These two groups received different treatment in Italy. While those presently seeking sanctuary as a result of Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine were accepted with little objection, the arrival of the previous group has resulted in significant political tensions and had been frequently cited by those attempting to explain Italy’s turn towards far-right populism.
December 18, 2022
Italy’s direct help for Ukrainian refugees is rooted in its EU membership
Over the past ten years, Italy has experienced two sizable groups of refugees arriving at its borders.
The first group arrived from the Middle East and consisted mostly of people fleeing from the violence of ISIS militia, the war in Syria, and deterioration in Afghanistan. The numbers are clear: in 2011, the year the Syrian civil war started, 58,000 refugees arrived in Italy, according to figures from the World Bank. In the following years, numbers increased and exceeded 200,000 in 2019.
The second group consisted of elderly, female, and underage Ukrainians, who were fleeing their country in result of a full-scale invasion launched by Russia on February 24. In only a few months after the conflict began in late February 2022, more than 170,000 Ukrainians sought refuge in Italy. Under martial law adopted by Kyiv, men aged 18-60 are with few exception barred from travelling abroad)
Therefore, a question arises: does Italy have double standards and treat people differently depending on where they come from? Or is there a reasonable explanation for the difference in attitudes towards the two groups of refugees?
The Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, more commonly known as the 1951 Refugee Convention together with its 1967 Protocol are the key legal documents that form the basis of international protection of refugees. 149 states have ratified the Convention, the Protocol, or both.
One thing has to be made clear from the very beginning. Under international law, every country has a duty to treat every person seeking shelter from war and persecution in the same way, regardless of ethnicity, religion and country of origin. Numerous European countries, Italy amongst them, have a track record of endangering these crucial human rights while attempting to curtail illegal immigration. Without infringing human rights, however, societies and their states – in this case, Italy – might perceive themselves to be in a different relation to different refugee groups.
Regarding Syria, Italy could quite easily argue that there are many countries between Rome and Damascus that, under international conventions, are obliged to accept refugees who have fled a country engulfed by bloodshed. This somewhat supports the argument that Italy had been taken advantage of by countries that should have offered assistance to Syrian refugees.
The answer in this debate, under which the European Union was presented as arguably the closest place to Syria that offered genuine, long-term prospects of safety and opportunities for growth, seemed to have been largely rejected in Italy as well as in other EU-member states – the EU has collectively decided to offer financial support to Turkey and other countries which until now host millions of refugees from the Middle East. In 2016, the EU agreed to support Turkey with €6bn annually.
The rise of the far-right in Europe sheds some light on the reasons behind this decision. Like many other European nations, the Italians were afraid of the pressure under which their public services would find themselves when, in line with international law, refugees could seek employment and access healthcare. Given that as of October 2022, only Turkey hosted 3.6 million refugees from Syria, it would have probably been very challenging for Italy to accept all people willing to arrive from the war-engulfed Middle East while maintaining the accessibility of services for the Italian population.
It may seem like a double standard that Ukraine refugees were accepted in Italy and offered direct support from the government and the Italian population. Yet a fundamental difference largely justifies the lack of direct involvement. Ukraine, unlike Syria, directly borders the European Union – and Italy as a member of NATO, and the EU supports Kyiv in its defence against Russian aggression.
Effectively, the fact that Italy is a member-state of the EU is the reason why Italy offers direct assistance to Ukrainian refugees instead of offering financial support to Poland, which – now hosting 1.4 million Ukrainian refugees – together with other countries bordering Ukraine effectively plays the same role as Turkey in regard to the war in Syria.