Barney Cullum speaks to a Sudanese victim of Italy’s recently passed law that abolishes ‘humanitarian protection’ for those who have been refused asylum.
While studying geology at university in Libya, Sudanese asylum seeker Hitam Al-Sharif learned the difference between a rock and a hard place. Since his migrant boat moored in Italy eight years ago, after the outbreak of Libya’s 2011 civil war, he has found himself trapped between the two.
Germany had been Al-Sharif’s intended destination. Yet after surviving three nights at sea he was stopped by immigration officials on the Italian peninsula, still hundreds of miles south of the Alps.
His fingerprint was taken and filed in a European Union database called Eurodac, recording Italy as his ‘first safe country’. Having fled two of the world’s most dangerous states aged just 20, his life prospects rested on the welcome Italy would afford him.
Under the guiding principle of EU legislation known as the Dublin Convention, only Italy – as Al-Sharif’s acknowledged first safe country – is obliged to consider any asylum application he makes. Despite its obligations, and Al-Sharif’s compelling case for refugee status, the Italian interior ministry has been reluctant to help.
I meet Al-Sharif in Rome in early June. As we speak, a ‘transitional military government’ is throwing the bodies of dozens of pro-democracy protestors into the Nile in his native Sudan.
‘Has Italy ever given you refugee status?’ I ask. ‘Half-status,’ he replies, sounding defeated.
The 28-year-old is one of thousands of victims of the so-called ‘Salvini Decree’, passed in autumn 2018 and named after Italy’s interior minister. Matteo Salvini, one of two deputy prime ministers shaping a governing coalition, has formally abolished humanitarian protection for migrants deemed ineligible for refugee status. People previously given the right to remain in Italy for a definite period through humanitarian protection status are now expected to leave the country. Just this week, Salvini announced plans to fine NGOs as much as $57,000 for performing unauthorized migrant rescue operations.
Hitam says that has never been given a reason why Italy will not give him refugee status. He had reconciled himself to the idea that humanitarian protection status would suffice. The difference between the two statuses had little material impact before the decree. But now that the latter has been abolished, it is everything.
Al-Sharif is one of nearly a thousand asylum seekers from East Africa sleeping in a disused university building in Rome’s southern suburbs this summer. The cramped ‘Palace of Peace’, formerly the faculty of literature and philosophy at Tor Vergata University, has been occupied by vulnerable migrants since 2006. The majority today are of Sudanese or neighbouring Eritrean nationality, reflecting trends in boat migration to Italy. Records suggest only Tunisians made more sea crossings in 2018, although verification of citizenship is challenging.
‘I never thought I would be homeless when I was studying at university,’ Al-Sharif laughs ruefully. ‘But that has been my life for eight years now. Before I had dreams for what I would do with my degree, but I can’t remember them now. My dreams stayed in Africa when I left. Now I just try to live.’
The softly-spoken Sudanese inhales exaggeratedly at this point, as if to emphasise his point. Or perhaps it indicates tuberculosis, a prevailing condition among squatters here according to a recent Citizens of the World report. Many of the makeshift bedrooms in the fifteen-story building lack windows, and there is one toilet for every nineteen inhabitants. Some sleep in the car park of the tower’s foundations.
Salvini has previously pledged to deport 500,000 migrants but his new decree perhaps represents an acknowledgment that imposing homelessness is more achievable than mass deportations back to insecure states. Some 100,000 migrants across Italy will gradually lose their humanitarian status in the wake of the Salvini Decree. There are thought to be around 100 ‘squats’ in the Italian capital already.
‘People can be “illegalised”, but they won’t disappear from the local communities in which they live,’ says Lorenzo Vianelli, a researcher monitoring immigration policies in Italy. The policies will ‘lead to more squats or precarious living arrangements, as these people won’t have anywhere to go’.
Occupying buildings is itself being criminalised more harshly on Salvini’s watch too. Four-year prison sentences and steeper fines are now being applied.
Al-Sharif has fled Italy twice, to England and Germany, but on both occasions he was dispatched back to Rome under the Dublin agreement. This was despite speaking English and German fluently, holding a useful undergraduate qualification and seeking skilled work.
Issam Ibrahimi, another Sudanese migrant passing through the Selam Palace squat hopes the violence seen in his country this spring will be the last it experiences. It has endured two decades of bloodshed in which 300,000 people have died. ‘Nobody speaks about Sudan in Italy, neither the politicians nor the public,’ the 39-year-old says. ‘They talk about an “immigration problem”, without describing what has caused the migration, or what the problem it has supposedly caused is precisely. I would like to see Europe talking about how to broker democracy in my country, rather than talking about us a problem for Italy.’
Salvini, in his first speech after triumphing in last month’s European and local elections, spoke of ‘thousands and thousands of fake refugees who are here to deal drugs, steal, rape’ in a trademark Facebook Live address. Crime has actually decreased in Italy over the last decade. Convictions of foreigners specifically are reportedly at a record low.
Al-Sharif’s younger brother is now preparing to brave the sea crossing, his life placed in heightened danger by the escalating stand-off between military and civilians. ‘It is better he stays in Sudan,’ his older sibling now believes. ‘Yes there is war, it is very bad of course. But it is his country. He knows the people and the place; he can find ways of surviving. Here you don’t know where you are going to sleep or how you are going to eat. There is nothing else to do or to think about. I am ill from having too much time to think.’
Al-Sharif holds his head. Experiencing the anxieties and amnesia common to people who have been through multiple traumas, he needs psychological and practical support. Ibrahimi, who is sitting with us in the forecourt of the Selam squat, says that he trained as a social worker. He understands what his compatriot Al-Sharif is going through, professionally and personally, and knows how to help. But Italy won’t pay him to do so. He has recently been made redundant after six years supporting migrants, but not told why. ‘Italians have a problem communicating with us,’ he says.
Continents are divided by tectonic plates. A geologist can show you how they diverge.