The International Detention Coalition (IDC) joins Italian civil society organisations in expressing concern about the Italian government’s plans to expand the use of immigration detention.


At the end of 2016, the new Interior Minister announced plans to establish Identification and Expulsion Centers (CIE) in every region within Italy. A circular issued by the Head of Police reportedly included increased use of immigration detention to control irregular migration and promote returns.


The announcements come as European Union migration and asylum policy is set to lead to an increase in immigration detention across the region. In neighbouring country Greece, government policy to reduce immigration detention has already been reversed with detention centres again at full capacity.


Italy’s new policy signals the reversal of reforms in 2014, which saw the closure of a number of CIEs and the reduction of the maximum time in immigration detention from 18 months to 90 days.


The failure of immigration detention in Italy


The plans to expand detention have been heavily criticised by several Italian civil society organisations including IDC member ASGI, Antigone and the Italian Coalition for Civil Rights and Freedoms (CILD).


Patrizio Gonnella, President of CILD and Antigone, said “this debate doesn’t take into consideration the historic failure of immigration detention in Italy, as seen by international reports, numbers and judgements [LT3] ”.


Italy moved away from using immigration detention in 2014, following a national movement to close immigration detention centres, a series of protests in detention centres and revelations about inhumane conditions of detention. A number of bodies including the Senate highlighted the failings of immigration detention, which was found to be harmful, expensive and largely ineffective in effectuating returns. A Senate Committee report found that if people were detained for more than 90 days it was very unlikely that return would take place at all.


Time to develop alternatives


Despite moving away from the use of immigration detention, Italy has yet to develop effective alternatives to detention (ATD) as required by International and EU law. The EU Commission has recommended for example, that States provide individual coaching, including “systematic advice on all options for case resolution to individuals from an early stage” as an ATD in the returns context. It has recognised that repressive systems based on systematic detention are likely to be ineffective as they provide little incentive for individuals to cooperate in resolving their case.


Research findings at the international level also mirror this finding. The IDC’s handbook There Are Alternatives identifies over 250 examples of alternatives to detention worldwide, with the most effective alternatives using case management to empower individuals, ensuring that individuals are informed and are able to meet their basic needs while working towards resolution of their immigration case.


These engagement-based alternatives have been shown to be far cheaper, more humane and highly effective in terms of compliance and case resolution: producing better results for governments and individuals concerned. There a number of positive practices of community support and case-management provided to asylum seekers and irregular migrants in Italy, which could be drawn upon to develop such alternatives.


Italy has been commended for reducing its immigration detention estate and providing a model of reform for the European Union more broadly. Using alternatives to immigration detention presents an opportunity for Italy to continue providing a positive example in the region: of how to meet legitimate migration policy goals and respect the rights of migrants while ensuring immigration detention is used only exceptionally as a last resort.


De facto detention and the Khlaifia case


In December 2016, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) delivered its final judgment in the case of Khlaifia and Others v. Italy, concerning the de facto detention of applicants of Tunisian origin in a reception centre in Lampedusa and subsequently on Italian military ships in 2011, prior to their removal to Tunisia.


The Grand Chamber of the ECtHR found that given the restrictions imposed on the applicants by the authorities (including police surveillance and the fact that they were not able to freely leave the reception centre or ships), the applicants were deprived of their liberty within the meaning of Article 5 of the ECHR. This deprivation of liberty was unlawful as it had no clear and accessible legal basis in Italian law and did not satisfy the general principle of legal certainty (violation of article 5 (1)).


The court found several further violations of the right to liberty and security (Article 5), including the right to be informed promptly of the reasons for arrest (Article 5 (2)) and the right judicial review of detention (Article 5 (4)), as well as a violation of the right to an effective remedy (Article 13 in conjunction with Article 3).


Italy received the largest number of arrivals in the European Union in 2016 with a reported 181,436 arrivals by sea. The Khlaifia case may have implications for the EU’s hotspot approach, which has been criticised for involving de facto detention in Italy and especially in Greece.


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