Migrants saved by Ocean Viking, January 24 2021. Photo : Fabian Mondl / SOS Méditerranée
Migrants saved by Ocean Viking, January 24 2021. Photo : Fabian Mondl / SOS Méditerranée

What happens to migrants who are rescued in the Mediterranean Sea and then brought to shore in Italy? InfoMigrants explains the procedure of fingerprinting, compulsory health quarantine, and the steps that follow.

This article was updated in February 2021.

Migrants who embark on the highly dangerous journey accross the Mediterranean Sea do so in the hope of being rescued by a humanitarian aid vessel or by coast guards who will bring them to a European country.

Although landings occur in Malta, Cyprus and Spain, Italy remains the country where the most ships come ashore after a rescue. In 2020, the number of migrants arriving by sea in Italy exceeded 34,000, mainly on the islands of Lampedusa and Sicily and in the toe of Italy, Calabria.

What happens once they reach the coast? Disembarkation is followed by strict administration procedures. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated matters.

Also read: 'Here in the Mediterranean, we can die once. In Libya, we die every day.'

First step: the 'hotspot'

After disembarkation, migrants are "identified", mostly in migrant registration centers nicknamed "hotspots", in a process that has remained unchanged for several years.

"In general, this happens in the Lampedusa hotspot," says Adelaide Massimi, a legal consultant with ASGI, an Italian association specializing in immigration. Other hotspots are in Pozzallo, Sicily, and Taranto, in the Puglia region.

During this process, migrants are interviewed by police officers. "They are asked their name, their country of origin, the route they took to Italy, and the reason for seeking exile," Massimi explains.

According to Massimi, this interview is decisive for a migrant's further administrative procedures. "The police note whether the migrant has come to seek asylum or for economic reasons," she explains. "If it is simply for economic reasons, it means that the migrant is (here) illegal(ly). If they are an asylum seeker, they can stay legally on the territory (for the duration of their asylum application)."

At the end of this interview, the migrants' fingerprints are recorded. This automatically brings migrants into the so-called Dublin procedure, named after the regulation that determines which country is responsible for an asylum application. These migrants will therefore be "dubbed" in Italy, it automatically becomes the country responsible for their asylum application, and they will not be able to apply for asylum in another European country, except in specific cases.

Also read: EU chief vows to replace Dublin rule for asylum seekers

Step two: compulsory quarantine

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, migrants are obliged to observe a mandatory quarantine period. This takes place on board special boats, moored in different parts of Italy. The Italian Red Cross is responsible for carrying out this procedure on board.

These boats are not only used for quarantines of migrants arriving via the Mediterranean. Those who entered Italy illegally via Slovenia, and therefore by land, are also transferred on board the boats.

Minors receive special treatment: they are transferred to centers specifically designed for them on land.

This quarantine is supposed to last 10 days, according to the health regulations in force, says Massimi. However, migrants may have to stay longer on the boats if they have been in contact with a person infected with the virus. "Some may be in quarantine for a fortnight, three weeks, sometimes even longer," she says.

Those who turn out to be infected with COVID-19 during this quarantine are then placed in a dedicated section on the boats. They can also be taken to hospital if necessary.

ASGI has, however, denounced the lack of medical care during this period. "Migrants are supposed to have access to medical and psychological assistance on the boats if they need it. But in reality, this does not seem to be the case", says Massimi, basing her opinion on 86 interviews with migrants who had been through the quarantine process. The interviews were carried out by ASGI between May and November 2020. None of the migrants had been seen by a doctor.

Also read: 'Deprived of their liberty': Long-term asylum seekers in Italy who test positive for COVID-19 sent to quarantine ships

Final step: Reception or detention center

At the end of this period, migrants are directed to one of two different places depending on their personal situation. Asylum seekers are sent to reception centres, where they will be able to follow the procedure to apply for refugee status.

However, if they have been assessed as ineligible to apply for protection and are found to have arrived in Italy for other reasons, they are sent to detention centers, from where they must await deportation.

The journey to a detention center is not systematic, in particular due to a lack of places, explains Massimi. In many cases, the migrants concerned are given seven days to leave the country by their own means.

The coronavirus pandemic and border closures have halted many deportations in recent months. However, Italy has still been able to return Tunisian nationals to their country of origin. Between August and November 2020, over 1,500 deportations to Tunisia took place, according to ASGI figures.


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