In the video you see a naked man being hosed down, while another naked male (who looks quite young) stands nearby, waiting for his turn in the December air. Other migrants and asylum seekers, clothed, appear to be standing in line. The video was shot three days ago by a Syrian asylum seeker at the “reception center” on Lampedusa, the tiny Italian island in the Mediterranean where thousands of boat migrants arrive each year. Among the hundreds currently held in the center are some of the survivors of the tragic October shipwreck in which 366 people died.
The images of what appears to be degrading treatment have rightly provoked condemnation. Prime Minister Enrico Letta and Interior Minister Angelo Alfano have promised a full inquiry, and the prosecutor’s office has opened a criminal investigation. EU Home and Justice Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström called the images “appalling and unacceptable” and promised that her office would demand an explanation.
Proper investigation and accountability are vital, but this latest episode should also prompt a broader reflection on the chronic problems with Italy’s reception of asylum seekers and its failure to properly integrate recognized refugees. Human rights groups and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have for years highlighted Italy’s poor reception and detention conditions, abusive treatment, and lack of integration measures for recognized refugees. Part of the problem is the failure to transfer people quickly from Lampedusa to more appropriate mainland centers.
Thousands of migrants and asylum seekers arrive in Italy by boat every year – 40,000 so far in 2013 – many from refugee-producing countries like Eritrea and, increasingly, Syria. But Italy has largely failed to implement a long-term approach. Indeed, authorities have often resorted to short-lived “emergency plans” that don’t guarantee consistent, adequate standards of treatment, conditions, and access to asylum.
Malmström flagged that the EU Commission was already looking into problems with Italy’s detention centers and asylum system – an open secret not acknowledged so clearly until now. The commission should persevere with a serious investigation, and follow through on Malmstrom’s clear signal that the commission “will not hesitate” to open infringement proceedings against Italy to ensure it respects EU reception standards. It should also carefully monitor the use of EU funds, including the additional €30 million allocated in the wake of the Lampedusa disaster. Italian authorities need to do much more to ensure that Italy is a place where those fleeing war, persecution, and poverty are treated with humanity.