friends in Germany and Sweden to accept a place in Portugal or Lithuania instead?

“They probably won’t be completely satisfied, but we try not to think about it, so as not to get demoralised,” Angelo Malandrino, deputy director of the civil liberties and immigration department at Italy’s interior ministry, told AFP.

Flaws in the system

Carlotta Sami, spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency in Italy, said the hotspot scheme “will work only if the rules are clear and the quality of reception is high right from the start”, adding that the agency would be keeping an eye on the process.

There will also be representatives from a whole host of other European bodies on site: the asylum support office (Easo), border control (Frontex), the EU’s law enforcement agency (Europol) and judicial network (Eurojust).

Priorities will not only include registering and caring for migrants, but also investigating the smuggling networks which load hundreds of people into rickety boats to cross the Mediterranean, and any possible terrorist threat from new arrivals.

While Pozzallo’s high walls give it a grim aspect, the inside is decorated with children’s drawings and multilingual signs. There is little privacy, however, with dozens of people sleeping side-by-side on closely packed bunk beds.

The centre was built to host 180 people but can house up to 250. With the other “hotspots” planned across the country, Italy’s total capacity will allow for some 1,500 people to go through the identification process at any one time.

Critics — who point out that arrivals of between 4,000 and 6,000 people in 48 hours are not uncommon in Italy — argue that the system is at risk of being quickly overstretched, and collapsing.

They also say the hotspot system will increase the load on Italy, which is already shouldering a mammoth task as a first point of call for people fleeing warzones and persecution.

Rome will help distribute Syrians and Eritreans across Europe, keeping them out of the hands of people-traffickers.

But the hotspot plan means nationalities that would otherwise have quickly moved on — Somalis, Sudanese and Ethiopians, for example — will now be forced to remain in Italy for up to 24 months while their asylum requests are processed.

According to the latest statistics, between January 2014 and May 2015, some 90,000 of the 217,000 migrants arriving in Italy applied for asylum.

Of the rest, over 37,000 were neither Syrians nor Eritreans — meaning that Rome may be looking at finding beds for close to 40,000 extra people once the hotspots launch.

And there will be another fallout: by holding on to a greater number of people whose asylum applications are less than guaranteed, Italy will likely see an increase ub the number of complex and expensive expulsions required.

That issue has already prompted the country to call for the creation of a European expulsion system.

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