The Centro Astalli, which is operated by the Jesuit Refugee Service, has just released its 22nd Annual Report. The report uses both data and personal observation to illustrate a stretch of the road taken in 2022 with asylum seekers and refugees in Italy: about 10,000 people were assisted in Rome alone; 18,000 across Italy, at locations in Palermo, Catania, Grumo Nevano, Bologna, Vicenza, Padua and Trento.
Thousands of faces – people and their stories – become written word for the report, which is arranged in three sections (plus a fourth dedicated to the regional offices of the Centro Astalli Network), headed by the three words that represent the mission of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), proposed by Fr. Pedro Arrupe, its founder: accompany, serve and defend.
The Accompany section presents first reception services. Here are some numbers: more than 46,000 meals distributed in Rome; more than 9,000 breakfasts in Palermo; more than 1,300 people accommodated in Centers and Hospitality Facilities; nearly 1,000 students received Italian schooling; about 10,000 outpatient visits, of which there were more than 8,000 in Rome, at Sa.Mi.Fo., and the remainder in outpatient clinics in Palermo and Catania.
The Serve section describes the projects implemented this year, with a focus on refugee women, employment, and countering the digital divide.
The Defend section presents the cultural activities, awareness campaigns, and national and international advocacy that Centro Astalli carried out through JRS national offices in Europe and around the world in 2022.
The year 2022 saw the crossing of an important threshold: 100 million people forced to leave their homes. After the war in the former Yugoslavia in 1992-95, 2022 saw the return of conflict to European soil with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.4 However, we cannot simply speak of “war” in the singular, but must unfortunately speak of “wars” and conflicts in the plural, not only of the war in Ukraine, but also of those in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to name just some of the countries affected.
Leafing through the pages of the Annual Report, one sees this “world in flight” (citizens from 60 nations used the services of the Centro Astalli canteen in Rome, almost as many as the estimated conflicts in the world). These are people fleeing persecution and conflict, and with them other victims of violence, who cannot wait for the best time to leave, but rely on an immediate solution, even if it means putting themselves into the hands of the worst of unscrupulous traffickers: these are people who, again and again, are left with no alternatives. Indeed, even in 2022, we have not been able to find alternative solutions, except for small numbers of refugees, through resettlement, humanitarian corridors and education opportunities. But there is a need – and it has now become urgent in the face of the dimensions of the phenomenon – to systematize legal avenues of entry on an ongoing basis, and this is a task that states cannot delegate to civil society alone.
In 2022, not only have we not found viable alternatives, but increasingly we have obstructed those who are fleeing. In fact, many of these migrants are stuck on Europe’s doorstep in Libya and in Turkey, and now we are working to make sure that this happens in Tunisia as well. This only delays and makes the journeys more dangerous (the Cutro tragedy is just one of the latest dramatic examples). Those who arrive, the survivors, are marked by trauma on their bodies and in their minds that we could have prevented if we had organized safe routes.
Welcoming refugees to Italy
The Annual Report reveals a picture of people that are welcomed, but often marginalized by laws, procedures and policies: women and men are often stuck in situations that leave them excluded.
Of the approximately 3,000 people in Rome who use the canteen and reception services of Centro Astalli, one-third have residence permits that are in the process of being finalized. This is a significant percentage, due to several factors, which are also found in other Italian cities. There is the serious situation involving those who are unable to apply to the police for asylum in a reasonable time, due to staff shortages, and thus are forced to live for weeks in precarious situations. Then there is a considerable percentage of those who are victims of the consequences of the changes in the law that took place in 2018, with the so-called “Security Decrees,” compounded by the consequences of two years of pandemic. Many have lost their jobs and are now struggling to find proper ones. With all of their documents having expired, they are unable to obtain a residence permit or convert an invalid one into a new one: for example, a humanitarian residence permit into one allowing employment.
These people are often reduced to living on the streets or working illegally. One of the most serious examples is in the Northeast, in the Trento office. It involves many asylum seekers who arrived irregularly through the Balkan route, but who do not fall within the reception quotas and end up living on the streets. It is not yet fully understood that reception and integration are closely linked means condemning people to live – or rather to survive – on the margins of our cities.
As of the end of 2022, the national reception system recorded total admissions of 107,677 people. Most of these units, however, continue to be offered by Extraordinary Reception Centers, which do not always guarantee essential services including pathways of accompaniment.
The Centro Astalli’s Regional Network manages both Extraordinary Reception Centers (in Trento, Vicenza, and Padua, but differently throughout the territory) and Reception and Integration System Centers in Bologna, Palermo, Rome and Trento. We continue to see the latter system – which at the end of 2022 housed 33,848 people (less than a third) – as the one to be expanded and invested in, so that everyone can be guaranteed effective integration and support, according to uniform national standards.
In the experience of Centro Astalli – in 2022 we dealt with 1 percent of the total number of people received in Italy (1,308 people) – the number of vulnerable people in Reception Centers is increasingly high. In Rome they have reached, in some of our facilities, up to 50 percent of all admissions. People who, if they are not accompanied and considered part of our community right away, with specific paths structured for them, will very soon be destined to be excluded from our communities, to be on the margins. National statistics detail how the migrant population is more at risk of poverty, and in the experience of Centro Astalli many refugee households (one third of the approximately 1,000 people in Rome who have turned to the social accompaniment service), including single-parent households, exist on this dangerous threshold, especially now after the pandemic.
The experience of welcoming the Ukrainian population (mainly in the Northern branches of Centro Astalli), has alerted us to the possibility of immediate access to the world of work, the opportunity to receive economic contributions directly, and the importance of a reception system that has proven flexible with respect to their needs. During 2022, 170,000 people arrived in Italy, most of whom were hosted by compatriots already residing here, and about 20 percent were in public reception facilities. These were important measures that should be expanded. Instead, on the one hand efforts are being intensified to reduce arrivals, thinking that this will make reception easier; on the other, there is the impression that this system is becoming bureaucratized and devoid of planning, instead of being as flexible and creative as possible in the face of refugees who increasingly need personalized accompaniment, starting with listening.
The integration of refugees
Addressing refugees, Pope Francis has said, “Treated as a burden, a problem, a cost, you are instead a gift. You are a witness to how our clement and merciful God knows how to transform the evil and injustice from which you suffer into a good for all.”
What has been said so far may make it seem that the arrival of refugees is just one more problem for us in this time of repeated crises. The text of Pope Francis that we have quoted invites us to move out of this defensive attitude. We think of commonly repeated attitudes such as, “We must defend our borders!” This conveys the idea that refugees are like enemies from whom we must defend ourselves. Refugees are first and foremost people whose presence helps us to look at our daily lives with a different perspective.
Three areas emerge from the Annual Report that call for new, creative and personalized focuses: work, housing, and fragility.
1) Work is a central element in the process of inclusion, but it also has a function of reconstructing people’s lives with respect to their independence, but above all to their dignity. About 1,150 people have turned to the services of the territorial offices of Centro Astalli to receive help to become autonomous, and about 2,150 initiatives have been put in place for them, including orientation, CV writing, job search, training courses and interviews.
Personalized orientation and accompaniment in the world of work can make a difference for the individual refugees involved, but they often risk remaining episodic interventions; good practices should instead be disseminated and systematized. Starting with refugees, a broader reflection on the world of work for migrant people, but in general for everyone, especially young people, is more necessary than ever.
At this time, then, it would be desirable to reopen in a non-ideological way a discussion about the Immigration Law, and what is means for the regular influx of foreign workers. There is a need to stop and think about how to bring supply and demand closer together, how to improve skills through training courses to enhance specific capabilities as well. This would pave the way for a shared tomorrow.
2) Housing. Scrolling through the pages of the Annual Report makes it clear that the issue of housing has become a real emergency for refugees, not only on arrival, but especially after leaving the Reception Centers. In some contexts, the inability to find stable housing is chronic and affects all the more vulnerable segments of society; in other contexts, however, it is due to distrust, which sometimes turns into a stubborn refusal to rent a house to foreigners, even if they have stable jobs.
Moreover, sometimes, for those who have a regular lease, in this time of crisis, especially if large or single-parent families are involved, it becomes difficult to continue to retain it. This emergency can become a challenge for the whole of civil society and at the same time represent an important opportunity for inclusion and social cohesion. Looking for new ways to give uprooted strangers – as refugees are – a chance to reside in a city that is not their city of birth – so that one day they can say, “This is my city!” – can become an opportunity for everyone.
The housing problem for refugees can be an opportunity to rethink housing policies and create innovative pathways that build community. The experience of cohousing Italian and refugee university students is a simple and practical example of coexistence between young “out-of-towners.” Or, the experience of years of welcoming refugees into religious institutes – in Rome 450 have been welcomed in 8 years – opens up the possibility of transitional housing that lets people imagine housing as part of their own migratory experience over the years: a path that changes over time, as do the places of living.
3) Fragility. We need to dwell in particular on fragile situations where we have had the opportunity to accompany others during 2022, and that has caused us to look at our cities with different eyes. We have encountered family units, including single-parent households, and single people who are facing serious physical, mental, hereditary and/or congenital diseases or are suffering from cancer, severe forms of neurological conditions, or are autistic. Caring for refugees who struggle with such situations themselves or within their families invites us to face a challenge within a challenge, one that is both cultural and social.
Fragility affects each of us, and is found in our cities. Fragility is not a foreigner, but a fully-fledged citizen. The lack of relationships for these people and families, due to their being uprooted from their homes, challenges us even more. Along with the networks of help that such situations require, there is a network of human relationships that must once again become constitutive of our communities. These situations, which are often extreme, highlight critical social contexts that need to be reconstructed, because they often isolate rather than include, being managed primarily for individuals. The extreme fragility of these people who need to build relationships within a community urges us to conceive of our cities in terms of the most vulnerable. The community must take shape around them, rather than thinking that they are merely in it.
Youth in school, workshop of fraternity
Over 20 years ago we perceived the need to start connecting with young people in schools, to raise awareness and build a shared future. This proved to be a difficult, but successful choice. Today, projects in schools on the right to asylum and interreligious dialogue throughout the country are a very positive experience provided by Centro Astalli. Almost 28,000 students have participated, in 18 Italian cities, in fruitful engagement with refugees, workers, volunteers and witnesses of different religions. We could call these projects “workshops of fraternity,” because they facilitate and help with not only the knowledge of a topic, but also the encounter with people who have experienced the drama of fleeing their country or who live a religious experience that is not Catholic.
This fraternal spirit that leads young people to identify with the people they meet at school is to be read in the stories that many of them submit at the end of projects such as the literary contest “Writing does not go into exile.” These seeds of fraternity bear many fruits, and one of them is that of Universal Civil Service, which many young people choose to do at Centro Astalli, in its different territorial locations. In 2022 there were 38 young people who dedicated a year of their lives to refugees, which in turn became “life” for others.
Answering the biblical question, “Where is your brother?”, which resonated in Pope Francis’ first apostolic journey to Lampedusa 10 years ago, today as then, is not only a responsibility but also an opportunity to transform our world and our cities into more humane places, into places of proximity, into places of fraternity, so that everyone’s future will be one of peace. Young people seem to know how to seize this opportunity; they must not be left alone.
. The Report can be downloaded from www.centroastalli.it/. It was launched on April 13 at the Teatro Argentina in Rome, in the presence of Card. Matteo Zuppi, president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, and the mayor of Rome, Roberto Gualtieri. The event was moderated by journalist Bianca Berlinguer with an introduction by testimonies of refugees received at Centro Astalli (the full recording is on Centro Astalli’s YouTube channel).
. Sa.Mi.Fo. is the Health Center for Forced Migrants, established in 2006 by the collaboration between Centro Astalli and Asl Roma 1. Today the regionally based facility is a model for the care and rehabilitation of applicants and holders of international protection who have survived violence and torture.
. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Mid-Year Trends 2022 statistical report, with data to June 2022, people fleeing their homes due to war, violence, persecution and human rights violations were reported to be 103 million, up 15 percent from the previous year and well over double the figure recorded 10 years ago. The Russian invasion of Ukraine contributed greatly to the increase in the number of displaced people: by mid-2022, they exceeded six million (www.unhcr.org/media/mid-year-trends-2022).
. According to February 2023 data from UNHCR, two and a half million Ukrainian refugees are in neighboring or nearby countries: mostly in Poland (1.5 million) and the Czech Republic (485,000); with many fewer in other European states, such as Italy (170,000).
. Resettlement, under the European program, is the process by which, at the suggestion of UNHCR, refugees in need of international protection are transferred from a non-EU country, where they have settled after fleeing their own, and resettled in a EU country with a form of legal protection. Each EU country remains responsible for individual admission decisions.
. From February 2016 to date, humanitarian corridors, funded by Catholic and Protestant churches, have allowed 6,091 people to reach Europe safely. Italy has received 5,321, more than half from camps in Lebanon (mostly Syrians), but also from Ethiopia, Greece, Libya, Niger, Jordan, and Afghanistan. The most represented countries are Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Iraq, Yemen, Democratic Republic of Congo, all countries where seemingly forgotten conflicts are ongoing. Among other European countries, only France (576), Belgium (166) and Andorra (16) followed the Italian example and opened their doors to 770 people (source Religious Information Service).
. The number of dead and missing from shipwrecks continues to rise, and now has reached 26,000 in 10 years. This year, there have already been 1,013 victims to June 6. In 2022, there had been 2,439. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) keeps track of victims with its Missing Migrants Project, active since 2014 (https://missingmigrants.iom.int/data).
. Between October and November 2018, the Italian government changed both “first reception,” which is exclusively reserved for international protection applicants (Decree of the Ministry of the Interior, November 20, 2018), and “second reception” (“Security Decree”, October 4, 2018), and abolished humanitarian protection.
. The Reception and Integration System is made up of the network of local authorities that access, within the limits of available resources, the National Fund for Asylum Policies and Services for the implementation of integrated reception projects. At the regional level, local authorities, with the valuable support of the Third Sector, guarantee integrated reception interventions that, in addition to ensuring board and lodging services, also provide in a complementary way information, accompaniment, assistance and orientation, through individual socio-economic insertion paths (www.retesai.it).
. On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Pope Francis’ pontificate, Centro Astalli published a collection of his speeches addressed to refugees received by the Jesuit Refugee Service, with a preface by Fr. Arturo Sosa, Superior General of the Society of Jesus: Una nuova rotta di umanità. Papa Francesco ai rifugiati. You can download the publication for free from www.centroastalli.it.
. Through the “Windows – Stories of Refugees” and “Encounters – Paths of Interreligious Dialogue” projects, thousands of students each year have the opportunity to hear firsthand accounts from people who have experienced exile or who are faithful to religions other than Catholicism. Information, teaching materials, aids and ways to participate can be found in the “Activities in Schools” section of www.centroastalli.it