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Centre-left Italian mayors are refusing to implement a government decree targeting migrants

A rally in support of Palermo’s mayor Leoluca Orlando (right), after he defied a new security decree. Igor Petyx/EPA

Around 500 people will be evicted from a large refugee reception centre in Castelnuovo di Porto, a town close to Rome, before the end of January. The move follows the adoption of a new “security decree” in early December 2018 by the Italian parliament, which reduces the rights of migrants and asylum seekers.

The decree was spearheaded by Matteo Salvini, the deputy prime minister and leader of the right-wing Northern League, currently governing Italy in coalition with the populist 5 Star Movement, led by the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte.

But while some areas of Italy are complying with the new decree, a number of mayors and regional authorities have refused to implement it. On January 2, the centre-left mayor of the Sicilian city of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, announced his intention not to apply the decree. Other “disobedient” mayors have quickly followed suit. So too have entire regions – especially those run by the centre-left Democratic Party, such as Tuscany, Emilia Romagna, Umbria and Piedmont.

Orlando said the decree was “inhuman and criminogenic” as it makes migrants – including children and those on a work permit – irregular, and excessively interferes with their human rights. The mayor ordered the chief of the Palermo Register Office not to apply the part of the new decree that stops migrants with a residence permit from registering with the municipality. Such registration provides access to services, including health care, job centres and schooling – all of which would be denied to migrants should the decree be applied.

Centre-left mayors in Naples, Florence, Parma, Pescara and Reggio Calabria have also refused to implement the security decree. Now, some of the regions run by centre-left parties are considering bringing the matter to the attention of Italy’s Constitutional Court. They argue that the decree legislates on matters that, under the constitution, belong to regional competences – in particular, public health, vocational training and right to education.

As well as depriving migrants of basic services and fundamental rights, the decree also abolishes the two-year residence permit for humanitarian reasons. This was given to migrants whose asylum claim was rejected but for various reasons such as their health, or serious poverty in their country of origin, would not be forced to return.

The decree also closes the System of Protection of Asylum Seekers and Refugees (or SPRARs) to asylum seekers. These are places where migrants usually benefit from ad-hoc programmes to facilitate their integration, such as Italian language courses or vocational training. From now on, SPRARs will only be open to unaccompanied children and those whose asylum application has been successful – not to migrants waiting for a decision on their asylum application and whose residence permit for humanitarian reasons has expired.

According to the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, this is likely to result in an increase in the number of migrants living on Italian territory irregularly – and in their possible engagement in criminal activities. In order to survive, they may take on undocumented work – which is itself illegal – or end up exploited by criminal networks. The decree also gives local authorities more power to criminalise “unwanted” people, such as the homeless or squatters in empty buildings, and ban them from public spaces. This may criminalise migrants even further.

People leaving the refugee reception centre in Castiglione di Porto in late January. Massimo Percossi/EPA

Excluding by decree

Such harsh security provisions targeting migrants are not exclusive to right-wing political parties in Italy – centre-left governments have also used them. In late February 2017, the centre-left government of Paolo Gentiloni adopted two decrees: one to deal with migration and one to address the issue of security in cities. One of the effects allowed municipalities to adopt administrative orders to protect the “decorum”, the “urban liveability” and the “peace and quiet of residents”, and to ban people from certain city areas.

Such language, as our research has illustrated, went against a 2011 ruling by the Constitutional Court, ordering legislators to avoid vague legal formulations that result in very broad powers for local authorities. In the past, such powers have been used by local authorities run by both right and left-wing political parties to excessively penalise harmless yet undesired behaviour, or the unwanted presence in public spaces of people such as Roma people, beggars, sex workers and refugees.

Read more: Why Italian courts are struggling to protect people's freedom in public spaces

Local realities

This time, however, local authorities led mostly by centre-left parties are worried about the impact the government’s new security decree will have on their local areas. What they don’t want to happen is more migrants, made irregular by the new decree, on their streets with no access to health care, jobs and schooling.

The mayors would rather focus on integration, rather than repression. They have expressed these concerns through their association, the ANCI, which is currently discussing workable solutions with the prime minister to reduce the number of migrants who will be made “irregular” by the new security decree.

At the centre of this issue is a disjunction between the government – and the Northern League in particular – and the realities of local politics. While the government wants to show the electorate it is taking a firm stance against migration, local administrators need to deal with migrants on a daily basis – and do not want to unnecessarily criminalise them.

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