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Migrants are crowded together on deck of the rescue ship "Eleonore" as it seaches for a safe port in the Mediterranean. The "Eleonore" took in the migrants on August 26, 2019 off the Libyan coast, as their boat was sinking. © 2019 Johannes Filous/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

(Milan) – Italy’s Democratic Party-Five Star Movement coalition government should revoke anti-asylum and anti-rescue measures held over from the previous government, Human Rights Watch said today. The government is expected to propose modifications to two so-called security decrees pushed through by the previous coalition government between the Five Star Movement and the League Party.

“This is a chance for Italy to restore humane and decent policies for people who need our help – humanitarian permits to remain, an exemplary reception system, and a commitment to saving lives at sea and ensuring disembarkation at a safe port,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s an opportunity the government should take to restore Italy’s leadership and global moral standing.”

In 2018 and 2019, the then-interior minister and head of the League Party, Matteo Salvini, pushed through two government decrees, later converted into law by the parliament. The decrees and laws eviscerated Italy’s asylum procedure and reception system, and formalized Salvini’s “closed ports” policy, which blocked boats seeking to disembark people rescued in the Mediterranean Sea.

In September 2019, the incoming coalition government – without the League – indicated its intention to modify the decrees. But the current interior minister, Luciana Lamorgese, has suggested tweaks rather than a deep reform. The decrees are so problematic that they should be revoked outright, Human Rights Watch said. The government should move quickly to restore protections that were abolished or weakened by the decrees. The moves should include:

  • Abolishing fines on rescue ships. The June 2019 decree, “Urgent measures concerning public security and order,” converted into law in August, gave the interior minister the authority to deny permission to enter or stay in Italian waters to any ship under suspicion of violating Italian immigration laws. It imposed fines of between 150,000 and 1 million euros on shipmasters, and immediate seizure of the ship for entering Italian waters without authorization or failure to obey instructions.

    These provisions sought to legalize a practice of delaying or refusing disembarkation of people rescued at sea. The provisions violate international human rights norms and the law of the sea, and discourage shipmasters from fulfilling their moral and legal obligation to respond to ships in distress at sea. Citing law of the sea and human rights norms, including the right to life, six United Nations experts concluded that “search and rescue operations aiming at saving lives at sea cannot represent a violation of national legislation on border control or irregular migration.” The experts stressed that Italy has obligations to not engage in acts that would jeopardize the right to life, and to “seek and facilitate humanitarian action.”

  • Reinstating residency permits for humanitarian reasons. The October 2018 decree, “Urgent measures on international protection, immigration, and public security,” converted into law in December 2018, abolished this third, complementary, level of protection. The measure had allowed many people to remain in Italy due to hardships experienced at home and on their migration journeys. These residency permits were granted for two years, renewable, allowed beneficiaries to work, and could be converted into other types of residency permit.

    Whereas before asylum adjudicators had discretion to grant humanitarian protection for a wide variety of situations, the 2018 decree restricts temporary protection to a list of existing and new grounds, including medical treatment, natural calamity in one’s country of origin, and acts of particular civic virtue. The permits vary in duration and the opportunity for conversion into longer-term residency, and largely deny beneficiaries access to specialized shelters and integration support.

    The abolition of the humanitarian protection permit contributed to an increase in negative decisions on asylum applications, from 67 percent in 2018 to 80 percent in the first 10 months of 2019. A study by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies estimated that these changes will increase the number of undocumented migrants in Italy by the end of 2020 by 70,000 more than if the humanitarian permit had remained in place.

  • Restoring Italy’s model reception system. The SPRAR (Protection System for Refugees and Asylum Seekers) network of dedicated shelters with trained staff provided exemplary accommodation, care, and services to vulnerable asylum seekers as well as recognized refugees. The 2018 decree effectively excluded all asylum seekers from these reception centers by creating the SIPROIMI (Protection System for beneficiaries of International Protection and for Unaccompanied Foreign Minors), reserved only for recognized refugees and unaccompanied children. This condemned even the most vulnerable asylum seekers to remaining in first-line reception centers, where already often inadequate conditions and care have deteriorated as authorities slashed budgets.

    Recently, the Council of Europe Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO) expressed concern that the reception conditions and access to essential services for women victims of gender-based violence were “likely to deteriorate.”

  • Limiting detention pending deportation. The 2018 decree doubled the length of time people can be locked up pending deportation, from 90 days to 180. It also allowed authorities to detain people for up to 30 days upon arrival in so-called hotspots for the purposes of identification and registration. Although the European Union law allows for immigration-related detention of up to 18 months, it requires detention to be for as short a period as possible and only for as long as the authorities demonstrate due diligence to effectively repatriate the individual, while also allowing member states to adopt more favorable provisions.

    The Global Compact on Migration, agreed upon in December 2018 and representing international consensus, commits countries to use detention only as a last resort and to work toward alternatives. Italy is among a handful of nations that did not endorse the compact.

In addition to these measures, the 2018 decree also expanded grounds for denying and revoking international protection, and denied asylum seekers the right to register with local authorities with the effect of denying them access to certain services. At the time, 13 United Nations human rights experts expressed “grave concern” that taken as a whole, the measures in the decree “fundamentally undermine human rights principles, and will certainly lead to violations of international human rights law.”

While the Five Star Movement-Democratic Party coalition said it would modify the decrees in September 2019, shortly after Salvini and his League Party left the government, it postponed doing so until after the January 2020 regional elections.

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