ROME — The Identification and Expulsion Center, a detention complex on the outskirts of Rome where illegal immigrants can be held for months before deportation, is not a prison. But the difference seems mostly a question of semantics.
Tall metal fences separate rows of drab low-lying barracks into individual units that are locked down at night, when the concrete courtyards are lit bright as day. There are security cameras. Some guards wear riot gear. Detainees can move around in designated areas during the day, but they are forced to wear slippers, or shoes without laces, so as not harm themselves or others. After a revolt in the men’s section, sharp objects — including pens, pencils and combs — were banned.
The center, in the suburb of Ponte Galeria, is one of 11 in Italy used to hold people — some who have lived in Italy for years — who lack working or residence permits, or whose papers have expired. The authorities say that the centers are essential to better regulate illegal immigration and that they comply with European Union guidelines.
But such centers in Italy, and elsewhere in Europe, are coming in for intensifying criticism from human rights groups and others who say they are inhumane, ineffective and costly. In Italy, critics assert that the centers reflect policies that equate immigration with criminality, overlook the economic benefits that immigrants can bring and fail to take account of the increasingly multicultural nature of society.
“They are places — non-places — that have no interaction with Italian society, which is barely aware of their existence,” said Gabriella Guido, national coordinator of LasciateCIEntrare, one of several associations that have been campaigning to close the centers, which in Italy are known as CIEs. “They are political and cultural wastelands that show up on national radars only when riots break out.”
Violent outbursts have become a defining feature. After a change in Italian law in 2011, those found to be residing illegally in Italy can now be detained as long as 18 months, in compliance with E.U. law, while their status is resolved. Since the change in the law, the authorities acknowledge, riots and attempts at escape have become more common.
When observers from Doctors for Human Rights, an Italian association, tried to visit the center in the southern city of Bari last July, they were denied access to holding areas “because of the tensions inside,” according a report that the group released in May. A revolt in August 2010 partly destroyed the center, which is working at reduced capacity after a class action suit was successfully brought against it.
In all, five centers have undergone major renovations after rioting. A revolt also damaged the center in Turin, where detainees are kept in six closed sectors. When workers from Doctors for Human Rights visited the center in April 2012, a third of the 120 detainees were taking sedatives or anti-anxiety drugs, and the director of the center reported that there were 156 acts of self-harm among detainees in 2011, the group’s report said. Depression is common in all the centers. Suicides are rare, but happen.
“In the 15 years since they were first instituted,” the group said in its report, the centers “have proven to be congenitally unable to guarantee dignity and fundamental human rights.”
What’s more, critics say, the centers have not deterred illegal immigration. The report by Doctors for Human Rights pointed out that only about 50 percent — 4,015 of the 7,944 irregular immigrants detained in 2012 — were actually deported. That was just a tiny fraction of the 440,000 irregular immigrants believed to reside in Italy.
“In Italy, life is not free,” said a 24-year-old Nigerian woman who did not want her name to be used and was detained at the Ponte Galeria center, which can hold a maximum of 360 detainees. “This is supposed to be a camp, not a prison. We are treated like slaves, but I am a human being. I want freedom.”
In a case that made national news in Italy, a 24-year-old Egyptian, known publicly only as Karim, was brought to Ponte Galeria after being stopped in April with an expired residence permit. He has lived in Italy since he was 6 years old, has two brothers legally residing here, and an Italian girlfriend of three years whose toddler from a previous union regards him as her father.
Like many detainees, Karim asked for, but was denied, political asylum. His lawyer, who is appealing the ruling, said Karim was most likely refused because he has a criminal record for drug trafficking and because he spent time in a rehabilitation center. Karim’s girlfriend is now trying to marry him. An online petition to halt his expulsion has registered more than 19,700 signatures.
“I haven’t been in Egypt since 1998, I don’t have anyone there,” Karim said in an interview last month, speaking with a marked Milanese accent. “People in the center look at me and say, ‘What are you doing here?”’
Others inside and outside the system are asking the same question of the thousands held around Europe.
The length of detention and the conditions at the centers differ from country to country, but “Italy is not unique with having criticism and problems in running these facilities,” said Michael Flynn, the founder and coordinator of the Global Detention Project, based in Geneva.
In Malta, migrants can be detained for 12 months, and then released into the community “as a matter of course,” said Philip Amaral, advocacy and communications coordinator for the Jesuit Refugee Service Europe, based in Brussels. “So why bother detaining them?”
In Britain, the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford has raised similar questions about the usefulness of detention. Spain has been criticized for housing migrants in tents; the Netherlands for keeping them on houseboats.
By virtue of its long coastline and proximity to North Africa, Italy faces a special predicament, however. With the chaos of the Arab Spring in 2011, the number of people who crossed the Mediterranean to Italy swelled to 62,000. The numbers have since dropped significantly. Last year, 13,200 made the crossing, according to estimates by the International Organization for Migration. In the first three months of 2013, about 1,500 had crossed.
Beyond the human rights issues, “the fact that you detain does not deter people from coming,” Mr. Flynn said. “If that is the public policy goal,” he added, “it is not working well.”
Despite such criticism, Italy’s centers, which are managed by private companies, have become “indispensable,” according to a 2013 Interior Ministry report. The report nonetheless acknowledged several problems, including the “total absence of activities inside the centers,” which “leads to an increase in aggressiveness and malaise, and has increased the tension between immigrants and police.”
The report called for a reform of the system, possibly putting all the centers under single management, with the aim of standardizing their quality and making them more cost effective. Government officials also say that the process would be more streamlined if foreign consulates cooperated more promptly in identifying detainees for deportation.
To reduce the “not-infrequent” outbursts of violence, the Interior Ministry report recommended isolating the perpetrators “for brief periods of time.”
Rights groups said the recommendation was a step in the wrong direction.
“The conclusion comes down to increasing the repression,” said Piero Soldini, who oversees the immigration department for the Italian General Confederation of Labor, a left-leaning trade union. “Our challenge is instead to demonstrate that we can do without them.”
Whatever the view of the centers, there is no doubt that they amount to a life of limbo. The “guests,” as they are officially known, are often bewildered by their predicament. Research by the Jesuit Refugee Service Europe found that in centers around the Continent, detainees “primarily suffer mentally, severe, psychological stress from not knowing when the detention will end,” Mr. Amaral said. It is worse, he said, than imprisonment, which has a fixed term.
Some come directly from prison, too, once they have served sentences. Former inmates say the added stay amounts to an unfair extension of their sentences.
“I waited for five years to be released,” from prison “and then I found myself locked away again,” said a 40-year-old Tunisian man who was being held at the Ponte Galeria center and did not want to be identified.
He had spent nearly half his life in Italy, working in construction before being arrested for drug trafficking.
“Jail,” he said, “was better organized than here.”
About the author: Elisabetta Povoledo is a Canadian-born journalist based in Rome, Italy. She has been a reporter for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune.