At the end of 1998, there were about 6,800 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection in Italy. These included 810 refugees granted status during the year and about 6,000 asylum seekers pending a first-instance decision on their cases. Italy denied asylum to some 281 former Yugoslav applicants during the year. USCR considers the Kosovars among them nevertheless to be in need of protection.

Although the Central Commission for Recognition of Refugee Status (hereafter "Central Commission") reportedly registered almost 6,000 asylum applications in 1998, the Italian Refugee Council estimated that the actual number of claims filed during the year was more than 10,000. The provincial police (Questura), responsible for the initial registration of asylum claims, had not forwarded significant numbers of applications to the Central Commission at year's end, according to the Italian Refugee Council. Whatever the precise figure, the number of asylum seekers requesting protection in Italy during 1998 represents a dramatic increase from the 1,858 asylum applicants in 1997, and the 675 claimants in 1996. Of the asylum seekers registered with the Central Commission in 1998, the largest number came from the former Yugoslavia (2,495), Iraq (1,519), and Turkey (1,116).

During 1998, the Italian authorities issued decisions on some 2,520 applications, granting refugee status in 810 cases, an approval rate of 32 percent. Individuals representing 1,710 cases were denied asylum during the year. Of the largest groups of asylum seekers whose cases were decided in 1998, Turkish nationals had the highest approval rate (39 percent), followed by nationals of Iraq (26 percent), and the former Yugoslavia (24 percent).

Refugee and migration issues continued to dominate the Italian government and media agenda during 1998. The year began with the high profile arrival in Italy of several thousand Turkish and Iraqi Kurds by ship in January and early February. 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 to enjoy the benefits of the EU integration process.

Such pressure forced the Italian government to adopt measures to stem the influx of undocumented foreigners and prevent their travel onward to other EU countries. Nevertheless, Italy's response was not altogether restrictive. Thus, while Italy took steps to clamp down on unauthorized migration and human trafficking, it extended and expanded the rights of persons granted residence permits on humanitarian grounds. For the second time in less than three years, Italy also announced a new amnesty that is expected to provide about 250,000 undocumented immigrants with residence permits.

Despite the introduction of measures to curb the entry of undocumented foreigners, significant numbers of asylum seekers and migrants – among them, many Kurds from Iraq and Turkey and large numbers of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo – continued to arrive on Italy's shores and at its land borders during the rest of 1998.

The year ended with the equally high-profile arrival in Italy of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), who requested asylum. Although Italy ultimately denied Ocalan asylum, it refused to extradite the Kurdish rebel leader to Turkey on the grounds that the European Human Rights Convention prohibits the deportation of persons to countries where they may face the death penalty. Coming on the heels of Italy's public recognition that members of Turkey's Kurdish minority are persecuted earlier in the year, Italy's handling of the Ocalan affair also appeared to reflect its lack of confidence in the ability of Turkey's judicial system to afford Ocalan due process.

Legislative Changes

In part responding to EU pressure to shore up its borders, Italy adopted a new immigration law on February 19, 1998. The new law, effective on March 27, replaced all provisions of the Martelli Law of 1990 except those regulating the asylum procedure. Aspects of the new law nevertheless touch on asylum.

Most significantly in the eyes of Italy's EU partners, the new law provides for the detention of undocumented entrants for up to 30 days pending their deportation. Previously, Italy had issued expulsion orders to undocumented entrants, requiring them to leave the country within 15 days. Because Italian authorities did not enforce the expulsion orders, however, many migrants and asylum seekers used the 15 days during which they were to comply with the removal order to travel onward to countries farther north – a trend the new immigration law was intended to end. The change had dramatic results. Expulsions from Italy increased by a factor of 10, from between 4,000 and 5,000 in previous years to 54,000 in 1998.

Italy's move to enforce expulsion orders does not prevent asylum seekers from filing applications in the country. The law also imposes stiffer penalties for those smuggling undocumented migrants and asylum seekers.

The new law also contains provisions aimed at facilitating the integration of certain immigrants, including a more secure legal status, improved access to health care and other social services, and the ability to sponsor family members to immigrate to Italy.

On August 6, the Italian government also issued a decree allowing former Yugoslavs, Somalis, and Albanians arriving in Italy between March and June 1997, and other foreigners holding humanitarian residence permits to apply for two-year residence permits with the right to work and study. Some 48,000 former Yugoslavs and 10,000 Somalis with temporary protection were expected to obtain residence permits under the decree.

Asylum Procedure

Although the Italian government considered revisions to its asylum law during 1998, it did not pass any new legislation dealing specifically with asylum during the year. Pending legislative changes, the asylum provisions of the 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.

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. The 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. Although the 1998 immigration law provides for the creation of reception facilities in border areas to assist asylum seekers, few had been set up by year's end. Asylum seekers 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 60 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.

Another Amnesty

On June 26, the Italian government approved a plan to grant residence permits to certain categories of undocumented immigrants who entered the country before March 26, 1998, including those with family members holding Italian residence permits and those with jobs or firm offers of employment. More than 300,000 persons had applied for the residence permits at year's end, of which as many as 250,000 were expected to meet the eligibility criteria. Some 38,000 were eligible for residence permits under a 1998 immigration quota. The remainder, according to the Italian government, were to be absorbed under quotas for the years 1999 and 2000. Albanians (40,000) were the largest group of applicants, followed by Romanians (23,500), Moroccans (22,500), and Chinese (19,000).

A similar amnesty in 1995 and 1996 enabled about 220,000 undocumented foreigners working in Italy to obtain legal status.

Dublin and Schengen

On September 1, 1997, Italy began implementing the Dublin Convention, an 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.

On April 1, 1998, Italy also began full implementation of the Schengen Convention, a multilateral accord that has eliminated border controls between a subset of EU states.

The arrival of several thousand undocumented asylum seekers, mostly Kurds from Turkey and Iraq, in southern Italy in December 1997 and January 1998 prompted 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.

Under the terms of the Dublin Convention, Italy received 1,980 requests from other EU member states to assume responsibility for deciding an asylum application. In contrast, Italy requested other EU members to take responsibility for adjudicating 411 asylum claims during the year. The disparity in the figures appeared to confirm Italy's role as a country of transit for many asylum applicants seeking to go elsewhere in Europe.

Other Border Controls

In addition to revising its immigration law, Italy took several other steps to prevent the arrival of undocumented asylum seekers and migrants in 1998. In July, August, and November, respectively, Italy signed agreements with Morocco, Tunisia, and Albania aimed at preventing undocumented migrants from leaving those countries for Italy. Under the ItalianTunisian agreement, Tunisia also agreed to readmit its nationals caught while trying to enter Italy illegally. Italy agreed to provide economic development assistance in return. Italy also signed a readmission agreement with Switzerland in September.


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