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At the end of 1997, there were about 20,000 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection in Italy. These included 348 refugees granted status during the year, several hundred asylum seekers pending a first-instance decision on their cases, 9,285 Bosnian refugees without a durable solution, and 10,000 Somali nationals with temporary protection. Some 1,858 persons applied for asylum in Italy during 1997, a 275 percent increase over the 675 individuals who applied in 1996. Of those who applied in 1997, 917 came from Albania and 336 came from Iraq. During 1997, the Italian authorities decided the cases of 1,654 applicants, granting refugee status to 348 individuals, an approval rate of 21 percent. Some 1,306 claimants were denied asylum during the year. Refugee and migration issues occupied center stage in Italy during 1997. The year began with Albania's decent into anarchy following the collapse of pyramid investment schemes that swallowed up the life savings of as much as three-quarters of the Albanian population. The ensuing chaos, insecurity, and financial ruin in Albania caused about 17,000 Albanians to flee to Italy between March and July. Following the mid-April deployment of an Italian-led United Nations force in Albania and Albanian parliamentary elections at the end of June, the Italian government gave priority to Albanian repatriation. The year ended with the high-profile arrival in Italy of a ship transporting hundreds of Turkish and Iraqi Kurds. Italy's generous reception of this group prompted several of its European Union (EU) partners, particularly Germany, to demand that Italy close its doors to refugees and migrants alike if it wished enjoy the benefits of the EU integration process. Asylum Procedure Although the Italian government considered revisions to its asylum and aliens laws during 1997, it did not pass any new legislation during the year. Pending legislative changes, Italy's Martelli Law of 1990 continued to govern the asylum procedure. The Martelli Law gives legal authority to reject asylum seekers at the border if they arrive via third countries that have signed the UN Refugee Convention and have spent more time in such countries than is required to transit them. Article 3 of the law imposes fines, and in some cases prison sentences, on persons who knowingly facilitate the illegal entry of foreigners. A person wishing to apply for asylum in Italy is required to submit a written application to the headquarters of the provincial police (Questura) where he or she is located. The Questura then transmits his or her application to the Central Commission for Recognition of Refugee Status, the competent authority for deciding asylum claims. Law requires the commission to interview applicants and issue first-instance decisions within 15 days. Asylum seekers are issued 45-day residence permits to await the commission's decision. Under law, applicants without means to provide for themselves are eligible for a modest cash grant for the first 45 days. In practice, however, many asylum seekers have had difficulty obtaining such grants. No specific provision exists for sheltering asylum seekers and refugees in Italy; they are eligible to stay in reception centers for foreigners for as long as 120 days. Asylum seekers in Italy may not work during the asylum procedure and have no access to subsidized health care, except in emergencies. An applicant may appeal a negative decision within 30 days to the administrative court in the region where filing a claim. Further appeals to the Council of State and the president of Italy are possible. After a denial in the second instance, however, the applicant may be deported or issued an order to leave the country. The appeals process can take as long as eight years, according to the Italian Refugee Council. Albanians The Italian government registered about 17,000 Albanians arriving in Italy during the immediate months following Albania's collapse into anarchy in late February and early March. On March 19, the Italian government issued an emergency decree, authorizing the authorities to set up reception centers and issue 90-day residence permits for Albanians deemed in need of temporary protection. These permits were subsequently renewed until November 30, when Italy began a concerted effort to repatriate Albanians without legal status. UNHCR reported that 917 Albanians applied for asylum in Italy during 1997, of whom 70 were recognized as refugees. Several thousand Albanians disappeared soon after their arrival, many of whom reportedly left for other Western European countries. Reception Criticized From the outset of the Albanian crisis, the Italian authorities adopted a policy of refusing entry to, and deporting, certain "undesirable" Albanians. Although the Italian authorities claimed that many of those it "screened out" were criminals who had escaped from prison when Albania descended into lawlessness, Italy's other criteria, as well as its methods, for determining the excludability of Albanian asylum seekers remained unclear. In a March 28 letter to the Italian government, USCR expressed its concern over Italy's screening procedures and the repatriation of Albanians deemed excludable despite the turmoil in their home country. "It is our view that in light of the pervasive, random violence that has engulfed Albania, asylum seekers cannot be returned to the country without being placed at serious risk of harm," USCR said. UNHCR's representative in Italy also called upon the government to give the "utmost attention to the selection criteria" to avoid deporting those in need of protection. Italy nevertheless continued to screen out and repatriate "undesirables" as they arrived. By September, Italy had repatriated some 5,200 excludable Albanians, most during the spring and early summer months when the Albanian influx was at its peak. Between March and December, an additional 4,600 Albanians voluntarily repatriated, either spontaneously or with the assistance of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). On March 24in response to the influx of as many as 12,000 Albanians who arrived during the third week of March alonethe Italian government began to interdict and turn away boats of Albanian asylum seekers attempting to reach Italy's coastline and ports. In its March 28 letter, USCR appealed to the Italian government not to turn Albanian boats back, urging Italy at least to provide temporary protection to those leaving Albania. Voicing similar concerns, UNHCR asserted that those in need of protection ought to be in the position to ask for it, which the Italian naval blockade prevented. On March 28, Italy's policy of interdiction resulted in tragedy when an Italian naval vessel broadsided an Albanian boat headed for the Italian coast. The boat immediately sank, drowning some 80 passengers. In comments after the accident, Italian prime minister Prodi said that Italy would continue its naval patrols, insisting that they were not intended to deter Albanian refugees but to deal with criminal organizations allegedly profiting from transporting them. Italy Leads UN Force in Albania In mid-April, Italy led the deployment of an eight-nation UN force in Albania to assist in the delivery of humanitarian assistance and to secure the main entry points into Albania, including its main cities along the coast. However, humanitarian organizations present in Albania reported that no protection was required to deliver humanitarian aid, leading some observers to believe that the unspoken reason for the troop deployment was to prevent would-be asylum seekers from leaving Albania for Italy. Some critics argued that the Italian-led force did little to stop the violence, in which more than 2,000 Albanians were killed during the first seven months of 1997. Other critics focused on the mandate that the UN Security Council gave the peace-keeping force, asserting that the vagueness of the mission forced the troops to stand by while anarchy persisted. Nevertheless, on June 28 Albania held elections that the international community deemed "adequate and acceptable." In July, the victorious Socialist Party led by Fatos Nano formed a new government, replacing the former government of Sali Berisha, which had publicly endorsed the pyramid investment schemes. With the new government in place, the Italian-led UN force declared its mission accomplished, the last of its troops leaving Albania in August. Although relative calm prevailed in Albania as the UN peace-keeping force departed, much of the legacy of several months of lawlessness remained. Roughly one million firearms that private Albanian citizens had seized from government arms depots reportedly remained at large. Economic problems remained severe, and organized crime thrived. Repatriation to Albania After several postponements, the Italian government ended temporary protection for Albanians on November 30. Of the original 17,000 Albanians who arrived in the spring and early summer, about 5,000 who remained in Italy at the beginning of December were slated for return. The Italian government laid the groundwork for Albanian repatriation by concluding a readmission agreement with Albania in November (also effective for third country nationals). Despite hunger strikes and other protests, the Italian government pressed ahead with the deportation of a first groups of 544 Albanians on December 4. It was unclear how many Albanians had been deported by year's end. Dublin and Schengen On September 1, Italy began implementing the Dublin Convention, a European Union (EU) agreement that determines the state responsible for deciding an asylum application. Generally, the Dublin Convention stipulates that the member state permitting an asylum seeker entry, or the first country of arrival in the event of illegal entry, is responsible for examining the asylum request. In October, Italy also began to implement parts of the Schengen Convention, a multilateral accord paving the way for eliminating border controls between participating member states. On October 26, Italy eliminated passport controls on flights to and from other Schengen member states, and prepared to eliminate border controls with France and Austria, also members of Schengen, on April 1, 1998. Only days after the Italian government began partial implementation of the Schengen Convention, however, a ship transporting some 800 undocumented asylum seekers, mostly Kurds from Turkey and Iraq, landed in southern Italy, prompting other Schengen member states, particularly Germany, to renew demands that Italy better police its coastline and restrict access to undocumented foreigners. German officials complained that most of the Kurds arriving in Italy did not plan to apply for asylum there, but instead intended to move to join relatives and friends in Germany. The Italian practice of issuing, but not enforcing, expulsion orders gave Kurds and other undocumented asylum seekers the opportunity to leave Italy for Germany and other countries. As the arrival of Kurdish asylum seekers grew more regular during the fall of 1997, the Italian Refugee Council monitored arrivals and advised the asylum seekers that the Schengen and Dublin Conventions required them to apply for asylum in Italy, the first EU country of arrival. Few did so, however. As many as 5,000 Iraqi and Turkish Kurds arrived by boat in Italy during the second half of 1997, including about 800 who arrived aboard another large ship on December 27.