As part of the project “Alternatives to detention: towards an effective and humane migration management” carried out in collaboration with Progetto Diritti, the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights (Coalizione Italiana per le Libertà e i Diritti civili, CILD) is conducting a series of in-depth studies with experts in the field.
After interviewing Mr. Jerome Phelps and Prof. Giuseppe Campesi, it is the turn of Giulia Fabini, Adjunct Professor and Research Fellow at the University of Bologna, and Assistant Editor at the European Journal of Criminology. Dr. Fabini’s research activity has focused on border, territory, security and irregular immigration control practices. Over the past years, she directed particular attention to the work of the Justices of the Peace and to detention from a gender perspective. With us, she spoke about the “selective, punitive and symbolic nature of administrative detention in Italy” and its alternatives, which, according to her, are strongly related to regularisation.
In some of your studies you argue that, in Italy, police forces implement a selective strategy in the management of irregular immigration. Could you tell us something more about this?
In Italy there are currently 600,000 irregular immigrants, all of whom are, in theory, the targets of the expulsion mechanism. The police’s task to expel all of them is, however, impossible. Consequently, a selection mechanism has been put in place. The main challenge is understanding whether this selection system is schizophrenic, whether it occurs by chance and samples, or whether it follows a specific logic. Research has shown that there is, in fact, a selection logic behind the practices of migration management; some subjects are selected instead of others due to specific criteria and needs.
My research initially focused on the Bolognese context in 2010-2011 and looked at the practices of irregular immigration control carried out by local police. From the interviews I conducted with police and migrants, the idea that emerged was that irregular immigration control was closely linked to drug dealing suspicions. It, hence, appeared that there was an instrumental use of immigration law, which allows for a wide margin of discretion. According to the interviewees, this discretion was exploited to deal with the phenomenon of “migrant dangerousness”, a concept that Prof. Giuseppe Campesi and I adopted to explain the rhetoric behind the use of administrative detention and its alternatives. The practice of territory control thus overlapped with that of irregular immigration management, as immigration law was an instrument in the hands of the police to control matters outside irregular immigration (e.g. managing the territory and the population, responding to context-specific media campaigns and trends). It was easier to prove that a person was irregular than proving that he/she was dealing.
The idea of “migrant dangerousness” was also confirmed in later studies. Although paradoxically one’s irregularity is sufficient for him/her to be detained in a pre-removal centre, dangerousness seems to be a fundamental element in the administrative detention rhetoric. Migrants, police and Justices of the Peace have all told me that the risk of ending up in a pre-removal centre is greater if the person has committed a crime. Being irregular is hence not a determinant factor in one’s detention; having committed a crime is. It is hence necessary to analyse and deconstruct the subject’s dangerousness. Detained migrants are individuals affected by strong marginality, characterised by poverty, sometimes involved with dealing drugs and sometimes – even if to a lesser degree0 in crimes against the person, which are all direct results of the very condition of irregularity.
There is another aspect that needs to be taken into consideration: the subjectivity of dangerousness. The latter changes from context to context, from city to city, from police headquarters to police headquarters, from government to government, from Justice of the Peace to Justice of the Peace. This subjectivity was perfectly exemplified in the context of Bologna in 2013, when the local Centre for Identification and Expulsion (CIE) was still active. A Justice of the Peace then told me that, which the local police headquarters only detained migrants who were “actually criminals”, other police headquarters detained also “non-threatening” ones (i.e. those who had not committed a crime).
Is the concept of “migrant dangerousness” still valid today?
I think it would be strange if the management of irregular immigration and expulsions were to have changed. However, I do not state it with absolute certainty, as I would first have to analyse more recent empirical data. I would have to understand if those who applied for international protection or held a permit for international protection were subject to expulsion orders, to alternatives to detention or to detention measures. However, today this mapping is difficult due to the increase in the number of pre-removal centres and the new possibility of detaining migrants in other undefined structures as well as established with the so-called Salvini Decree.
The context in which a study is conducted is also very important: e.g. in Bologna there is currently no pre-removal centre; in Bari there is one of the only centres that have always remained active and in closer contact with the hotspots; in Gradisca d’Isonzo there is a “border” pre-removal centre. Nonetheless, in any of these different contexts,, the employment of mass detention would be unexpected and confusing. Since the available places in the centres are limited, what is the police’s interest in stopping and detaining all irregular migrants? Faced with a lack of readmission agreements, what is the logic of detaining individuals that are unlikely to be expelled?
Alongside the concept of “migrant dangerousness”, there are other aspects that should be explored. Recent studies conducted in Spain introduced the idea of “managerial turn”, namely how detention’s selective criteria have changed and currently focus more on the migrants’ nationality. After the economic crisis, the need for efficient expulsion procedures further increased, leading to the selection and detention only of those third-country nationals who could be expelled. In my opinion, in Italy, administrative detention remains a selective practice, which is based on the idea of dangerousness and some other factors. This, however, is only a hypothesis. There is a lack of data and the data that we do have is not collected adequately, making it difficult to disaggregate information. For example, the data on expulsions and rejections is sometimes considered jointly and sometimes it is not; hence it is not clear when it concerns expulsions and when it concerns rejections.
Even though the data shows that less than 50% of the detained migrants are actually repatriated and that once repatriated they often return to Italy, many actors in different fields continue to bolster the argument for the importance of immigration detention centres. Why do you think this is?
Ever since administrative detention centers were built, repatriated migrants never constituted more than 50% of the detained population. It has also been shown that expulsions either occur during the first month of detention or they do not occur at all, especially if there are no readmission agreements with countries of origin. It follows that, since the declared objective of administrative detention is expulsion and since it is only possible in a limited number of cases, the goal does not justify the means. From a legal and functional standpoint, administrative detention is not an effective tool; it does not “self-justify”.
The actual function of pre-removal centres, however, is not limited to an expulsive capacity. There are a series of undeclared objectives that serve as an extra tool for the police to manage the territory, thus attributing to administrative detention a different conception of usefulness. In a legal system that produces irregularity – which is accompanied by marginalisation, illegal work, precarious living conditions – pre-removal centers and expulsion decrees become tools with which the police can stop someone for reasons of public “decorum” and population management. The control of irregular immigration is hence no longer a factor that determines the usefulness of the immigration detention centres, which are used to achieve other objectives. There is a whole other set of requirements that leads to detention and that must be analysed.
During the health emergency, the number of migrants detained in pre-removal centres considerably decreased without any consequences for public order. In your opinion, can this fact become a precedent?
I am asking myself the same question. The justification for administrative detention is legally lost when expulsions cannot be carried out. Following the decrease in the detained population during the health emergency and the consequent blockade of expulsion, one could argue that if it is possible not to detain or expel individuals in an emergency situation, there is no need to do so under normal conditions as well. Nevertheless, this argument only holds if we believe in social justice and it is not strong enough to counter those who affirm that “in exceptional times it is right not to detain irregular people because you cannot expel them, in normal circumstances it is”.
There is also an issue of public order. By underlining that no public disorder followed the reduced number of detained migrants, we reinforce the idea that individuals should not be detained because they are not dangerous. I would like to stress once again that migrants should not be detained in any case on the basis of alleged dangerousness and that, according to immigration law, they should be detained only because they are irregular. This type of critical remark proves that administrative detention is justified by the perception of the individual’s dangerousness even though there is another system in place to detain “migrant dangerousness”; for a person guilty of having committed crimes there is prison and not administrative detention.
The questions that we have to ask ourselves should be instead: Why weren’t all the detained migrants released? How do we justify this?
How did migration management change after the closure of the Bologna Centre for Identification and Expulsion (CIE) in 2013?
During my PhD research I was part of the LEXILIUM Observatory, which operated in Florence as well as in four cities with administrative detention centres (i.e. Rome, Bari, Bologna and Turin). When I started in 2011 the CIE in Bologna was open and it remained active until March 2013. It was very interesting to see how migration management on the territory changed after this date. As there were no possibilities to locally detain immigrants, police and Justices of the Peace turned to coercive alternatives measures to detention, in particular regular reporting, surrender of passport and identity documents and home confinement. References to these measures only appeared in 2014; in files of 2011, 2012 and 2013 (the years preceding the closure of the centre) no mention was made to alternatives to detention.From interviews I conducted with migrants in Bologna in 2011, 2013 and 2015, the core perception that emerged was that the closure of the centre was equivalent to a safeguard from expulsion.
It is, however, difficult to determine the impact that this change had on migration management since several other factors came into play at the same time. 2014-2015 was the period of the so-called “refugee crisis”; the reception system widened, the public’s approach to migration changed, and the concept of “illegal immigrants” was substituted by that of “asylum seekers”. The security paradigm re-emerged and, with it, the association of “asylum-seeker-terrorist”, which fortunately did not become prevalent in the Italian migration management discourse. There was also a re-declination of “dangerousness of the subject”, who was no longer dangerous because he/she dealt drugs or stole, but because he/she was expensive and took resources away from locals. Similarly, border control policies were readapted and greater attention was directed towards external borders. The closure of the Bolognese CIE was thus only one of many variables in a broader context of change.
It would be interesting to see how, in the years of the so-called refugee crisis, the instrument of alternatives to detention was used in cities where there were no pre-removal centres. It would help to understand who was detained in these centres, for what reasons and whether the control mechanisms were as strong as they were in the past. Lastly, attention must be paid to the research itself, to the phenomena that we bring to light with our research questions and to those that we leave in the shadows by not addressing.
In the current Italian context, is it possible to implement non-coercive alternatives to detention (e.g. case management)?
Our overall objectives should be regularisation and the free movement from one country to another independently from one’s passport, and in order to achieve these results, we must elaborate a series of steps. By providing material support to individuals in difficult contexts, facilitating collaborations, preventing people from being uprooted and taken to unknown countries, and, if necessary, by encouraging voluntary repatriation, tools such as case management are pragmatic and useful solutions that allow us to proceed in this direction. The same voluntary repatriations can become an interesting strategy of action. Let me explain. I once met a Justice of the Peace who considered voluntary repatriation as an “instrument of help”. He claimed that voluntary repatriation was employed to bring to light difficult situations and help the people in question regularise themselves. Considering that the Justice of the Peace has the possibility to postpone the date of return, migrants are given the time to put together a series of elements that might justify their stay.
Therefore, the problem is at its source: it lies in the very production of irregularity (i.e. immigration laws). Despite its strong interconnection with social problems, this same irregularity is considered useful by society and, hence, exploited – just think of all the jobs carried out by irregular third-country nationals, e.g. carers, agricultural workers, food delivery persons. Therefore, the production of irregularity is the first factor that must be addressed.
Cover photo via Facebook