Fabrizio Di Nucci/NurPhoto/Sipa USA

As the rest of the world was throwing more immigrants behind bars, Italy was bucking the trend.

Per capita, the country sees twice as many migrants enter each year than the United States does. Yet it didn’t build more detention centers to cope with the wave, as the U.S. did. Instead, Italy shut them down.

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Now, as the Paris attacks have increased fears that terrorists could sneak into Europe under the guise of seeking asylum, Italy’s unusual approach to the migrant crisis could cause friction with rest of the European Union. But Italians human-rights activists say the country is on the right track.

“The system is not perfect now, but it’s so much better than what we had,” said Gabriella Guido, the national coordinator of LasciateCIEntrare, one of a few Italian group that have pushed to close the centers. “If we go back to what we had, it would mean more deaths and more suffering,” she said.

Italy sees almost twice the rate of migrants as the U.S.
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In the last four years, the number of migrant detention centers in Italy has dropped from 13 to five. The closings came after condemnation from European courts and political pressure from civil society.

People who would have been detained under previous policy are either held for a shorter period before their deportations or are allowed to move freely. Others, like many who have fled from countries like Eritrea and Syria, are sent to refugee camps where they are allowed to come and go. While those camps have also been the subject of criticism, advocates say that at very least migrants are free to leave.

Unlike migrants who cross the Rio Grande into Texas, many who turn up on Italy’s shores aren’t looking to stay for long. Rather, they hope to make it to countries like Germany and Sweden and apply for asylum there. Some say this fact has made the decision to restrict the use of detention centers an easier one for Italy.

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However, some European Union ministers are now calling for new detention centers to be built in Italy to better control the flow of migrants throughout the continent. They say Italy has security gaps on its Southern shores, where refugees traveling by sea often make their first point of contact with Europe. It’s unclear whether Italy will heed those calls. Its Interior Minister’s office, the agency that operates the detention centers, has not responded to request for comment for this story.

With Europe’s patchwork of laws, the reason a migrant can be detained and conditions under which they are released vary greatly from country to country. In 2013, more than 90,000 migrants were detained across the continent, with the average detainee spending 40 days behind bars, according to data submitted from 24 member nations to the European Commission. Italy did not report its data.

France detained the most migrants, with 23 detention facilities spread across the country and 38,266 migrants detained in 2013.

France detained the most migrants in 2013, with 23 detention facilities spread across the country and 38,266 migrants detained.
European Commission, 2013

By contrast, the United States (which is several times larger than France) has detained about 34,000 immigrants each night in over 250 facilities spread across the country over the past few years.

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When a wave of Central American migrants, many running from persecution of violent gangs, crossed the U.S. border last summer, the Obama administration reacted by opening more detention centers, including family facilities like one that held over 2,000 women and children in Dilley, Texas.  A U.S. District Judge ruled this summer that the facilities failed to meet adequate detention standards and that the government must stop detaining women and children. The Obama administration is fighting that ruling, and says it has converted the same facilities into short-term processing sites.

Some striking similarities exist between the Italian and American systems. Like in the U.S., many of Italy’s detention centers are run by for-profit companies. Medical conditions and legal access are constant concerns for detainee advocates in both countries. Detainees in both systems are issued shoes without laces, so as not to harm themselves.

According to a recent Pew survey only 19% of Italians have a favorable view of immigrants, whereas more than half of Americans believe they make our country stronger.

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Uprisings and escapes are commonplace in Italy’s detention centers. Advocates who have toured the centers say they are often dirty and fail to provide sufficient medical care or legal assistance to those they house. What’s more, critics say the indefinite detention causes unnecessary psychological trauma to migrants. When a group called Doctors for Human Rights, a U.K.-based NGO, visited one detention center in 2012, they found 156 detainees tried to commit acts of “self-harm” in one year.

Guido says her organization helped facilitate journalist visits to all of the 13 migrant centers, which inspired damning stories to appear in outlets ranging from Al Jazeera to the New York Times. “Journalists aren't good for detention centers,” she said.

Italy’s detention center debate can be traced to 2011, when the Interior Minister Roberto Maroni declared a “state of emergency” in response to a wave of Libyan immigrants arriving to Italy’s southern island Lampedusa. He instituted detention centers as part of a strategy “to block the influx and to enact repatriations,” at that time. Another Italian Interior Minister, Annamaria Cancellieri, called the expulsion system a “useful deterrent to indiscriminate arrivals.”

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Now, only five of Italy’s detention centers, called Identification and Expulsion Centers (CIEs), are still open, and strict laws have limited the length and circumstances under which migrants can be held. The maximum time a migrant may be held has dropped from 18 months to three months. These actions have been a result of law No. 161 from late 2014, the first law passed by Italian parliament to “decriminalize” immigration, in the words of Italian migration scholar Francesca Cancellaro.

With all 13 detention facilities in operation, the Italian government could only hold about 3,000 immigrants a night in October 2012. That number has since dropped significantly, advocates say.  

Cancellaro says the decision to close the centers hasn’t ruffled as many feathers as you might think within Italy.

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“There hasn’t been a real difference because of this change, in fact very few members of the public have even taken notice,” she said. “Some years ago we were very scared by the immigrants, we thought this was an invasion. But nowadays we think that they are very poor people who need our help.”

“For the first time, a reform has occurred in the opposite direction,” said Cancellaro. “It's an important model for the whole European Union.

Cristina is an Emmy-nominated reporter and producer. She recently won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for her documentary Death by Fentanyl. She attended Yale University and has reported for the New Haven Independent, ABC News, Univision, The Huffington Post, and Fusion.