Faith-Based Humanitarian Corridors to Italy: A Safe and Legal Route to Refuge

Based on her research in Italy, in this piece Susanna Trotta argues that Italian FBOs’ responses to the needs of peoples displaced around the Mediterranean are helping to counteract troubling trends in refugee status recognition, whilst also offering a model of ‘replicability’ capable of challenging the growing securitisation of refugee protection in the Global North. In particular, Trotta notes that Italian FBOs are far more flexible than states in their understanding of refugee ‘vulnerability’ owing to a more nuanced and multifaceted explanation of different people’s motivations for moving. Trotta’s contribution to our ongoing Faith and Displacement Series ultimately reminds us that greater collaboration between FBOs and secular humanitarian organisations and states might be the best hope of securing safe and legal routes to refuge for the world’s displaced. By working with nine communities in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, the Refugee Hosts project similarly seeks to identify the challenges and opportunities that emerge in light of different faith-based responses to the needs and rights of refugees from Syria.

For more on this theme, read our ongoing Faith and Displacement Series postings.

Faith-Based Humanitarian Corridors to Italy: A Safe and Legal Route to Refuge

By Susanna Trotta, UCL MSc Global Migration Graduate 

In late April 2017, 124 people were transferred to Italy through the humanitarian corridors programme. In times of ever more restrictive asylum policies and European states’ renewed efforts to externalise control of forced migration, such faith-based humanitarian corridors mark an important step in the opposite direction: that of a more inclusive and dignified approach to securing refuge.

In December 2015 the Federation of Protestant Churches (FCEI), the Waldensian Church and the catholic Community of Sant’Egidio signed an agreement with the Italian Ministries of Interior and of Foreign Affairs to issue 1,000 exceptional visas with limited territorial validity. Legally based on Article 25 of EC Regulation 810/2009, this type of visa allows for forced migrants based in third countries such as Lebanon, Morocco and Ethiopia to be transferred safely to Italy, where they can file an asylum application upon arrival. In fact, unlike resettlement programmes, there is no need for applicants to have been granted refugee status in order to access the programme. However, the Italian authorities do carry out security checks on potential beneficiaries during the early selection stages.

These three Italian faith-based organisations (FBOs) have committed to carrying out and funding the selection, transfer and reception processes for the programme using only their own resources, and their local and transnational networks. According to the programme’s description on the FBOs’ and the government’s websites, the selection criteria identify people in ‘vulnerable conditions’ as the main target group. Interestingly, a certain degree of flexibility in the understanding of ‘vulnerability’ emerged from the interviews I conducted with different FBO members as part of fieldwork for my MSc Global Migration dissertation at UCL. Apart from health issues, some mentioned ‘the family’ (with children) as a vulnerable entity per se. Others emphasised the possibility – precisely through that degree of flexibility in the understanding of the concept – to include extreme poverty as a condition of ‘vulnerability’. Others still stressed an opportunity to engage with the host society’s approach to marginalised groups and to foster mutual solidarity – an ‘everyday humanitarian corridor’, as described by one of my interviewees.

This flexible understanding of ‘vulnerability’ certainly relates to the heterogeneous and multifaceted motivations behind FBO members’ and the volunteers’ engagement in the programme, as reported during the interviews. For a start, not all of them consider themselves to be members of a Church. As is increasingly the case, commitment to organised faith-based humanitarianism is not necessarily a direct consequence of faith. Moreover, different sensitivities and previous experiences shaped my interviewees’  expectations and aims. One of them explicitly mentioned to me that his personal aim was to challenge the distinction between ‘the refugee’ and ‘the economic migrant’ – or the so-called ‘bogus refugee’.

Once in Italy, the refugees are hosted by non-state reception facilities run by the FBOs themselves, although some of them are later integrated into the state-run SPRAR system, after obtaining their residency permits. As for other aspects of the programme, reception conditions vary considerably among the different FBOs, for instance in terms of housing modalities (apartments versus small centres) and degree of traditionally understood professionalism (paid versus non-paid personnel). However, a common trait is the attention towards the refugees’ non-material needs and the creation of links between the refugees and the local communities – both of faith and secular -, through diverse activities and gatherings.

Another important aspect of the initiative is its (potential) ‘replicability’. The FBOs have lobbied at the European and UN level, as well as through their own networks, in an attempt to convince other actors within Italy and beyond to replicate the programme. France’s outgoing President Hollande has very recently signed an agreement with several associations – including the Community of Sant’Egidio – enabling the arrival of 500 Syrians to France through humanitarian corridors. A separate humanitarian corridors programme is soon to open between Italy and Ethiopia following a new agreement singed by the Italian government, the Italian Bishops Conference (CEI), Caritas, Migrantes and Sant’Egidio.

Humanitarian corridors certainly represent a safe, legal and more dignified route to refuge, as opposed to perilous journeys across the Mediterranean, which continue to claim the lives of thousands of people. If access to these programmes is open to refugees from regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn of Africa, it would also be an important step to counter the increasingly restrictive trends in refugee status recognition and subsidiary protection, as well as diverging from recent resettlement programmes specifically directed at Syrians such as the UK’s ‘Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Programme’ and the German Humanitäre Aufnahmeprogramme für syrische Flüchtlinge (Humanitarian Reception Programme for Syrian Refugees). Moreover, it would challenge current policies aimed at deterring migrants from applying for asylum or even reaching European territories, such as the Italian readmission agreements and pushback operations on the high seas, and the recent deportations of 41 refugees from Ventimiglia to Sudan. These are some of the most arduous challenges ahead, for faith- and non-faith-based humanitarian engagements alike.

***

Susanna Trotta’s research into faith-based humanitarian corridors to Italy has been published as a Working Paper by the the UCL Department of Geography’s Migration Research Unit. The paper is titled “Safe and Legal Passages to Europe: A Case Study of Faith-Based Humanitarian Corridors to Italy“. Here Trotta argues that faith-based humanitarian corridors offer promising alternative opportunities for protection in light of the limited responses of mainstream secular institutions to the needs of those displaced in the Mediterranean.

Featured Image: A View of the Sicilian Coast (c) S. Trotta

 

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