12 May 2022
On 28 November 2021, Wissem Ben Abdellatif, a 26-year-old Tunisian man, died in a hospital in Rome after suffering a heart attack. He had been transferred to the hospital from the Ponte Galeria detention centre, where he was being held whilst awaiting deportation. A new report dedicated to his memory examines the experiences of Tunisian citizens deported from Italy. Based on over 50 in-depth interviews with deportees, it concludes that Tunisians are regularly denied their rights after arriving in Italian territory (for example, to legal advice, information, or adequate living conditions), and that the situation is propelled by a security-minded approach to migration that has been implemented across the EU and its member states for at least two decades.
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Report criticises the treatment of Tunisian deportees in Italy
The report, ‘Study on the conditions of stay and trajectories of Tunisian migrants repatriated by Italy’, was published by Avocats sans Frontières (ASF), Associazione Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione (ASGI) and the Forum Tunisien pour les Droits Économiques et Sociaux (FTDES) at the end of March.  It examines the reasons behind Tunisian citizens’ “irregular” migration by sea to Italy, and the conditions they face upon arrival. Data provided by 53 expellees is used to make sense of control measures that lead to systematic returns to the North African country and to draw the attention of the authorities to the discriminatory treatment to which they are subjected, which neglects their social needs. As well as that of Wissem Ben Abdellatif, the report highlights the death Ezzedine Anani in December 2021 in the Gradisca d’Isonzo detention centre (Centro di Permanenza per i Rimpatri, CPR), and questions whether migration policies can reconcile security and humanitarian concerns.
Increases in arrivals, interceptions and deportations
Tunisian migrant arrivals in Italy tripled in 2021 compared to 2018 and Tunisians were the main nationality of arrivals by sea in Italy, accounting for over a third of the total. Diplomatic efforts to stop departures intensified in the summer of 2020, leading to increases in deportations and operations by the Tunisian Coast Guard to intercept vessels in Tunisian waters, which led to six times as many people being intercepted in 2021 as in 2018. 1,922 Tunisians were returned from Italy in 2020 (1,872 in 2021), amounting to 73.5% of the total number of returns, followed by Egypt and Albania, with 231 and 140 returns respectively.
Number of Tunisian citizens arriving in Italy by sea
Number of people intercepted in Tunisian waters by the Tunisian Coast Guard
Socioeconomic profile of Tunisian migrants
This study relies on information provided by 53 Tunisians deported from Italy, who were interviewed by Tunisian lawyers. The data reveals that Tunisian migrants are mainly young males from disadvantaged settings (in terms of socio-economic conditions, economic capital and professional qualifications). Although they are often portrayed in Europe as criminals attempting to escape punishment, this is not the case.
The primary hometowns of those interviewed were Sfax (22%) and Medenine (19%), and a majority (75%) of them were between 20 and 30 years old. They had medium levels of education and half of them (50.9%) were unemployed. They earned an average of 100 Tunisian dinars per month, about €31 or £26 (half had no income; 11% earned between 200 and 400 dinars; and 19% earned between 400 and 600 dinars).
The average cost of crossings was expensive, compared to average incomes: the average price was 4,645 dinars (€1,430 or £1,230), the highest price paid was 15,000 dinars (€4,600 or almost £4,000), and 71% of participants contracted debts to pay for their journey. 26% of participants attempted multiple crossings.
Reception and detention conditions in hotspots, quarantine ships and CPRs
The report then focuses on detention and reception conditions, including instances of personal or institutional violence, noting that Tunisians undergo painful experiences: from interception or rescues at sea by the Italian Coast Guard, to removal to Tunisia. Three types of holding facilities are examined in the report: hotspots, quarantine ships and pre-deportation detention centres (CPRs).
Regarding the hotspots institutionalised by the 2015 European Agenda on Migration to identify, register and fingerprint people who arrive on EU territory, a further purpose is to distinguish people who have a right to international protection from those who do not and must be repatriated, so-called “economic migrants”.
24,884 people of all nationalities (18,715 men, 1,641 women and 4,528 minors) were held in four Italian hotspots in 2020: 19,874 of them in Lampedusa; 3,277 in Pozzallo; 1,031 in Taranto; and 702 in Messina. 11,183 of the people held in hotspots were Tunisian, mostly men (9,087), although minors (1,746) and women (359) were also processed. 90% of Tunisians were held in Lampedusa and 10% in Trapani.
Italian law allows asylum seekers to be held for identification. It requires that dedicated areas be set up within hotspots, and that people be held for the shortest possible time (up to a maximum of 30 days) to verify their identity and nationality. If identification proves impossible, people may be held in CPRs for a maximum of 90 days, extendable by a further 30 days if they come from a country with which Italy has a readmission agreement. Detention in sites other than CPRs is allowed whilst the authorities await the approval of an order to accompany the people in question to the border. These conditions are not fulfilled, but they would nonetheless raise issues of compatibility with the Italian constitution and EU law.
Detention practices for identification, repatriation or selection for reception facilities purposes are a source of concern due to a lack of judicial oversight, the report notes. Legal reforms have failed to strengthen safeguards or reduce fundamental rights violations, including arbitrary detention in hotspots and acts of violence therein. Tunisian participants in the study were held in hotspots for an average of four days before undergoing quarantine, without any information provided to them or judicial scrutiny of their detention; two participants stayed in hotspots for 22 days. Italy was condemned in 2016 by the European Court of Human Rights for arbitrarily detaining Tunisians in the Khlaifia et al vs. Italy case in the Lampedusa reception centre and on board of navy ships-cum-detention sites near Palermo, without any available remedies.  Five years on, this problem persists.
Another type of holding facility examined by the report are the quarantine ships established by a civil protection department decree on 12 April 2020 in response to the Covid 19 pandemic. All foreign citizens who arrive irregularly by sea, autonomously, or after rescues and interceptions at sea, were quarantined, usually on a cruise ship. A public health emergency was used to ensure that migrants would not escape authorities’ control, as had happened in July 2021, when 200 people left quarantine, deeming the conditions they were held in to be “inhuman”. Several ships were deployed for this purpose and, in the first semester of 2021, 11,833 foreign citizens (10,513 men and 1,320 women) underwent medical checks on such vessels, of whom 1,524 were Tunisians. The number of Tunisians quarantined on ships had grown to 4,788 (out of a total of 16,090 people) by November 2021.
This exceptional measure lasts from a minimum of 10 days to more than a month and was justified by public health concerns, but it appears to have become routine. 98% of the study’s participants were held on quarantine ships, while 2% were transferred to other structures, and were held in isolation for 14 days on average. Within a logic of selection and expulsion of migrants, these facilities extend the length of time during which people are held or detained to speed up returns, consolidating procedures to sort people on the basis of an arbitrary distinction between asylum seekers and economic migrants. Covid 19 measures evolved into a lengthy and arbitrary segregation of foreign citizens, exacerbated by obstacles to accessing procedures and information.
A third type of holding centre examined by the report are CPRs. After quarantine on ships, people are transferred to the corresponding centres for the legal status they are assigned. In the first semester of 2021, interior ministry data show that around 833 Tunisians were transferred to reception facilities such as CARAs (reception centres for asylum seekers), CASs (extraordinary reception centres) for adults or minors, an MSNA (centre for unaccompanied minors) and accommodation in the SAI (reception and integration network).
Many Tunisians were “returned” following either the issuing of expulsion orders or deferred refusal of entry, as happened to all of the study’s 53 participants. These two typologies of return have similar consequences, including three to five-year re-entry bans, but Italy does not apply the Returns Directive’s safeguards to deferred refusals of entry. These people are deemed “economic migrants” who cannot claim a right to stay in Italy, resulting in orders for removal, which may be preceded by a spell in detention, if the individual cannot be immediately removed.
CPRs are for foreign citizens awaiting execution of expulsion measures, but asylum seekers may also be held there after lodging an application or if they request protection when they are already in a CPR. This administrative detention follows “irregular” entry and is accompanied by an expulsion order, although a lack of available detention places may lead to administrative authorities issuing a “foglio di via” instructing them to leave Italian territory within seven days.
2,623 Tunisians were detained in CPRs in 2020, which is more than half of the 4,387 detained foreign citizens, as official figures show continued to be the case in 2021 (2,465 Tunisian detainees out of a total of 4,489 until November). The study’s participants were all transferred to CPRs, 38% of them in Turin, 27% in Rome’s Ponte Galeria, 12% in Milan, 10% in Gradisca, 5% in Brindisi, and 3% in Caltanissetta. Italy’s eight functioning CPRs (the six previously listed, plus Macomer in Sardinia and Palazzo San Gervasio in Potenza) have higher occupancy rates that their normal capacity, with the highest overcrowding rate (almost 400%) in Milan.
The length of stays in CPRs depends on how long it takes to organise a return. Most returns to Tunisia are by charter flight to Enfidha-Hammamet international airport and the time taken to organise such flights has decreased after agreements between Italy and Tunisia were renewed in 2021. Nonetheless, detainees are sometimes held in CPRs for weeks or months, without adequate judicial and administrative oversight. Judicial oversight should apply to people denied their freedom, to guarantee compliance with fundamental rights, information requirements and the right to effective remedies before a judge. However, this does not always apply in the field of migration management, leading to unlawful and arbitrary detention practices, as has been noted by the ombudsman for people who are denied their freedom.
Detained foreign citizens are often denied information about the reasons for their detention, their legal status and the date when their deportation is scheduled for. 89% of participants in the study were not informed of the reason for their detention; 84% of them participated in hearings on their detention, but were unable to appeal against their expulsion order and detention; the appeals lodged by seven people were unsuccessful. CPRs are deemed to lack an adequate legal framework, which means that they lack fundamental safeguards and enable wide discretional powers to be exercised by public authorities and detention centre management.
Differential treatment and restrictions undermine some detainees’ fundamental rights. 52% of participants claimed they did not have sufficient food on quarantine ships, 14% declared that they did not have a bed or chair, or a mattress and clean bed linen, and 96% complained about a lack of access to showers or hot water, although most received hygiene kits. The worst situation was in CPRs, where multiple rights violations occur, from poor detention conditions to confiscation of mobile phones, lack of internet access, lengthy suspensions of visits and an inability to receive phone calls from abroad.
Drawing on the observation of the ombudsman for the rights of people in state custody that people are reduced to “bodies to hold and contain”, criticism is levelled at the CPRs’ architecture that does not consider social relations and the need for exercise spaces, sites of worship and educational activities. Unacceptable conditions in CPRs include small cells in which several people have to live, eat and sleep; unhygienic circumstances; lack of natural light and ventilation; and a lack of spaces for common activities. Participants’ responses indicate that Tunisians were discriminated against in CPRs.
Rationale of the hotspot approach
The third part of the report examines the logic behind the hotspot approach and migration policies in EU states, concluding that security prevails over reception and that their goal is to protect Europe from “external enemies”. The European Agenda on Migration instituted hotspots near entry points as a way to support member states experiencing disproportionate pressure at the EU’s external borders and to improve reception practices, but they mainly function to swiftly “identify, categorise and block” people. The proposed ‘Screening Regulation’ would entrench this practice across the EU. Access to information once people enter a country is crucial to create regularisation pathways, a possibility under EU and national law. A lack of (or provision of incomplete) legal information that would enable the assertion of their rights is a barrier for Tunisians in Italy and 70% of participants did not duly receive information.
An initial information slip becomes a binding record, often without the people concerned understanding the written text before signing it in a coercive context. 34% of participants claimed not have been provided interpretation and 55% claimed they did not understand the content of what they felt compelled to sign. 66% of participants were provided interpretation, 50% of whom said that interpreters were not impartial. Hence, most Tunisians end up in detention awaiting returns without being informed that they could apply for protection. 80% of participants claimed not to have received any document to explain their situation, the reasons for their predicament, its consequences (three or five-year re-entry bans) and the possibility of filing appeals. The authors note that this lack of information is a way to speed up removals.
Safe country status and access to international protection
Italy classified Tunisia as a safe country of origin in 2019, affecting international protection applications by Tunisians by enabling fast-track procedures (only 13% of respondents to the study had an interview, usually without legal assistance). Authorities, staff in centres and cultural mediators exercise a degree of discretional power to allow or reject access to demand asylum on the basis of applicants’ countries of origin, despite eligibility formally depending on personal circumstances leading to flight.
An “information note” (foglio notizie) is the first-level screening to impede Tunisian citizens’ access to asylum procedures based on where they come from. A lack of information at disembarkation points resulted in 70% of participants not submitting international protection requests, whereas 30% claimed that they were prevented from doing so. Fast-track procedures presume that the situation in Tunisia means that people are not fleeing persecution, in a system that does not consider, for example, that sexual orientation (three participants claimed that they were persecuted for this reason) may lead to discrimination (in law and practice) in Tunisia.
Limits to international protection derive from a lack of information and interviews to make their case, fast-track procedures, and from Tunisia’s classification as a safe country of origin. This situation is compounded by the Schengen area re-entry ban that applies in cases involving expulsion or deferred returns, which affect both “economic migrants” and possible asylum-seekers whose lives may be at risk, constituting a serious violation of the right to seek asylum.
This report stresses that it focuses on “the tip of the iceberg”, the impact of security-minded migration policy on thousands of people forced into living illegally who are criminalised by policies and detention practices. Socio-economic analysis shows the “social homogeneity” of Tunisian deportees from Italy. At a consular level, denial of visas enabling legal migration may result from unemployment and a lack of social support entitlements. The visa processing methodology allows wealthier people to escape the nets laid out by migration management. Other reasons for denying visas may apply if applicants may not be able to return to their country of origin, in a system to turn mobility into a privilege in which consular authorities have discretion to refuse visas due to personal interpretations or “suspicions”. This discriminatory procedure has driven EU migration policies for 20 years.
Once young Tunisians are caught in the migration management “web”, it is hard to free themselves due to reception activities that leave them without information in situations designed to stop them exercising their rights. Swift detention in CPRs awaiting removal is enacted without the authorities providing the necessary information on the chance to request international protection, the reasons for their detention and removal, the chance to access a lawyer’s services and the date of their planned “return”.
Detention conditions in hotspots and CPRs (overcrowding, length of detention, pervasive violence and restrictions that violate their rights) fuel insecurity and psychological discomfort, leading to attempted suicides, as well as serving to debase these people and their social relations. Most participants contracted debts to pay for their journeys, which raises the issue of the cost of migration policies for migrants’ families.
The report should be viewed as part of efforts to oppose mechanisms of control and repression against migrations, from detention conditions and human rights violations, to the violence and discriminatory rationale driven by a will to exclude that underlies these control mechanisms. Calling for standards to be upheld in hotspots and detention centres is not a way to legitimate such structures, but rather, to question their existence and the migration management system of which they are a part.
 ASF, ASGI and FTDES, ‘Etude sur les conditions de séjour et les trajectoires des migrant.e.s tunisien.ne.s rapatrié.e.s en italie’, 30 March 2022, https://ftdes.net/etude-sur-les-conditions-de-sejour-et-les-trajectoires-des-migrant-e-s-tunisien-ne-s-rapatrie-e-s-en-italie/
 ‘Khlaifia sentence: Italy still under scrutiny for violations in hotspots’, Statewatch, 4 May 2021, https://www.statewatch.org/news/2021/may/khlaifia-sentence-italy-still-under-scrutiny-for-violations-in-hotspots/; Yasha Maccanico, ‘Khlaifia judgement reveals illegal detention and collective expulsion practices in Italy’s treatment of Tunisians in 2011 - Commission’s plans for readmission agreements and summary returns contravene the ECHR’, February 2016, https://www.statewatch.org/media/documents/analyses/no-282-chr-judgment-italy-detention-expulsion.pdf; Case of Khlaifia and others vs. Italy, application no. 16483/12, Judgement, Strasbourg, 15 December 2016, https://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-170054
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