The hotspot approach

The migration crisis has exposed frontline Member States like Greece and Italy to a considerable strain, facing disproportionate migratory pressures at their external borders. The increasing number of arrivals led to congesting reception centres which eventually resulted in the inability to process all asylum requests lodged in Italy. The latest Italian response to this critical situation is to revamp the old Centres for Identification and Expulsion to ultimately redistribute migrants throughout the territory while returning those who are not eligible for international protection. However, this tougher policy already encountered harsh criticism that casts doubts on the implementation of this plan. According to Eurostat, in 2015, out of 153,842 migrants, 83,535 (54%) submitted protection claims in Italy whereas in 2016 out of 181,436 arrivals, 124,573 (68%) migrants applied for asylum.[1] In response to this unprecedented situation, the EU brought forward the hotspot approach, a system to ensure that all those who arrived were identified and duly processed. This mechanism should facilitate the prompt determination of migrants’ status to channel them through the appropriate procedures of international protection, relocation or return. In line with the concept of integrated border management, the hotspot is characterized by a multi-agency participation whose main actors involved are Frontex, EASO, IOM, UNHCR and Europol working under the supervision of the host Member State. Every organization works in a complementary manner under the technical coordination of national authorities. Some agencies provide support in the field of identification and research of information for investigative purposes (Frontex, Europol), while others assist those who applied for asylum (EASO, IOM, UNHCR).

The shortcomings of the hotspot approach

Despite the EU presented this strategy as an effective response to the migration crisis, the absence of a legal basis coupled with the lack of clarity regarding the treatment of those who did not qualify for international protection raised suspicions on alleged violations of human rights.[2] In an effort to improve the overall security and streamline procedures in force at the Italian hotspots, the Ministry of Interior issued a publication containing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to regulate all the processes related to identification, registration and fingerprinting. Nevertheless, this non-binding document failed to address issues like protracted detention at the hotspots and the use of force to obtain fingerprints which were not contemplated under such circumstances and still remain unregulated under Italian law. Apart from these legal concerns, the increasing number of arrivals also led to congested hotspots insofar as to hamper the processing of protection claims. According to the data provided by Eurostat, in 2015 only 72% of the asylum requests lodged in Italy were processed while in 2016 this figure reached almost 85%. Likewise, after one year since the hotspot structures were set into motion, it has become clear that this approach is contributing to the relocation schemes originally proposed by the EU at a very slow pace. According to the latest EU Commission report, out of 160,000 applicants in clear need of protection initially agreed upon, only 8,162 migrants were relocated so far (6,212 from Greece and 1,950 from Italy).[3] Apparently, this strategy increased the burden on frontline countries while creating degrading conditions at reception centres which often spiraled out of control. Recently, the collapsing hotspot system have generated migrant revolts that were met by the protests of people living in the neighbourhood of those centres. While migrants lament the lack of adequate assistance, populist slogans fuel the rising fear of terrorists infiltrating amongst asylum-seekers.

The Italian plan: from the Hotspot to the Repatriation Centre

Against this critical background, the latest plan presented by the newly appointed Italian Minister of Interior seems to open a path towards the return to a fully operational reception system while restoring the confidence into the Schengen area. However, this strategy faces three major challenges in its implementation: redistributing migrants in every Italian region, strengthening international relations with key third countries and encouraging the externalization of border management through law-enforcement cooperation. Although the government promptly assured that the proposal to open a Repatriation Centre (hereinafter CPR) for every region is meant to simplify bureaucratic procedures and alleviate pressure on the overcrowded hotspot system, this burden-sharing mechanism among municipalities in proportion to its inhabitants has already sparked a heated debate. In fact, similar structures called Centres for Identification and Expulsion (hereinafter CIE) were already introduced in 1998.[4] Today, out of 13 CIE originally opened, 9 were closed and 4 have a reduced capacity following the damages caused by migrant riots. As a result, the main issue now is to open new and smaller reception structures far away from the city centres that will host about 80-100 migrants maximum to guarantee a fair distribution throughout the territory. Although under Italian law migrants can be detained in a CIE for a period up to three months,[5] a human rights authority will be designated in order to prevent potential violations committed within the new reception centres. According to the government, these new CPR will guarantee an efficient processing of the claims submitted by the applicants through one court judgment without the possibility to appeal rejection decisions. However, regarding this latter aspect, it is still unclear whether this judicial procedure could produce effects upon the right to an effective remedy enshrined in the article 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the right to appeal set forth in the article 14 of the Schengen Borders Code.

International cooperation

As far as closer ties with key partners in Northern Africa are concerned, the Italian Minister of Interiors visited Tunisia and Libya to offer technical cooperation in the field of border security through capacity-building and border assistance programmes that will also involve the active participation of Italian forces. Apart from providing support to managing external borders to stem immigration flows from countries of origin, these diplomatic relations will also serve the purpose of negotiating readmission agreements. In fact, unless all the procedures are properly in place, it is very difficult to proceed to forced returns. So far, the Italian government has finalized these agreements with Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and Nigeria while signing a law-enforcement cooperation agreement to tackle human beings trafficking with Sudan. While the long-standing partnership with Tunisia seems to have paved the way for a fruitful cooperation in the mid-term, relations with Libya have already led to the signature of a Memorandum of Understanding on technical cooperation. In particular, once the training of Libyan Coast Guard and Navy will be accomplished under the aegis of EUNAVFOR Med, Libyan military personnel will hopefully assist the European Border and Coast Guard in reducing migratory pressure in the central Mediterranean route.[6] However, returns to Libya still raise questions as to how the unresolved issues related to the concept of “safe third country”[7] will be addressed in order to comply with human rights provisions, with a particular reference to the principle of non-refoulement.[8]

Future challenges

This new plan comes at a time when the Italian government eventually abandoned the EU-blame culture and steered to a different course. Seemingly, Italy has finally decided to take the helm in order to manage disproportionate migratory pressure at its borders. In an effort to strike the right balance between the need to ensure international protection to all those who are eligible and to swiftly return those who are not entitled to stay, this tougher policy on irregular migration has been positively hailed by the EU Commissioner for Migration. On the other hand, national political parties raised doubts over the feasibility of this plan and admonished that relabeling CIE will not contribute to reducing migratory pressure in Italy. According to leaders of the opposition, rather than expediting procedures and decongesting existing centres, opening a CPR for every region will only increase speculation and enhance the risk that these structures will fall into the hands of criminal organizations. In 2015, a major criminal investigation exposed a network that ran the business of reception centres under the protection of organized crime. Therefore, the greatest challenges in the implementation of this plan still remain to ensure the transparent governance of these new structures as well as ensuring a fair distribution of migrants to ultimately restore the proper functioning of reception facilities. In addition, since the purpose of CPR is also to expedite procedures to enforce return decisions regarding those who do not qualify as asylum seekers under international law, Italy could call on the enlargement of Frontex’s mandate on return to maximize the effectiveness of return operations. In accordance with the respect for fundamental rights, readmission procedures from the Italian territory could be implemented under the technical coordination of the Return Support Unit established within the European Border and Coast Guard.[9]

Marco Fantinato

PhD Candidate in International Law and Human Rights,

University “La Sapienza”, Rome


Notes

[1] Eurostat database.;

[2] Hotspot Italy – How EU’s flagship approach leads to violations of refugee and migrant rights, Amnesty International Report 2016;

[3] Eighth report on relocation and resettlement, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council, Brussels, 8.12.2016 COM(2016) 791 final;

[4] Article 12 of the law 40/1998 (Turco-Napolitano) as amended by law 125/2008;

[5] Article 3 of the law 161/2014;

[6] Council Decision (CFSP) 2015/778 of 18 May 2015 on a European Union military operation in the Southern Central Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR-Med). On 30 August 2016, the Political and Security Committee (PSC) authorized the training of the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy personnel;

[7] UNHCR Position on Returns to Libya – Update I, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), October 2015, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/561cd8804.html;

[8] Hirsi Jamaa and others vs Italy, European Court of Human Rights, application no. 27765/09;

[9] Article 27 of the Regulation (EU) 2016/1624 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 14 September 2016 on the European Border and Coast Guard.