venerdì 7 marzo 2014

The future of the Italian reception system. Interview with the Director of the Servizio Centrale of the SPRAR system, Daniela Di Capua

The 29th of January 2014 was an important day for the Italian reception system
Indeed, 456 SPRAR projects were approved by the Ministry of the Interior, increasing the overall capacity of the SPRAR system which has now reached 13.020 places.  
6.500 additional SPRAR places have also been approved and can be activated, if deemed necessary, upon the request of the Home Office. 

The Italian Reception System

Although obviously fluctuating, it can fairly be said that the number of asylum claims in Italy has been significant over the past years. Contradictorily, the measures adopted by the Italian governments to tackle this influx have been driven by a sense of “permanent emergency” and characterised by improvisation and a lack of planning, as emphasised by UNHCR in this July 2013 paper. 
As a result, we have witnessed various reception systems developing in parallel, without any coordination and without rules on their respective competence. 

The most important measures put in place by Italy for the reception of asylum seekers have been:
  • SPRAR (System of Protection for Asylum Seekers and Refugees): projects run by municipalities in collaboration with NGOs, where asylum seekers (and holders of international protection in the first 6 months following the grant of protection) are hosted in small centres or even flats. Generally speaking, they are characterized by a high level of services and good (even if decreasing) results in terms of integration and interaction with the hosting community. 
  • CARA (Centres for the Reception of Asylum Seekers): big governmental centres run by NGOs, located in the South of Italy and in big cities. Generally speaking, they are characterized by a low level of services, overcrowding, no relation with the hosting community at all...

The main problem, which has always been at the basis of the Italian weakness in the field of reception, is the lack of places, be them within the SPRAR system or the CARA system. This structural weakness has often pushed the Italian authorities to resort to further temporary, extemporaneous or “emergency” solutions (hotels, former schools, former military barracks, “bed & breakfasts”,...) with a very poor level of services and no coordination with the other existing systems of reception

In particular, the overall capacity of the SPRAR system – despite it being publicly referred to as a flagship by the Italian authorities – has always been wholly inadequate to respond to the growing presence of asylum seekers in Italy. Suffice it to mention that only three years ago the SPRAR system consisted of only 3.000 places accross the whole of Italy
In 2012 and 2013 the SPRAR system has constantly grown with ad hoc, temporary expansions, bringing the system's capacity to around 9.500 places at the end of 2013. 
But it is only with the Ministerial decree of the 29th of January 2014 – which will be valid for the period 2014-2016 – that the SPRAR system eventually reached a structural capacity of 13.020 places plus 6.500 additional places

Despite being a very good result, this is far from sufficient to cover all the existing needs, especially if we consider that the turnover rate within the SPRAR structures is not particularly high. This means that the SPRAR will not be the Italian reception system but will only come to constitute a bigger part of the system, as compared to previous years
Overcrowded, isolated and extemporaneous measures will continue to be resorted to by the Italian authorities to host some asylum seekers. The percentage of the “lucky ones” who will find a place in the enlarged SPRAR system, compared with the “unlucky ones” who will not find a place in a SPRAR project, will largely depend on the influxes of asylum seekers over the next years and on the turnover rate within the SPRAR. 

Furthermore, we see the risk that this expansion – although welcome! – could lower the average standards of the services of the SPRAR system, given that many NGOs that will run, in collaboration with the municipalities, the newly-approved projects lack the necessary expertise in this field.

Our interview with Daniela Di Capua -  Director of the Servizio Centrale of the SPRAR

How did we get to this point? What are the main risks of this expansion and what has been and will be done in order to prevent them from occurring? What is the future of the Italian reception system
These are the questions we asked to the Director of the Servizio Centrale of the SPRAR system, Daniela Di Capua. You can find a translation of her answers below.

1) In the last years, the number of asylum claims in Italy, although fluctuating, has certainly been significant. However, institutions have tended to respond to this issue in a contradictory way, and strategic and structural planning seems to be missing as highlighted also by UNHCR. On the one hand, SPRAR has been considered a good practice at the European level but with limited accommodation capacity. On the other hand, there are CARA and the extensive use of improvised and emergency solutions. After several “expansions” of the system and with the approval of the last decree (456 projects and 13.000 places plus 6.500 additional places), SPRAR has finally reached a dimension more in line with the real needs. How did we get here?

It is the result of a shared journey started almost 15 years ago when Italy began to try to deal with the reception of asylum seekers in a more structured way. Paradoxically, the major change occurred in the last few years with the so-called Emergenza Nord Africa (ENA - North African Emergency). Indeed, the way it was managed highlighted some very critical points so that SPRAR became the point of reference. In mid-2012, the Home Office established a national round table with the purpose of coordinating reception policies. Participants to the round table included the Home Office, the Department of Integration, the Department of Labour, representatives of the Regions, Provinces and Municipalities, and UNHCR as an external participant. This round table then acquired a permanent role. Regardless of the results achieved, it must be stressed that this coordination body represented the first attempt to share responsibilities and operational decisions between different levels of government. 
The national round table put forward two proposals. The first proposal concerned the commitment to maintain the way undertaken until then and to create only one reception system, with SPRAR as its core element. This single system should be widespread and unique in the sense that reception and integration are to be seen  as stages of the same process and it must be open to all asylum seekers and beneficiaries of international protection. The second proposal was consequential and consisted in strengthening SPRAR capacity and moving beyond CARA. A possible alternative to CARA was identified in the establishment of so-called HUB, namely first reception centres, spread across the entire  national territory, preferably organized regionally, small-sized, and intended for short periods of stay. This proposal also referred to a more structural and coherent reorganisation of the reception of unaccompanied asylum seeking minors and to the launch of regional round tables to complement the national one. As of today, some objectives have been achieved. These include the increase in SPRAR capacity that should have initially grown from 3.000 to 5.000 places, but then was augmented to 8.000 places and finally last year a decree established 16.000 places as the overall accommodation capacity.

2) It seems that the idea is to move away from the periods of time individuals spend in the big common centres of the South (CARA), towards a rapid transfer of those individuals, upon arrival, in dislocated centres in various regional territories (HUB). From there, we would then attempt to insert them quickly in the SPRAR. What are the main difficulties that this change bring to the Italian reception system?

Aside from the obstacle of the (lack of) resources, which is constant and cross-cutting, the main difficulty lies in the fact that not all regions are immediately willing to be an active part of these regional round tables; not to mention their (un)willingness to receive a permanent collective centre in their territory.
Last year we witnessed many arrivals: about 43.000, out of which the majority were asylum seekers. The Home Office has had to use structures for temporary stays, which were improvised, extraordinary, limited to a provision of the basic services, opened “where possible”, where they could find availability. Concurrently, the Home Office identified big structures which should instead have had more structural and structured characteristics in the cities of Siracusa, Ragusa, San Giuliano di Puglia and Trapani. However, we are very far from having “regional centres”.
The second main obstacle that we witness is the length of the procedure for the evaluation of the international protection claims from the “Territorial Commissions” (Commissioni Territoriali – the administrative bodies in charge of examining asylum claims at 1st instance). This is a huge problem because the mechanisms are such that to transfer within one or two months an asylum seeker into a SPRAR project would also mean having a notable prolongation of the procedure and, consequently, of the period of reception, up to more than a year. Even a network of 20.000 places would be rapidly blocked because we would have a problem of turnover. This is a topic that the national round table has tackled several times: the big difficulty will lie in the fact that according to the relevant legislation, one cannot open more than 20 Territorial Commissions; or, rather, no more than 10 Territorial Commissions and an additional 10 sections of those Commissions. As of today, all of these sections have been opened already: three are working for the CARA of Mineo exclusively, which is now hosting 4000 people (which is an unimaginable, unthinkable thing...). 
The duration of the procedure is partly due to the modalities of the interview and to the fact that we cannot hold in advance that individuals that arrive from certain countries, where we recognise a generalised situation of conflict, can be – given the impossibility of removing them – considered by default as beneficiaries of humanitarian or subsidiary protection without having to go through the Commission. We have not been able to implement those measures, and this has created significant problems, including for the reception system.

3) Could you give us an updated picture of the situation? How many asylum seekers are in the waiting list to get into the SPRAR and how is Italy providing for their reception? Is it plausible to affirm that the 6.500 additional SPRAR places that have been approved with the new decree SPRAR will be immediately used?

This is the situation: there are 13.020 SPRAR places which the decree has financed and activated on the spot. Out of those places, almost 10.000 are already used because last year there have been extra-ordinary expansions of the SPRAR, which have brought the network from 3.000 to 9.500 places. We have then approximately 1.000 individuals  who are also part of the expansion of last year I have just mentioned, but who have not been reinserted automatically in the new decree and who thus have to be transferred in the SPRAR.
There are then 700 additional individuals who are considered “vulnerable” and come from the time of the North African Emergency - ENA. Their reception so far has continued to be financed by the prefectures. We will need to verify, case by case, which ones are indeed vulnerable individuals, and which ones have simply been in the reception system for the past three years. The latter will have to leave the centres, but some of those 700 will have to be inserted in the SPRAR.
Further, we have many requests of reception which arrive from those who cross the border, in particular from Fiumicino and Trieste. 
Further, we also have to take into consideration  those persons who have been inserted between the end of last year and the beginning of this one in “temporary structures” activated by the Home Office (about 5.000 individuals). Those persons, precisely because they have been hosted in “temporary structures”,  will also have to transit in the SPRAR.
Thus, by doing the maths, we can clearly see that we are way beyond the 13.000 places that are currently being financed
We have notified the situation at the national round table, and we have come to agree that there is no point in keeping asking the prefectures to identify “temporary structures” when there is instead the possibility to activate 6.500 added places that the network SPRAR could guarantee. The difficulty is that the resources that the prefectures use for the “temporary structures” are not the same than the ones that should be used for the SPRAR. In any case, the Home Office too has agreed that priority should be given to the activation of the 6.500 additional SPRAR places rather than new “temporary structures”. It is also worth reminding that the problem is very recent, given that the decree has only been approved on 29 January, and only a few days have passed since we have become aware that the places on paper are in fact all used already.

4) Such an important expansion of the SPRAR system carries a number of risks with it as regards the reduction of the quality standards of the reception system. What precautionary measures have been adopted to reduce these risks? Have you foreseen the establishment of new measures to evaluate the effectiveness and the outcomes of the operations, similar to what other EU Member States have already?  

The assessment of the applications to become SPRAR projects was up to an evaluating commission. Servizio Centrale gave technical support to that commission to examine the documents required and apply the clauses envisaged in the public tender for the SPRAR projects. The evaluation commission clearly expressed the will to select the largest possible number of projects which were in line with the procedures and requirements. Further information was requested to some of the SPRAR projects applicants, in particular for certain new projects which missed particular details in their applications. Again, everything was done in line with the rules, keeping open the possibility for the applicants to give further clarifications where necessary at a later stage. 
We now witness, for the first time, a reversed ration between the old and the new projects. In the past, given a very small increase of places, the percentage of new projects was small, and easy to be watered down by the old projects: now, we have 156 old-settled projects among a total of 456 projects, bringing the new projects, and the new NGOs running projects to a majority. Obviously not all of them are, since some of the NGOs running the projects are already experienced in this field, but there are many new managing companies. 
We see this expansion as a very positive thing, also because the majority of the 456 projects are run by a municipality (partnering with NGOs) and supported by some neighbouring municipalities with their respective capacity and reception centres. This means that the number of municipalities involved in the SPRAR system is around three times as big as the number of projects, bringing the number of local municipalities involved up to around 1500. This is a great step ahead which facilitates a widespread reception system, social inclusion, fight against discrimination and racism, and will give great results in the future. The SPRAR system, which started with 50 SPRAR projects, contributed to a more correct, transparent, fair, public information on foreigners, the reception system and the use of funds.

Obviously the difficulty, as you rightly noted in the question, is to make sure that all these new SPRAR projects do not reduce the quality standards of the reception network: we need to keep high standards, and it is in this optic that we should work on the new projects. 
Servizio Centrale has three means to do this: 1) recruiting new personnel working locally in order to guarantee more presence in the monitoring phase and to continuously support the SPRAR projects; 2) training: we already planned a training scheme for all the new SPRAR projects, to go through all the SPRAR guidelines. We will then  have to do follow-up trainings on specific topics (the legal system, integration), possibly through interactive workshops; 3) improving the quality of the SPRAR database, which should be more advanced and simple as well as easier to use as regards reporting.