Documentary Dissects ‘Informal’ Italian Policy on Refugees, Migrants

A new film looks at the harm done by the practice in Italy of ‘informal readmissions’ by which refugees and migrants were swiftly sent back over the border with Slovenia in 2020. Ignoring a court ruling that suspended the practice, Italy’s new government says it will be revived.

“Looking at it from the border at night, Trieste is beautiful; the lights of the city are reflected in the water and everything lights up.”

Spoken by a migrant crossing between Slovenia and Italy, these are the words that gave Matteo Calore, Stefano Collizzolli and Andrea Segre the title of their new documentary film, ‘Trieste è bella di notte’ [Trieste is Beautiful at Night].

Behind the beauty of the northern Italian port city, however, lies a darker story, one of migrants and refugees spirited back over the border into Slovenia by Italian authorities under a practice of ‘informal readmissions’ that denies them the right to seek asylum.

Since 2015, when migrants and refugees from the Middle East, Asia and Africa began crossing the Balkans in significant numbers, Trieste has been a hub for those trying to reach bigger Italian cities or continue deeper into Western Europe.

The film, produced by the Padua-based collective ZaLab, follows refugees and migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, some of whom have already made it to Italy or are trying to do so, and takes a closer look at so-called ‘informal readmissions’.

Based on a 1996 bilateral agreement between Italy and Slovenia, the practice was deployed heavily in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Italian police would arrest migrants and refugees who had crossed illegally into the Trieste area, process them via an accelerated procedure, and then hand them back to Slovenia.

Slovenia sent them back to Croatia, until eventually the migrants and refugees found themselves back in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where conditions were dire.

In January 2021, an Italian court ruled the practice unlawful, but the new right-wing government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has indicated it plans to reinstate it.

“We began working on this story with the intention of reporting what had happened, but we knew that the [Italian state’s] silence on the matter was significant,” Segre, one of the filmmakers, told BIRN.

“We didn’t know when or if the practice would be reactivated, but the silence would have enabled anyone to restart the readmissions at any time.”

‘Worst thing that ever happened to me’

Filmed between Trieste and Bihac, a town in northwestern Bosnia near the border with European Union member Croatia, the documentary relies almost exclusively on the voices of migrants who had either experienced ‘readmissions’ first-hand or were in the process of taking the so-called Balkan Route.

The contrast between those who still harbour hope of reaching their destination and those who have endured the abuses of police forces of various states is stark.

“Seeing those lights [of Trieste] was the happiest moment of my life,” one says, recalling the moment he jumped the barbed wire along the Slovenian-Italian border. His joy was short-lived.

Quickly apprehended by Italian police, within 48 hours the man found himself back in Bosnia without any paper to prove he had ever reached Italy.

There are similar accounts throughout the film, described in detailed and emotionally-charged interviews.

“The day of the readmission was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” said one. “It was terrible; I didn’t die that day, but it was like the Apocalypse for me.”

Another tells the filmmakers: “I will only feel happy, maybe, once I receive international protection in Italy. As an asylum seeker, there’s no difference being in the woods in Bosnia until I have the necessary documents to prove my status.”

A problem with the rule of law

Segre said that when he first heard about the practice, “I couldn’t believe my ears.”

“The government was deliberately employing chain deportations outside of the Schengen area, something completely illegal, and even openly discussed it in parliament,” he told BIRN.

After months of pressure from NGOs and rights groups, in July 2020 then Under-Secretary of State for Interior Affairs, Achille Variati, admitted what authorities were doing, telling parliament that he referred to as “informal readmission” was a legitimate practice via “consolidated quick procedures” based on the 1996 agreement.

It was ‘informal’ because there was no paper trail; nothing was recorded in official documents.

“This demonstrates that the ethical horizon and rule of law in the country have reached a real low point,” said Segre.

“Not only was the Italian government doing illegal things, but it was also consciously trying to mask them using a definition that doesn’t add up. When have you heard of a state conducting ‘informal’ operations?”

In January 2021, following a legal complaint filed on behalf of a Pakistani citizen who was subjected to ‘informal readmission’, the Rome Tribunal ruled the practice illegal. It was suspended, but the Italian government never publicly acknowledged the court ruling.

Unsurprisingly, Meloni’s government wasted little time in seeking to revive the practice with a directive that Italian media reported was signed on November 28, barely a month after the government took office.

Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi went public with the policy in mid-January after a meeting with local authorities in Trieste.

“We believe that readmission is a legitimate tool and that it is necessary to reactivate and strengthen it,” Piantedosi told reporters. “We believe it is a tool that is perfectly in line with European and international norms, applied bilaterally as with France.”

As yet, there is no clear evidence that the practice has resumed.

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