“This is not the Europe I was dreaming of,” an Ethiopian citizen says in Internazionale’s short-film series Welcome to Italy. The young man was rescued at sea and brought to a center in Messina, Sicily, where he says he was beaten and deprived of food and water when he refused to be fingerprinted. He knew that under the “Dublin system,” identification in Italy would prevent him from applying for asylum in another EU country—an example of how the Italian reception system can become a trap.
As more and more migrants have arrived on Italy’s shores, the country’s system for receiving those migrants has grown chaotic and dysfunctional. Currently, it is a patchwork of different types of reception centers. A migrant arriving in Italy could be hosted in a huge government-run camp in the middle of nowhere, in a well-equipped urban facility, or in an abandoned building that has been turned into an “emergency reception center.” New arrivals are sheltered en masse in hotels, warehouses, and even former discos, like the one I happened to see in Sicily accommodating dozens of sub-Saharan citizens sleeping on mattresses on the dance floor.
No matter where they are placed, their asylum application is supposed to be processed within 35 days. In truth, migrants often languish in these reception centers for up to 18 months. Meanwhile, a criminal network of entrepreneurs and corrupt politicians exploits the reception system for profit: in one investigation, reputed mobster Salvatore Buzzi was taped saying, “Have you got any idea how much we can earn with immigrants? … Drug trafficking is less profitable!”
Working with a team of journalists and filmmakers, we created Welcome to Italy to depict this system through five human stories. We spent six months traveling across the country, during which we witnessed underage migrants threatened by mafia clans and asylum seekers compelled to work for poverty wages. But we also saw refugees arriving by plane instead of rickety boat, and those who have successfully found a foothold in society.
By showing both the negative and positive sides of this complex story, we aim to contribute to the debate not only in Italy, but also in the wider European context.