Afghanistan Analysts Network – English


Afghan Asylum Seekers in Italy: A place of temporary respite

Fabrizio Foschini Jelena Bjelica 22 min

The number of Afghan asylum seekers in Italy has been steadily rising over the last decade. Numbers grew particularly rapidly between 2013 and 2015 and only in recent months have they slowed down. Throughout the last ten years, not only has Italy become a fixture in the mental map of Afghan migrants, but it has seen its role changing from that of a country of mere transit to one of destination. For some, Italy is a safe second-choice when they could not reach their intended destination or have been rejected from there. For others, it is a stopgap to obtain legal papers on their way to another place. Afghans in Italy remain a mostly ‘transitional’ community, despite the thousands seeking and obtaining asylum. In the end, only a fraction of those arriving remain for good. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini and Jelena Bjelica have been looking at the path of Afghan migration to Italy in the last decade and at the direction where it is heading.

Refugees shafts, inside the Silos, Trieste 2016. Photo: Fabrizio Foschini

This research was supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundations.

Read our previous separate dispatch about unaccompanied Afghan minor refugees in Italy here.

After years of growth, now is a good moment to take stock of the phenomenon of Afghan migrants in Italy. This year is in fact seeing the continuation of a trend which first became apparent in late 2016. The number of Afghans seeking asylum in Italy, rapidly growing for a decade, is now beginning to taper off. Reasons for this are multiple, as we will see, but let us first get acquainted with the chronology and the specificities of this relatively new episode in the decades-long history of Afghan exile.

Afghan refugees in Italy: From ‘pure’ transit to a more mixed approach

The history of Afghan asylum-seeking in Italy might with some cynicism be summarized under the title: “From the Aristocracy to the Lumpen-Proletariat of Political Asylum-Seekers”. The gap between the first Afghans who sought refuge in Italy and the latest newcomers is vast. The first to escape political turmoil and seek shelter in Italy arrived in 1973; they were the former king, Zaher Shah, with a small retinue of aides, and members of the aristocracy who fled Afghanistan after the coup d’état by which Sardar Muhammad Daud seized power. They were occasionally joined by a few more of the old monarchist elite, each time a power change shook Kabul’s security to a new degree of violence. Altogether, they never amounted to more than a few hundred persons, and they had the financial and social means to fully integrate and start a new life in Italy or, eventually, in other European countries. (1)

Afterwards, only occasionally did Afghans arrive in Italy, a few hundred people mostly from urban backgrounds who had been displaced by the civil war of the 1990s. They were joined by groups of Hazaras, who fled Afghanistan during the harsh times of the Taleban campaigns to subdue Hazarajat in the late 1990s and, after a stopover of some length in Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and/or Greece, would make their way to Italy between the late 1990s to the mid-2000s. Most only transited through Italy on their way to northern Europe, but a significant number, amounting to a few thousands, ended up applying for asylum there.

The early 2000s: A squat in Rome

Afghans aiming for Europe in the early 2000s had the Scandinavian countries, UK, Belgium or Germany in their sights, but definitely not Italy. However, a major route bringing Afghans to Europe crossed Italy. Most Afghans would arrive, hidden on ferries coming from Patras or Igoumenitsa in Greece which sailed to the Adriatic ports of the Italian peninsula, while others travelled on small boats, crossing from Greece or Albania and arriving on the southern shores of Italy. If identified by the police, Afghans would be brought to various big camps for asylum seekers, but would quickly manage to hit the road again and regroup with fellow countrymen – most were men or older boys – in Rome. (2) The capital was then a hub for information and organisation for the next stage of the journey. Afghans heading to northern European countries would typically spend some weeks in Rome before embarking for their next intermediate destination, France.

This role, as a linking point, brought about the most famous episode involving Afghan refugees in Italy, the creation of la Buca – the hole or the pit – a spontaneous squat where mainly Afghans lived open-air or in tents and makeshift shelters in and around Rome’s Ostiense train station. Afghans transiting through Italy would concentrate there between 2007 and 2012. They received support from only a few organizations, such as MEDU (Medici per i Diritti Umani or Doctors for Human Rights). They resisted several attempts to evict or relocate them by state authorities. The camp hosted a couple of hundred persons at its height, but its centrality and the sheer length of such an unsolved situation shocked the public opinion, drawing attention to the plight of Afghan refugees, until then an unheard of phenomenon for the Italian public.

In those days, some Afghans would stop and apply for asylum in the country, either out of necessity or realizing for the first time that Italy could offer a reasonable degree of safety and protection of rights. Also, many had been fingerprinted on arrival before travelling on, only to be sent back by other European states under the Dublin Agreement. Among other things, this made the country of an asylum-seeker’s entry to the European Union, if it could be proved, responsible for their case. (3) The story of a man from Bamiyan interviewed by AAN in Rome helps illustrate the type of vicissitudes Afghans were then subjected to:

I left Afghanistan in 2005 and came to Italy, from Greece, for the first time in 2006. They put me in a big camp in Crotone, and after some days I walked out of it. My objective was to reach Scandinavia, so I continued my travel and applied for asylum in Norway. After I got there, they told me that I was a ‘Dublin case’ because I had left my fingerprints in both Greece and Italy: they said they would not send me back to Greece because there were no guarantees that my rights would be upheld there, but that, if Italy had accepted responsibility for my case, I would have to go back there. I said “Fine, I didn’t come here to break the law.” Italy accepted me, so I came back. As soon as I arrived, they sent me back to the same camp in Crotone. Then they said I had my fingerprints in Greece and I was to be sent back there. I travelled to Rome and found a lawyer. I said “How is it possible that Italy accepted responsibility for my case from Norway and now wants to send me away? If they summoned me here, they should deal with my case.” Eventually, I won in the court and I was granted the five-years protection in 2009.

The 2010s: ‘Dubliners’ on the move

Starting from 2010 onwards, the number of asylum application by Afghans started to swell rapidly.

Statistics show that, by 2007, the number of Afghan refugees had surpassed those of the late 1990s, with 971 asylum requests; this number doubled the following year, reaching 1840. Another sharp rise was registered from 2013 onwards, with 2056 asylum applicants in that year, then 2994 in 2014 and 3975 in 2015 (the year with the highest total). (The data, from the Ministry of Interior, is available here.)

While the first Afghan refugees to come to Italy had been mostly Hazaras, by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Pashtuns began to comprise the main group of Afghans transiting through Italy. They were the majority in Ostiense, in Rome, and in the following years also became the majority of those who applied for asylum in Italy. The vast majority came from just a handful of provinces, namely: Nangarhar, Laghman, Kunar, Logar, Paktia, Baghlan and Kunduz. A high number among them had lived most of their lives in Pakistan and some had been born there (the same was true for many Hazaras, who had dwelt in Iran or Pakistan before – see also this AAN dispatch).

On top of a streak of Dublin cases sent back to the country where they were first fingerprinted, Italy had also become the ‘backup’ choice for other Afghans. Italy has a record of making few ‘Dublin transfers’, ie sending migrants to the EU country where they were first recorded as having made ‘landfall’. This has made it a sort of safe haven for those Afghan refugees who had ‘dangerous’ Dublin fingerprints, for example from Hungary and Bulgaria (and later also Croatia), or, in a paradoxical reversal, for Afghans who had managed to reach northern European countries without leaving their fingerprints en route, but who had been refused asylum in the north and were being threatened with deportation to Afghanistan. Some of those migrants would then make their way back to Italy to apply for asylum there, hoping it would not send them back, as Dublin cases, to Norway, Sweden, Denmark or the UK.

On top of ‘returnees’ who had already been up north without success, Italy started to be considered a more viable first choice by many Afghans who had just arrived in Europe and who either doubted their chances of obtaining asylum in northern European countries, or who were out of money, tired or unfit for further travel or simply afraid of further shocks connected to illegal travel or threats of deportation. The main reason for this was that Italy guaranteed Afghans an almost absolute certainty of receiving some sort of asylum protection.

What seems to have been the most important factor in informing Afghan migrants’ decision about whether to apply for asylum in Italy and, indeed, whereabouts in Italy, was concern about the waiting time at various stages in the process, as Italy has problems in coping with asylum seekers, in general. There was the wait before the hearing of one’s asylum case, the wait for the subsequent, albeit usually positive, answer and the wait for asylum documents and other papers (ID card, travel document, etc) to be issued by the local authorities. Immediately after this concern came considerations about the type of reception locally available (time of wait before accessing reception in a facility for refugees, hospitality in camps versus private housing, type and amount of benefits provided).

The most important factor in decision-making was the presence of fellow Afghans from the same home area, if not of close friends and relatives, as they were the main factor in passing information on to and shaping the perception of newcomers. Their counsel was the main drive behind the choice of individuals coming for the first time to the EU or having been rejected from other EU countries and deciding to head (back) to Italy and/or to a specific part of it. The distribution of Afghan asylum seekers in Italy, influenced by these factors, resulted in their concentration in the north-eastern regions, in particular in Friuli Venezia Giulia, which is easily accessible for both new arrivals from eastern Europe and returnees from northern Europe and where, at least in the regional centre of Trieste, a reception programme with higher standards than those found in many other parts of Italy was already in place.

Chances of ‘recognition’ and reception in Italy

Before looking at the most recent trends, it is useful to look at two factors which govern the treatment of asylum seekers and whether they chose to stay in a country or try to go on: the rate of recognition and how they are received.

Italy has consistently had one of the highest rates for recognising Afghans as asylum seekers in Europe. In 2015-2016, the rate was stable at 97 per cent of all asylum requests, much higher than Germany (55 per cent), Sweden (46 per cent) and the UK (35 per cent). (For Germany see previous AAN research, for data about other countries see here.) In the words of an Afghan interpreter who works with the commissions who adjudicate the cases of Afghan asylum seekers: “(For Afghans), Italy is good in that nobody asks you who you really are or what did you do before.”

For anybody acquainted with the accurate research done in some European countries on the personal background of Afghan asylum seekers, the amount of knowledge acquired by the Italian ‘Territorial Commissions’ (bodies composed of UNHCR officials, members of the local administration and the Ministry of Interior deciding on refugees’ applications) is indeed minimal. Cases are usually adjudicated after a single interview that lasts between 40 minutes and three hours. Only rarely are people summoned for a second hearing. There are probably differences between the commissions in different locations – their number has risen in recent years from 10 to 20 to deal with the increased workload – with some reportedly trying to be more accurate. (3) However, the decision to grant Afghan nationals some form of protection based on their need for asylum is less a matter of investigating and ascertaining that an individual has actually fled persecution than one stemming from a concern that Afghanistan is generally unstable and unsafe.

Italy, for example, does not allow for the principle of “a safe place inside one’s country” as some northern European countries do who suggest that somebody who got into trouble in Jalalabad could move to Mazar-e Sharif to live a safe life. Therefore, the only way Afghans can be denied protection is when their Afghan identity is questioned (for example, there have been several instances of Pakistanis trying to pass themselves off as Afghans). Otherwise, the debate revolves mainly around what type of protection should be given. In line with the rationale behind the decision to grant almost all Afghans asylum because of the general state of their country, the most common type of protection issued is what is called ‘subsidiary protection’, given to individuals fleeing a conflict zone: 86.8 per cent of Afghan asylum seekers whose cases were adjudicated in 2016 received this. A handful of Afghans coming from areas considered comparatively safe (by now, basically a few spots like Mazar-e Sharif and Bamiyan), or who have not been able to claim convincingly that their lives would have been at risk had they stayed in Afghanistan, are given ‘two-year humanitarian protection’ (only one per cent of the total in 2016). Only those individuals who can prove they were members of the security forces or who were specifically targeted because of their public standing are entitled to the most secure status of ‘political asylum granted’ (9.2 per cent in 2016). (4)

Waiting times for the various decisions in an asylum-seeker’s life vary considerably from one Italian city to another and depending on the season and the overall number of arrivals of migrants. Typically, increased numbers of boat trips across the central Mediterranean in summertime clog the reception system, the related bureaucracy and the work of the commissions. Taking as an example Trieste in north-eastern Italy, where between 2012 and 2015, Afghans formed a majority of asylum seekers (and which has accounted for at least one-tenth of all Afghan asylum seekers in Italy in the last five years), waiting times for accommodation ranged between one day and more than one month. (When there were constant arrivals of people from the Balkan Route,  on the eve of the opening of the Balkan humanitarian corridor in the summer of 2015, one of the Old Port’s dilapidated warehouses had a stable population of as many as 200 migrants, in a small replica of Belgrade’s Savamala; see previous AAN reporting about Belgrade squat here and here).

In the nearby city of Gorizia, an additional factor – the hostility of local politicians to refugee support organizations – meant accommodation was extremely underdeveloped and several dozen refugees were living in the town’s parks, making the alleged problem of their mere presence all the more acute for the population. The waiting time from asylum request to interview in north-eastern Italy was usually around six to seven months for ‘non-Dublin’ cases. That got increasingly longer before 2015, when new commissions were opened relieving the one in Gorizia of some of its burden.

Where the problem, nationally, of long waiting times went even deeper is in the issuing of various documents by police stations. Having to cope with a population of migrants which rose from fewer than 300 in 2014 to 1200 in 2016, Trieste police station started to experience serious delays in issuing the required papers, permits of stay and travel documents. This culminated in mutual frustration. Asylum-related paperwork in many parts of Italy, excepting a few small towns hosting limited numbers of migrants, but endowed with effective and experienced local institutions, can be even more complicated and subjected to delays (for a geographic breakdown of the waiting times for some asylum-related documents see here).

The Balkan humanitarian corridor of 2015-16 and its backwash into Italy

As mentioned, asylum requests from Afghans reached their height in 2015, with 3975 applicants. This is tiny compared to countries like Sweden, who in the first eleven months of 2015 received 36,262, but more than others like the UK, who got 1446 (data from here). This increase in arrivals could be read as a direct effect of the opening of the humanitarian corridor in the summer of 2015, when migrants were allowed through the Balkans to the EU (the corridor was effectively closed with the signing of the Turkey-EU deal in March 2016), but in fact the trend had been there since the end of 2014. (It is sometimes forgotten that the humanitarian corridor was a reaction to a situation already at boiling point, ie huge numbers of people trying to cross south-eastern Europe, as much as it was a factor which contributed to more people’s decisions to try to reach Europe).

The most direct effect of the opening of the ‘institutionalised’ Balkan Route for Italy was the reduction and near end of Afghans crossing the sea from Greece to the Italian Adriatic ports. Rome was thus cut off from the transit route towards northern Europe as almost no Afghans were then travelling through Italy to go northwards. At the same time, the number of Afghans turning to Italy after first applying and being rejected for asylum in northern European countries increased. The phenomenon assumed a new dimension because many Afghans (together with other refugees, like Iraqi Kurds) would choose to move to Italy to ask asylum even before their cases were thoroughly dealt with in the countries where they had first applied for asylum.

As detailed in previous reports by AAN (read our thematic dossier here) a great number of Afghans arrived in Europe between the summer of 2015 and March 2016 traveling through the Balkan countries. The route from Serbia to Hungary was replaced by that through Croatia and Slovenia, with the same destination as before: Austria. From there, a majority of Afghans proceeded further, most to Germany and some to the Scandinavian countries. While the humanitarian corridor was open, only a tiny fraction of these Afghans turned south once they were in Austria to come down to north-eastern Italy. In fact, the boom of arrivals in Trieste and Gorizia in the summer of 2015 was mostly caused by Pakistani nationals (the second biggest group of asylum seekers in Italy, now largely Punjabis) who had Italy as their first choice of destination. The effect of the Balkan Route was more evident starting from the late spring of 2016, when asylum seekers who had arrived in Germany or Austria a few months previously started to flow in, travelling south from the Austrian border and applying for asylum in the Friuli Venezia Giulia, Veneto and Trentino Alto Adige regions of Italy (read media report here).

Fear of deportation seems to play a decisive role as well. As one of the Afghan refugees interviewed by AAN, a young man from Paktia who just arrived in Gorizia from Germany put it: “We were in Germany and one day our president asked the German government  ‘Please send our dear youth back to us’ …  so we all knew we would be deported and we had to run away.” (5)

There are other instances of migrants who got caught in the ambiguous stances of European states and have come to Italy as a last chance to get protection in Europe, to make the risks and costs of the project worth it, for example, Afghan migrants who in November 2015 crossed the Russian-Norwegian border bicycling. According to those among them who turned up in Trieste almost one year later, they were told that the reported loophole in the border regulations, with Norway recognising asylum seekers who arrived on bike, was meant for Syrians only and that Afghans who came that way were collectively denied asylum. The official story was that all migrants who had thus crossed were to be sent back to Russia, irrespective of their nationality (see also this AAN reporting). The Afghan cyclists who came to Trieste had done so to avoid deportation by Norway.

In another, concerning development, several Afghans – including families – who crossed Croatia via the humanitarian corridor of 2015-16 and were fingerprinted there, purportedly only for ‘security purpose’, and who ended up applying for asylum in Switzerland or Austria, were later been labelled as ‘Dublin’ cases with Croatia being the responsible nation. They were deported to Croatia whence some eventually fled to nearby Trieste. In July 2017, the European Court upheld the right of states to deport as ‘Dublin cases’ even those asylum seekers who had passed through the Balkan humanitarian, despite the fact that migrants were then routinely told their fingerprints in Croatia would not result in responsibility of that country under the Dublin Regulation (media report here).

Meanwhile, the use of the Balkan Route by Afghans did not stop, men and older boys (see our separate report on unaccompanied Afghan minors here) trying to sneak across the Turkish-Bulgarian border and then into Serbia (see also this AAN report on smuggling route through the Balkans here), whence they would sometimes continue through Croatia, Slovenia and Italy; others would come by ferry from Greece while families started to occasionally arrive in Italy on container ships coming from Turkey. (6)

Changing demographic profiles and decreasing asylum applications

Afghan asylum seekers in Italy are somewhat more varied since 2015 than they were between 2012 and 2015: personal observation by one of the authors of Afghans applying for asylum in Trieste from June 2016 (thus, persons who were mostly arriving from a failed or interrupted asylum request in another European country) showed 24 provinces of Afghanistan represented, although there was a strong predominance of residents of Nangarhar who represented one-fifth of the total. The number of individuals from Kunduz and Baghlan, who until 2015 were very common among asylum seekers in this part of Italy, seem to have reduced, while smaller numbers of Hazaras, who used to be the majority until around 2010, are again featuring among asylum-seekers. What has remained a constant compared to the pre-2015 situation is gender: Afghans in Italy are overwhelmingly single adult men (92 per cent of a sample contacted by IOM in February-April 2017 in Friuli Venezia Giulia, with 6.5 per cent of the sample being male minors).

One might wonder why the number of Afghans seeking asylum seekers in Italy decreased from 2015 to 2016 (with 2856 applications), if so many Afghans are leaving central and northern European countries out of hopelessness or fear of being deported, while new arrivals from Serbia and Greece have not stopped? It is now dropping even more considerably, with only 684 requests for the first seven months of 2017. The reason seems to be France.

France has some advantages for Afghan asylum seekers over Italy. This transalpine country features a recognition rate for Afghans almost as high: in 2016, 82.4 per cent of Afghans seeking asylum were given protected status in some way (data here). Apart from already being an established destination for Afghan asylum seekers, France was historically the common staging point for Afghans coming from Rome and traveling further north, to Scandinavia or to the UK.

Afghans made up a consistent part of the population of the migrant camp known as ‘the Jungle’ in Calais – personal observation suggests it was common for Afghans migrants in Trieste and Gorizia to start for Calais shortly after receiving their Italian asylum documents. In October 2016, together with the dismantlement of the Jungle, France put some efforts into improving its reception for migrants, opening up many new camps and facilities and improving the conditions for asylum seekers. It was at this point that France became a favoured destination for Afghans, in particular for those arriving from Greece or Serbia, who would no longer stop in Italy, but aimed for the better reception benefits (reportedly 350 euros per month versus 250 euros on average of an Italian decent-quality project) and a better job market. Afghan asylum applications in France jumped from 2122 in 2015 to 5646 in 2016, making Afghans the second most numerous group of asylum seekers there.

Italy, now a second chance destination for failed asylum seekers, but a chance for what?

Through the last decade, obtaining protection and the various necessary documents in Italy has not meant the beginning of a new, sedentary life for the majority of Afghan newcomers. Mostly, they would move out of Italy to try and find a job in some other European country – usually in the black market, hoping to regularise their position in due time. Or, if they were discovered, they had the fall-back plan of returning to Italy, rather than just face deportation to Afghanistan.

But what of those who stayed in Italy? One Afghan interpreter who has been working for years with asylum seekers all over the country assesses the percentage of those who ‘gave it a try’, and stayed in Italy for some time at least after receiving their asylum documents, at maybe 40 per cent. (Personal observation of the Afghans in Friuli Venezia Giulia through the last three years leads to the impression that the percentage is even lower).

Some of those who stay for a while after the end of the state-sponsored reception, move on to private housing, mainly with a view to start the procedure for family reunification. For them, Italy represents a mid-term solution: they work for a while and in the meantime, apply for family reunion; as soon as the wife and kids arrive on a family visa, they travel further and without him to northern European countries where recognition rates for women and children are still relatively high. Afterwards, they are able to reunite with the husband who would not have been able to get asylum status in those countries as a single man. (7)

As the Italian economy has not performed particularly well during the years of the boom of Afghan arrivals, the economic incentives to remain for good have been few. Also, with an increased number of refugees, Afghan newcomers receive less attention and fewer educational and vocational training opportunities compared to those who arrived five or ten years ago. Individual Afghans without strong local connections who have made it have either been lucky or very brave and perseverant in pursuing an individual choice, instead of joining the mass of Afghans trying their luck out of Italy. But chances for integration might be narrowing amid the increasing number of migrants and the creeping xenophobia to which Italians, relatively new to being hosts of mass migration, are falling prey. As a 20-year old boy from Jalalabad commented on a recent episode involving an Afghan and two Pakistani asylum seekers in Trieste, accused of raping a 12-year old girl (see media report in Italian here):

People come here very young, they are barely kids, they leave their families behind and the moment they arrive in Europe, they forget [their families]. … Then they are accepted in a reception project, they get their documents and then they get kicked out of the project. And then they end up in the streets again, back to sleeping in the stations. And then they do something wrong. Somebody does something wrong and everybody gets a bad name because of that and the public opinion turns against the refugees and the state becomes eager to get them out of the reception projects more quickly and that only makes things worse.

State-sponsored reception programmes can last up to six months after an asylum seeker has received his or her positive answer, although in many parts of Italy, the local prefectures reduce this amount of time. Entry into a SPRAR (Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees) project that offer more time and support for integration, once and ideally still the standard practice, has by now become a rare occurrence due to the large numbers of migrants of all nationalities.

Many Afghan refugees coming to Italy are bruised by past experiences in Afghanistan, during the travel or while applying for asylum in other countries; they seldom engage immediately in learning Italian, even in the few places where courses are available in sufficient number and quality. They often say they are not sure whether it is worth it until they know the result of their application, but this does not ring true: they know that the recognition rate in Italy is extremely high. More realistically, they still do not know what they will do after they get protection, as their original project for a new life in Europe has not been achieved. Also, a large number of refugees coming from the same cultural area, like the Afghan-Pakistani transitional community of asylum seekers in Trieste that is almost one-thousand strong, can work as an obstacle towards integration. It reduces the incentives for individuals to find their own paths to integration, something Afghans and other refugees need to pursue to gain access to the job market in Italy.

Italy lacks an established Afghan diaspora, a cohesive and economically well-developed community which could provide newcomers with support, advice and job positions. The nature of the first Afghans who settled in Italy, members of the elite who were negligible in number, exacerbated a phenomenon that can be found in Afghan communities in other European countries as well, that is an ‘insulation’ between older migrants, from urban and educated backgrounds who are integrated at a cultural level, and more recent newcomers.

Afghan communities in Italy are also still small and scattered. Of the 20,000 Afghans who may be residing permanently in Italy (there are no official statistics), Rome is said to host around 6000. There are two main communities loosely aligned with two ethnic groups: the Hazaras and the Pashtuns. They are roughly equivalent in number and each also attracts Tajiks, Uzbeks and other Afghans.

These two leading communities worship at different mosques and never get together to organise official gatherings or festivities, although at an individual level, there are sometimes very strong friendships. Neither of the communities has managed to produce a leadership or an organization which could work for the advancement of Afghans in Italy. Past attempts have ended unsuccessfully, while current associations labelled as Afghan whom AAN interviewed are ineffective and aimed only at extracting money from migrants in exchange for help in completing necessary paperwork.

Afghans in Rome are active in a variety of jobs, mostly in restaurants and as manual labour. They have so far failed to create the sort of string of commercial ventures that communities such as the Bangladeshis have done. Those with a more solid background who invested their capital in such enterprises lament the high taxes and the many obstacles they feel are put in front of them by state authorities, who, as one man said, “are not used to the idea of refugee businessmen and every time refugees open a shop, go and make trouble for them by subjecting it to unending controls.”

Without easy access to the job market or solid roots in the country, it seems the destiny of many Afghans who come to Italy is to eventually move on: they spend maybe three to four years there waiting to obtain asylum documents during which time they try to find a job or bring their families to Europe, but then they hit the road again, to start anew somewhere else. At the moment, according to some of the Afghans interviewed by AAN, at least some, after receiving Italian asylum documents, go on to France and apply for asylum there, as well, opportunistically signing up for another round of reception in a project for asylum seekers, for lack of other prospects.

Bureaucratic mechanisms devised by European countries to prevent ‘asylum-shopping’ are ineffective: refugees still try to improve their situation step by step, that is, country by country. The different standards in different European states, in terms of recognition rates, reception benefits, opportunities for family reunion, risks of deportation and job opportunities and standards of living provide too many incentives and pushes for Afghan migrants not to try shifting from one country to another to better their situation. The risk is that they do not invest enough of their energies and time putting down roots anywhere. This attitude may be easily portrayed as opportunistic by those who resent their presence, but the truth is that the prime victims of such a system are the Afghans themselves. As one proverb says: dar ba dar, khak ba sar – going from door to door brings nothing but destitution and humiliation.

The years-long perpetuation of conditions of liminality, economic dependence, uncertainty and unfulfilled integration must be seen as a real disaster for thousands of Afghan youths. The shortcomings of the current Italian reception system and its lack of help with integration and the contrasting attitudes towards Afghan asylum seekers by different European states risks creating scores of what could be termed ‘failed citizens’. In Italy, as elsewhere, this may lead to a multiplicity of ills: social distress, criminality, xenophobia and right-wing populism, expansion of illicit economies run by mafia networks, indentured and inhuman labour conditions for refugees stuck in a legal ‘limbo’ or rootless and unable to stand for their rights. As they are Afghans, it may be easier for commenters to later blame the ‘failed state’ they come from for any troubles they cause. Others may blame the failure of European politics.

Edited by Sari Kouvo and Kate Clark


(1) This was not the first instance in which an Afghan king sought asylum in Italy, as King Amanullah famously also chose Italy as a place of exile after being dethroned in 1929. Also, in his case, only a few families of supporters followed him and settled in the country.

(2) There were many instances of push-back on arrival by the police in Adriatic ports such as Bari, Ancona and Venice. Afghans and other migrants would often end up traveling back to Greece on the same ship on which they had arrived.

(3) The Dublin Regulations are a series of EU laws determining which of the Union’s countries are responsible to examine asylum applications, making the first country through which the person entered the EU and left his/her fingerprints responsible. The first convention was signed in 1997, while new regulations were implemented in 2008 and 2013 (non EU-countries like Norway and Switzerland also apply its provisions).

(4) Initially they were based in: Gorizia, Milan, Rome, Foggia, Syracuse, Crotone, Trapani, Bari, Caserta and Torino. As of 3 October 2016, the Ministry of Interior referred to 20 Territorial Commissions and 27 sub-Commissions. During 2015 and 2016, new Territorial Commissions started operations in Verona, Ancona, Brescia, Bologna, Cagliari, Catania, Firenze, Lecce, Palermo and Salerno; sub-Commissions were established in Forlì, Campobasso, Enna, Reggio Calabria, Perugia, Frosinone, Caltanissetta, Ragusa, Genova, Agrigento, Novara, Bergamo, Livorno, Monza-Brianza, Padova, Vicenza and Treviso (see here).

(5) This high recognition rate and the fact that there are fewer Afghans appealing against the commission’s decision (unless they aim at a higher type of protection than what they were given) makes Afghans less affected, at least for the moment, by the new law reform Minniti-Orlando, severely curtailing the options of asylum seekers appealing. However, the law also aims at penalises asylum seekers who move from one European country to another as Afghans have been forced to do by recent developments. For an interview summarizing criticism of the changes brought by the law see here, see here.

(6) Italy has not been pro-active in sending Afghans back to their country: in the last five years, there were only two or three voluntary repatriations per year from Italy to Afghanistan, and, also given the high recognition rate, virtually no risk of deportation to Afghanistan. (IOM data by personal communication; data for 2016 is available here.) By comparison, France has organised 529 voluntary repatriations of Afghans in 2016 (see here).

(7) Statistics of the number of Afghans arriving to Italy by sea corroborate the growing importance of the land route through the Balkans even before the opening of the humanitarian corridor in 2015. They also show the sudden drop of arrivals by sea during the time of the corridor, and their partial resuming from mid-2016 onwards, as an old-fashioned alternative to the now more difficult land route.

2012: 651 (only until mid-June, when there was a stop in reporting from the Ministry of Interior)

2013: 964

2014: 784

2015: 117

2016: 437

2017: 73 by sea in the first six-months (the last data is coherent with the drop in the overall numbers of Afghan asylum seekers which was 616 in the same period of 2017).

Data from the Ministry of the Interior as shared by IOM Italy, personal communication.

(8) This instrumental use of family reunification has been confirmed by, among others, lawyers offering legal aid to asylum seekers in Rome. The procedure for family reunification was relatively easy in the past, but it has become increasingly difficult. In particular, it seems to be hard for the relatives in Afghanistan to gain access to the Italian Embassy in Kabul to complete all the necessary paperwork and because of newly-required medical tests to prove consanguinity.


Italy migration


Fabrizio Foschini

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