Experiences from the Law Clinic in Rome
Seven years ago, lawyers and law students in Rome started a Law Clinic to support migrants. Three activists who visited Helsinki in April, lawyer and scholar Enrica Rigo, lawyer Jacopo Di Giovanni, and Phd-student Carlo Caprioglio, discussed detention centre protests, the situation of migrant movements in Italy, and the meaning of recently founded hotspots.
The Rome Law Clinic provides legal support to migrants. It was formed in 2009-2010 as an experiment inside the university of Roma Tre, within the wake of two social movements active in Italy at the time.
One was the student movement and the researches’ movement protesting against neoliberal reforms of the university. In this respect, the idea behind the law clinic was to organise a new model of horizontal teaching and knowledge production.
The second was an anti racist protest that occurred in Rome in 2009, against the so called ‘security package’, which was a law reform proposed by the racist Northern League party. The proposal included the extension of detention times and the introduction of the crime of illegal immigration, punishable by high fines and immediate expulsion.
The idea behind the legal clinic was first of all to politically address the university system, but eventually it also became a political experience within the anti-racist movement. The clinic itself functions as an observatory on the recurrent crisis that Italy has faced since the Arab spring of 2011 until now.
Rome can be considered a frontier within the Italian territory, as it functions as a transit-point for a lot of migrants who arrive in Italy and who try not to be identified in order to move towards Northern European countries like Sweden and Finland. Nowadays there is a squatted building in Rome, the Salaam Palace, which is a solidary centre for migrants who come and pass along. The second reason for Rome being a frontier is the fact that a major detention centre, Ponte Galeria, is located there.
Lawyer and scholar Enrica Rigo, one of the initiators of the law clinic, explained that the law clinic became an important connection for different anti-racist advocates.
“We have, for example, on several occasions worked with the anarchist collective Rete no-Cie, as well as with Sant’Egidio. This might sound strange because they are a religious actor, but they are very present inside the detention centre and they were also doing political work,” Rigo said.
“For example, when a new law that increased the length of detention for asylum seekers was passed in September, people working in the centre advised migrants not to apply for asylum. The consequence for that was deportation, as they were already inside the detention centre ready to be deported, and if you don’t ask for asylum you don’t have any chance. Our allies in that situation were the people from the Sant’Egidio community, because they understood that it was better to advise the migrants in a different way. Thus they were taking a political position.”
The detention centre as a place of resistance
Carlo Caprioglio, one of the PhD-students active in the clinic, explained that the number of detention centres has decreased during the last years in Italy. Before there were 13 and now there are only five, the most important one being in Rome. Ponte Galeria in Rome was the biggest in Italy until 2015 when it was transformed into a female detention centre due to a protest inside the centre by its male detainees.
In spring 2016, the central administration in another city, Bari, had to close big parts of the detention centre because detainees inside destroyed parts of the building. Similar things have happened in other cities as well, such as Turin and Milan.
Both Carlo and Enrica emphasised that detention centres can be spaces of resistance.
“The [antiracist and migrant solidarity] movement has addressed detention centres many times as a site of protest, but I think the biggest change arrived from inside, when the migrants themselves were able to protest. They also paid a big price for the protest. They went through criminal procedures for that and also deportation, but at least some detention centres have been closed,” Enrica concluded.
Jacopo Di Giovanni, the other lawyer from the clinic, explained that detention centres were closed without even notifying lawyers. People who were deemed not too dangerous for the public were released, while others were transferred to other centres.
“In Italy, if they can’t deport you, they tell you to leave by yourself—deport yourself. Most often it is not possible because people don’t have a passport or documents, but they are released with an order to leave the country.“
On the other hand, it is very difficult to get organised inside the detention centers. This primarily has to do with the fact that there are few people inside and most stay only a short time, so it’s difficult to build strong connections. Jacopo compared this to normal prisons where prisoners with life sentence have plenty of time to organise.
Enrica pointed out that lately there has been more political awareness inside the centres. She spoke about a Nigerian woman who had been detained for four months, but had done a great job in talking with the other women and organising networks of awareness inside the centre. Now they have created functional strategies of resistance which proved to be effective during the last deportation attempt, with finally only one person deported. This was achieved because there was an established solidarity network inside the centre that was able to communicate with the outside.
Another important political experience relates to transformations in the refugee reception centres. In Rome, a new political experiment is the Network of Reception Centre Workers, a collaboration of workers, volunteers and migrants, which demands both workers’ rights for those working precarious reception centre jobs, and changes in the management of the centres.
The decline of migrant protests
The political situation has changed somewhat in Italy during the last decade. In the 1990s and early 2000s there was a strong migrant movement and big demonstrations.
“I remember that in 2004, there were 40,000 migrants protesting in the streets of Rome, a high number for any country. The last big demonstration in Rome was in 2009. Another important protest occurred in Rosarno, when riots occurred after racists attacked migrant workers,” Enrica said.
According to Enrica, the reason for the decrease in migrant mobilisation in Italy is due to a change in the management of public order: since 2011, the approach to the management of public order has been more “humanitarian”. A lot of residence permits for humanitarian reasons were issued because of the crisis in North African countries in 2011. Humanitarian permits have since been issued for all kinds of reasons: for dreadful working conditions, for people rebelling in the south of Italy, and for people working in the agricultural sector.
These humanitarian permits do not give access to social services, housing or education. No proper integration programs for migrants with these permits exists. Those who are not able to find decent employment are practically left without any basic rights For these reasons many migrants try to move on to other European countries.
“Of course I’m not against giving residence permits to migrants,” Enrica pointed out.
“But I think that this could be understood as a way to keep the level of conflict low, and it worked. I believe that that’s why there isn’t a movement anymore, why migrants don’t mobilise much for the residence permits,” Enrica explained.
New strategies have been invented to control migrants’ actions and mobility. Before it was possible to be officially registered as a resident of a squat, but not anymore. It has been estimated that more than 20,000 people live in squats in Rome. Not being able to have an official address is a way of controlling public order—of controlling migrants’ mobility by different means.
“We are in period in which it’s difficult to understand what’s going on, because the management of public order is inventing a lot of strategies,” Jacopo concluded.
No unitary logic behind policy
The border crisis has, among other things, led to Italy accepting the idea of ‘hot spots’, three of which have been established in the Sicilian towns of Pozallo, Lampedusa and Trapani, with a coordination centre in Catania. In these special centres, arriving refugees are divided and selected, with some presumed to be possibly eligible for asylum on the basis of their nationality, while others are not. However, in practice, everyone has a right to access the asylum process.
Due to this, the creation of the hot spots resulted in an institutional clash, when the vice-minister of interior issued an order to the border police stating that everyone has the right to ask for asylum.
“In a way he admitted that they were de facto doing something illegal, so it was really strange. But this also made it clear to me that there is not a clear unique rationale behind what’s going on. I think this is important to take into consideration,” Enrica said.
Another function of the hotspots was to insure that everyone is identified. Whether or not the hotspots have actually increased the number of identified migrants is still unclear, as they have not been been working long enough.
When the Law Clinic started in 2009, half of their cases with were expulsion orders. People who had lost their permits had two options: either being detained, or staying illegally in the country.
“Now we haven’t seen an expulsion order for months. According to lawyers, the detention centre has actually become a place for people who have come from jail. These people have been released from jail and placed in a detention centre to be deported. However, they will probably not be deported, as they have not been identified in jail, and will not be identified in the detention centre either,” Enrica said.
The detention centres are also used as second hotspots for some nationalities. For example, most of the detained women are Nigerians intercepted at sea who actually should be sent to reception centres for asylum seekers, but who are detained instead.
“This is terrible to say. Sometimes court orders justify detention based on the idea that these Nigerian women run the risk of being trafficked, which I find very racist and sexist,” Enrica commented. “It’s as if just being Nigerian means running the risk of ending up in the street as a prostitute. Of course we appeal against these kinds of decisions because they are unreasonable, but normally these appeals will be decided on in one year, so it’s not that effective.”
The administration follows different strategies with different nationalities. Nigerian people are often not considered to be refugees and are instead perceived as “illegal migrants”, while other nationalities are considered to be at risk, for example people originating from the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, Jacopo said.
Another reason asylum seekers end up in detention is the way asylum applicants are questioned, Jacopo explained.
“If you say that you have come to Italy to ask for asylum, it means that you are treated as an asylum seeker, while if you say that you have come to look for a job you can be detained. The trick is that the first question on the application form is ‘Do you want to work in Italy’? And you think maybe, after which you are classified as an economic migrant and channelled somewhere else. For example, none of these Nigerian women understood this and ended up in the detention centre.”
Migration has not increased
Enrica explained that even though the number of asylum seekers has increased a lot during the last years, the actual amount of people migrating to Italy has not necessarily increased.
“In 2015, 150,000 refugees arrived in Italy by boat. It’s a quite high number, but it’s not such a big number for Italy. Before 2011, Italy used to allow a quota for work visas of around 150-160,000 people per year, so more or less the same amount as refugees arriving today. In many cases these are the same people. As they are not allowed to enter as workers anymore, they enter by other means.”
Rigo, Di Giovanni and Caprioglio spoke at a discussion organized on April 4, 2016 by the Free Movement Network in Helsinki.
Olivia Maury is active in the Free Movement Network and is a member of the organising collective of the Helsinki Feminist Forum, FemF.