Italy’s Refugee Crisis: Research Paper

By Kayla Marshall, SJSU Social Work Graduate Student

Catania, Italy is home to a rich history of Sicilian and Italian culture with artifacts and buildings to prove its significance dating back thousands of years. There are many people currently living on the small Italian island of Sicily who have fled dangerous or hazardous conditions in their home countries. These people are the asylum seekers who are unintentionally changing the face of Europe. Catania is now home to a more diverse population in need of a diverse range of services. This faculty-led program set out to identify the many experiences of people affected by the mass immigration in the past five years. Each person interviewed provided a wealth of knowledge simply from their lived experiences and their perspectives formed from their external influences. We interviewed many people including; government officials, religious officials, refugees from various walks of life, and professors. The professors’ perspectives shed light on the values and opinions of native and non-native Italians across the country and how to best intervene at a systemic level.

            At the University of Catania, we spoke with Iole Fontana and Rosanna Sampugnaro from the Department of Political and Social Science. They gave us a better understanding of the severity of the refugee situation in Italy and steps needed towards improving Italy’s situation. Ms. Fontana began by distinguishing the multiple crises she believes are taking place, which are often branded as a single “refugee crisis.” The first crisis is comprised of the sheer number of people migrating toward Europe from various parts of Africa and Asia. A vast majority of these people traveling through the Mediterranean, from 1,032,408 in 2015 to 141,472 in 2018 (UNHCR, 2019).

The next crisis would be the refugee and asylum issue; this focuses on the amount of people applying for and getting rejected in the asylum application process. The data shows that rejections starkly increased each year from 2012 to 2016 and remained static, even though arrivals decreased. This is confirmed by many asylum seekers we have heard from regarding their application process and their fears of being rejected and deported. One refugee we spoke to disclosed that if an application is denied, they only have a short amount of time to leave the country before they could be arrested and detained by police. The reality is that these people have spent every penny that they and their family had, attempting to get to Europe in the first place. Fontana described how the claims are processed and the separation is made between economic migrant and asylum seeker. She said,

“This division is done by means of a multiple-choice question. So, if you are a migrant arriving, they ask you, “Why have you come to Italy?” You have answer ‘A’ to work, answer ‘B’ to escape from misery, answer ‘C’ family reunification. If you have to answer ‘to work,’ you are out. You won’t be allowed to deposit your asylum claim.”

This system excludes many people from even being allowed to request asylum who may need it. There are many reasons why an individual would say they are here to work rather than fleeing danger, including not wanting to discuss their traumatic experiences with strangers, the social desirability of wanting to give a good impression to a government official, or they may just not understand the importance of the question. It is their human right to flee danger, seek refuge in a safer country, and apply for asylum, and these rights are being infringed upon.

            Ms. Fontana outlined the humanitarian crisis based on the interventions, or lack thereof, and the devastation it has caused. Two notable events were the largest instances of preventable deaths for asylum-seekers: the Lampedusa Tragedy in 2013 where approximately 368 people were reported to be dead or missing, and the Tragedy of the Sicilian Channel in 2015 where about 1000 people were reported dead or missing. From 2015 to 2019 the number of arrivals had begun to decrease, yet the number or people reported dead or missing increased. The fatality rate for crossing the Mediterranean rose from 4:1000 people in 2015 to 20:1000 in 2018. This is largely attributed to the safety of the routes and resources used throughout their journey. After the journey is made, many people are still at risk, most notably from suicide, accidental deaths, and lack of vital medical attention. While the journey made by many asylum seekers inherently comes with life-threatening risks, there are also other systemic-level factors affecting the fatality rate, for example timely physical and mental health services, which are entirely preventable with the proper intervention.

            The final crisis highlighted was the political shift taking place within Europe and within the individual countries. In efforts to slow or cease the flow of immigrants into Europe, many countries have built physical barriers at each border to deter the border crossings. Since 2012, thirteen European countries have constructed walls at their borders in the name of immigration, national security, or territorial tension (Fontana, 2019). These systemic moves mirror the opinions of many Europeans, as the topic of immigration has become so close to home that it cannot be ignored. Italy’s government in particular has grown increasingly farther right with each election of parties such as the Northern League, Five-Star, and Brothers of Italy. This movement towards more conservative positions on issues of immigration has grave effects for many people who are planning to seek asylum in Europe.

            Each region, state, or country has unique issues and perspectives on topics like immigration, yet we can see a global trend towards more conservative interventions for the influx of migration. The United States has also seen an increased amount of people seeking asylum in recent years, and with growing animosity towards migrants, the U.S. has also elected far-right, conservative government officials. Among other slogans, the current administration has coined the moto “build the wall” in reference to the campaign promise of Donald Trump to build a wall at the U.S. and Mexico border to try and eliminate the migration of people between the two countries.

According to Pew Research Center, over 11 million, or 25% of U.S. migrants were originally from Mexico. “The next largest origin groups were those from China (6%), India (6%), the Philippines (5%) and El Salvador (3%). (Pew Research Center, 2019). Due to the polarizing perspectives on immigration, it can often seem that the population is evenly divided on the topic. But to the contrary, research has found that 62% of Americans believe “immigrants strengthen the country,” where only 28% “say immigrants burden the country” (Pew Research Center, 2019). Although the general beliefs of most U.S. citizens do not match the actions and beliefs of the government representatives, there continues to be prejudice, discrimination, persecution, and violence against migrants and those suspected of being migrants.

The U.S. and Italy’s administrations have fostered environments that are not welcoming towards migrants, and this hostility has at times has not distinguished between an asylum seeker or any person of color. Regardless of public opinion and policies, people will not stop trying to escape a dire situation if they need to. As Iole Fontana said, “Migration is like water. You cannot stop it; you can only shape it.” In order to avoid the further devastation of the most vulnerable people, a more complex intervention strategy is needed for a deeply complex issue such as immigration and asylum seeking. By identifying the different levels of possible intervention, for example through the different crises Ms. Fontana explained, we will have a better opportunity to improve the conditions of many people in need.


Fontana, I. (2019). Migration, asylum, and humanitarian emergency: A tale of “crises” at the EU doorstep.

Radford, J. & Noe-Bustamonte, L. (2019). Facts on U.S. Immigrants, 2017: Statistical portrait of the foreign-born population in the United States. Retrieved from

Radford, J. (2019). Key findings about U.S. immigrants. Retrieved from

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2019). Mediterranean situation. Retrieved from

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