The departure on buses of COVID-19 positive migrants to the Celio military hospital in Rome from Amantea, Southern Italy, 14 July 2020 | Photo: ANSA/Elvira Madrigrano
The departure on buses of COVID-19 positive migrants to the Celio military hospital in Rome from Amantea, Southern Italy, 14 July 2020 | Photo: ANSA/Elvira Madrigrano

A new report thinks yes. An Italian rights group recently published a report in which it details several infringements of migrant rights during the lockdown and restrictions designed to fight the coronavirus pandemic. It says that deprivations of personal liberty became more numerous during the lockdown and allowed the authorities to "extend the maximum duration of […] restrictive measure[s]."

"The places of detention can be defined facilities, as in the case of CPRs [Centers of stay for Repatriation] where you can be detained for up to 180 days, but can also be other, less structured locations: police stations, waiting rooms at borders, or even means of transport where quarantine can be carried out, as last occurred with the Rubattino ship and the Moby Zazà ship," states the introduction to a 38-page report produced by the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights (CILD).

In its report, CILD details a number of instances where migrants, during the restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19, were detained "for weeks and sometimes months," thus depriving individuals of their personal liberties -- liberties that are due to them under the Italian constitution as well as international law.

The National Guarantor of the rights of persons, in a recent report to the Italian parliament, reminded lawmakers that often, when a person is labeled "a migrant," this "new identity of 'migrant' can sometimes lead to being recipients of a 'minor right' of treatment often not respectful of the standards provided for by international conventions."

Fewer rights for migrants?

This is because, the National Guarantor went on, "upon arrival on Italian soil, the 'migrant' is reserved a place in a hotspot to be identified, perhaps in a structure with only two bathrooms for 40 people and a mattress for sleeping in the open air, or sharing rooms, which are either very cold or very hot, with people from other countries who, as 'migrants' too, have a little less right to temporary housing in which the minimum sanitation standards are respected."

The National Guarantor said that essentially many of the conditions that migrants were subjected to in Italy could be defined as a "limbo of legal protection." He added that this treatment had become worse during "COVID-19 times" because on arrival, migrants were placed into statutory quarantine, which in some cases was "prolonged indefinitely," beyond the period of 14 days because each time new arrivals were admitted to the quarantine facility, the clock essentially started ticking from the beginning again.

Tunisian migrants aboard a boat intercepted off Lampedusa enter the islands port  Photo ANSAElio Desiderio The National Guarantor also said that in several facilities in Italy, the treatment of migrants had infringed four different articles of the Italian constitution, guaranteeing "the protection of health" of all citizens, "the principle of equality," the principle of "inviolable personal liberty" and that all alleged wrongdoers be provided with "humane and non-gratuitous treatment."

The report says that the increase in the numbers of migrant arrivals in April, then May and June increased the numbers of people in quarantine in the reception centers and hotspots and led to an "increasingly complex situation, especially in Lampedusa, where the decay and the limited capacity within established hotspots led authorities to look for new facilities – and ships -- to host new arrivals by sea."

According to UN Refugee Agency UNHCR's latest figures to August 2, a total of 14,051 people have arrived by sea in Italy since the beginning of the year. The report covers the period up to the beginning of July but the increases it noted in May and June have in some cases more than doubled in July. For instance, in May one day saw 192 arrivals and in June one day registered 295 migrant arrivals, by July these numbers were peaking at 597 on one day. The majority of those arrivals hail from Tunisia (over 40%), followed by about 13% of migrants from Bangladesh, 2% from Algeria and 1% from Ivory Coast.


According to the report, hotspots have been present in Italy since 2015. It said the residence time in these facilities can vary "from one day to weeks and, in exceptional cases, detention therein has continued for more than two months." The report found that the living conditions in these places, which are not designed for long stays are "severely sub-standard and there have been numerous complaints from sector NGOs about systematic violations of fundamental rights."

From April, the hotspots became "temporary places of quarantine" and essentially ended up limiting the personal freedom of migrants being held there. On Lampedusa in April, one hotspot ended up accommodating 111 people at one time with a maximum capacity of 96. The report says that because of this overcrowding, there was "insufficient sanitation and insufficient ability to implement preventative contagion measures." The Gateway to Europe is a monument dedicated to migrants in Lampedusa  Photo ANSAUNHCR was also not allowed to visit the hotspot during the health emergency which, noted CILD, means that "it must therefore be assumed that no information was provided to those held there on the right to seek international protection."

When a further four people entered the hotspot on April 21, the mayor of Lampedusa, Totò Martello, extended the 14-day quarantine until April 28 for all of those detained, regardless of when they had arrived. The National Guarantor said that this "endless" restarting of quarantine was "far from acceptable."

Protest and self harm

According to CILD's report, by the end of April those detained had begun to "protest and self harm." One inmate declared "we can’t take it anymore." Those detained in April were moved to a reception center in Tuscany in central Italy on May 5. Two days later, a further 108 migrants entered the hotspot on Lampedusa. Throughout June, the hotspot was used as a sorting and screening facility where people were hosted while awaiting transfers to other reception centers around Italy.

After leaving the hotspot, their fate is "not known," states the CILD report. It is believed some of them went on to Centers of stay for Repatriation (CPRs) in Puglia, some ended up in a CPR near Rome's Fiumicino airport, Ponte Galeria. Normally, from Ponte Galeria migrants are repatriated to their countries of origin; this time, however, some then applied for asylum, leading the National Guarantor to wonder whether the possibility of seeking asylum sooner had been offered to them.The Lampedusa hotspot  Photo ANSAAt another hotspot on the Sicilian mainland in Pozzallo in April, the first case of a migrant suffering from COVID-19 was confirmed. This 15-year-old Egyptian boy had already been screened but undiagnosed on Lampedusa. His arrival in Pozzallo on April 10 meant that all the migrants present in the hotspot at the time were kept in solitary confinement and under constant observation until April 28. Then, on receiving negative swab tests, they were transferred to the Lazio region around Rome.

Because of the block on travel worldwide, some of those migrants who had been brought to land by the Sea-Watch 3 on February 27 were unable to travel to the countries where they had "sucessfully obtained rights of relocation." These 57 people were held in Messina until June 23. CILD put in a freedom of information request in May to find out the fate of these people but has not yet received an answer from the relevant authorities.

Centers of stay for Repatriation

The report also looks at migrants detained in CPRs where it is permissible to detain someone "up to 180 days or even a year in exceptional cases." During the health emergency, CILD said it was difficult for them to establish exactly how many people were being transferred to CPRs after their period of quarantine had ended. CILD noted that in some CPRs there were "incidents of injuries, assaults, episodes of self-harm and at least one attempted suicide." One boy from Benin decided to "throw himself from a five meter wall within the center after a Justice of the Peace -- a judicial officer -- had decided, for the umpteenth time, to extend his detention in the CPR for another 30 days, despite the fact that his lawyer had produced the necessary documentation to demonstrate his roots in Sardinian territory." Law enforcement in front of the center for repatriations in Ponte Galeria in Rome  Photo ARCHIVEANSAFABIO FRUSTACIIn the same center in Sardinia, a Moroccan boy was allegedly "mistreated after deciding not to eat by sewing his mouth." Some detainees in that center were also detained "longer than the maximum retention period of 180 days."

Quarantine ships

Finally, the report questions whether the recent use of quarantine ships for migrants off shore is essentially a way to hold people with no charge for longer than necessary. The report says that holding people at sea who have already suffered for several days at sea is inhumane and unfair.

The quarantine ships arrived in May after the Italian government declared its ports unsafe places because of the health emergency. Critics, like the NGOs Sea-Watch, Doctors without Borders (MSF), Open Arms, Mediterranea Saving Humans and Tavolo Asilo (Table for Asylum), said that Italy "by depriving its ports of safe places, arbitrarily and without providing alternatives, […] was and is accused of not guaranteeing human rights and neglecting its responsibilities." The Tirrenia ship Rubattino just prior to the transfer of migrants rescued at sea aboard the Alan Kurdi ahead of their being placed in quarantine on the ship  Photo ANSAFRANCESCO NUCCIOThe UNHCR, IOM and the Council of Europe also asked the Italian government to reverse its decision. On board the ships, according to the National Guarantor, migrants, at first, did not have the possibility to apply for asylum, didn't have access to family reunification procedures and could not be assisted as victims of trafficking. It was later reported that these rights were being offered by members of the Red Cross team working on board.

There are currently three quarantine ships operating off shore at a cost, according to CILD, of €1 million per ship per month.

In conclusion, CILD called for a "critical review of current migration policies." It also criticized the tendency to outsource, which in some cases led to migrants being returned to Libya. It said that "Italian and European military forces cannot be invested to facilitate actions contrary to the law of the sea and the principle of non-refoulement." They said that as some restrictions have gradually been eased in Italy, not all the restrictions placed on migrants were following suit. They said they were worried that this "new normality" might result in a "lesser" normality for some "even more devoid of rights and guarantees." They called the increases in detentions in CPRs and hotspots "without legal basis worrying."

Finally, the report repeatedly noted the instances when it came up against a lack of, or difficulty in obtaining, information regarding numbers and the fates of migrants in detention or residential centers. This lack of information and access to some centers, CILD worried, could be prolonged under the guise of public health protection measures and could, in some cases, lead to more abuses of migrant rights in the future.


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