Europe’s Migrant-Industrial Complex
Countries like Italy and Britain are making it too easy for corrupt politicians and opportunistic multinationals to turn a migration crisis into profit.
By the time M, a 28-year-old Syrian refugee, arrived at a court in Milan for his asylum claim hearing in early 2015, he was so furious that he no longer cared what the court decided. In October 2013, the Italian navy rescued him from a capsized smuggler boat off the coast of Lampedusa. He spent the months that followed being shuttled around Italy’s migration reception centers, the camps and hostels used to house the tens of thousands of irregular migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean in recent years. When I met M in May at a café in Salerno, a city in southern Italy, he had been waiting to have his case heard for over a year. “I said to the judge, ‘Everyone here is mafia, even the government,’” M told me.
Unlike some European countries, which forcibly detain undocumented migrants on a large scale, Italy’s system is, in theory, voluntary. It is composed of reception centers run by state-funded local contractors, where migrants are relatively free to come and go. These centers for new arrivals are supposed to provide food and board, while a secondary system, known as Sistema di protezione per richiedenti asilo e rifugiati, or Protection System for Asylum-Seekers and Refugees (SPRAR), is intended to offer a range of services to help refugees integrate into Italian society, such as language lessons and job training. But for many migrants who can’t work legally without documents and are forced to rely on state support, things haven’t gone as planned.
Picking up his phone, M showed me a photograph of a SPRAR center he’d been assigned to on the southern Italian mainland. A former youth hostel, it had no hot water or electric light. Other residents found it hard to access medical treatment, and there were no interpreters on hand to help the inhabitants — from a range of places, including Syria, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Somalia, and Iraq — understand their documents. Yet the local cooperative running the center, which included a lawyer and a Catholic charity, was being paid just over 1,000 euros a month for each of the 33 people housed there. Of that, each person had been given a 75-euro monthly allowance. So where was the rest of the money going?
Italy’s Mediterranean migration crisis is dire: Some 170,000 people were rescued from the sea last year, while more than 50,000 have arrived this year so far. As Italy confronts its massive humanitarian challenge, the task of looking after the new arrivals claiming asylum has become a lucrative business and has created new opportunities for corruption. This month, one of the most notorious corruption cases popped back into headlines when Italian police arrested 44 people, including prominent politicians, who they suspected of corruptly allocating contracts to run migrant reception centers. “Do you know how much I earn from immigrants?” one of the alleged ringleaders boasted in a wiretap recording from the investigation released in December. “Drug trafficking is less profitable.”
The migrants, fleeing war and poverty around the world, seem to be arriving at the worst possible time, in a country only now making its way out of economic crisis, on a continent where the outsourcing of vital services, from prisons to schools to healthcare, is a growing trend. Indeed, it would be a mistake to see the case currently being investigated in Italy as just a symptom of the country’s historic problems with corruption and organized crime. A lack of accountability and the mistreatment of vulnerable refugees are present in many European countries: These issues are made worse by outsourcing, particularly when the services are run for-profit.
Britain has pioneered the outsourcing of public services. Some 90 billion pounds a year — around half of London’s public expenditures — goes to pay private contractors for a variety of services. Many of these services are performed by the same small, exclusive coterie of multinational corporations. In a report published in December 2014, the British Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, which oversees public spending, heavily criticized G4S and Serco, two of the largest private providers. “[A] culture of revenue- and profit-driven performance incentives” had too often been “misaligned with the needs of the public who fund and depend on these services” for a range of government responsibilities, outgoing committee chair Margaret Hodge said.
When Britain began expanding its use of detention centers — prisons in all but name for migrants who have claimed asylum or whose claims have failed and are awaiting deportation — in the early 2000s, it welcomed private contractors to do the work. According to British investigative journalist Clare Sambrook, this “created a market” in which contractors sought to maximize their profits by running the detention centers at low costs and allowing the state to neglect its responsibility to care for migrants.
Today, around two-thirds of Britain’s detention centers are privately run. The most notorious is the Serco-run Yarl’s Wood outside London, the subject of repeated allegations about the sexual abuse of female detainees. Officials usually bar journalists from entering Yarl’s Wood, recently forcing the BBC to produce an animated film based on detainees’ testimonies about life inside since it could not film there. Even the U.N.’s special rapporteur on violence against women was denied entry. “Civil servants, instead of holding contractors to account, have defended them from scrutiny,” Sambrook told me.
Asylum-seekers in Britain who are not detained — usually the most vulnerable individuals and families with children — are forbidden from working, forcing them to rely on state-provided housing. In 2012, that created yet another opportunity for private companies. That year, the British government privatized the asylum-seeker housing service, in hopes of saving 140 million pounds over seven years, according to government accounting figures. Three multinationals — G4S, Serco, and Clearel — now run these housing projects. Last year, the government was forced to temporarily house newly arrived refugees in hotels at extra cost to taxpayers because the private providers had not kept up with demand. A Public Accounts Committee report in April 2014 said that the standard of accommodation was often “unacceptably poor,” while journalists have reported on asylum-seekers being forced to live in crowded, damp, and rat-infested homes.
Whether it’s through local corruption, as in Italy, or the failings of global corporations, as in Britain, the drive towards privatization and outsourcing has opened the way for mismanagement and abuse in Europe’s asylum system. But it’s not the root of the problem. State-run systems often have significant failings, too.
In late 2013, 12,000 refugees, most of them Syrian, arrived in Bulgaria via its southern border with Turkey, catching the government in Sofia completely by surprise. The global NGO Doctors Without Borders, which normally operates only in developing countries, found the conditions in Bulgaria’s hastily built “overflow” camps — in the first few months of their existence, tents with no electricity or running water — so poor that it decided to set up medical clinics there to treat the migrants. Greece’s government-run detention centers have also long been condemned by NGOs like Human Rights Watch for their “inhumane” conditions. In interviews, inmates at these centers say they have been detained for well over the EU’s limit of 18 months. And earlier this year, Greek newspaper To Vima reported on a confidential police report regarding torture by guards at the Amygdaleza detention center just outside Athens. Although the current Greek government has pledged to close these centers, for the moment they remain open.
Yet as the crisis in the Mediterranean demonstrates, desperate people will take extreme measures to reach safety. Around 600,000 people arrived in Europe to claim asylum last year, a number that is sure to rise in the years to come. This week, European interior ministers have been squabbling over a proposed quota system to resettle refugees and take the pressure off Italy. But the migrants themselves are still being talked of as a burden.
Countries across Europe have their own unique problems. Italy needs to address corruption in its outsourced reception center system, just as Britain needs to ensure more accountability in its detention facilities. But that is only part of the solution. The system must recognize that migrants are people with rights, who need support to build new lives and participate in the society around them. If Italy succeeds in this, then it has the potential to change Europe’s whole approach to undocumented migration.
Some migrants are taking matters into their own hands. On my visit to Salerno in May, M told me he is working with a group of migrants’ rights activists to compile a dossier and bring a formal complaint against the SPRAR center where he was housed. Another refugee from Mali named T is now living in a SPRAR center in Sicily. He had been on the road for nearly three years, since rebels attacked his home in 2012. He was tired of running. “Italians need to realize that this situation can’t be reversed,” he said. “We’ve become part of the landscape.”
Photo credit: Jean Christophe Magnenet/AFP