Would-be Refugees and Migrants as Tourists in Tuscany's Mugello

The fallacious nature of the Italian hosting system for migrants and asylum seekers.

Micro-level, decentralised Accoglienza Diffusa is the predominant approach to the ‘management’ of the migratory flows from the ‘Central Mediterranean Route’ adopted in Italy: this posts discusses the system in the Mugello sub-region (Tuscany). Migrants’ and asylum seekers’ motivations and expectations are de facto not taken into consideration, while the European legal framework is still forced onto a reality mismatch. As a result the ‘Centres of Temporary Assistance’ (CAS) become the last stage of an (economically) unsustainable process, whose actual beneficiaries are not the migrants themselves. In the majority of cases their applications are rejected and they are supposed to return ‘home’.


It was winter 2011, and the North Africa Emergency had just started. The President of the Tuscan regional government, Enrico Rossi, insisted on the need to adopt a different strategy, a territorially diffused approach to welcoming and hosting refugees. It would have been preferable than having all them concentrated in single, over-crowded, and inhuman shelters. Ever since the Tuscan approach, the so called “accoglienza diffusa”, has become a model throughout the Italian peninsula. In the meantime, the re-baptized Emergenza Migranti has become chronic, the number of arrival per year has sharply increased, and, as a result, the number of shelters, in principle meant to host asylum seekers and refugees on a temporary basis has also soared.[1]

According to a study commissioned by the Italian Ministry of Interior as of 10 October 2015 there are in Italy: 7 Centres of Identification and Expulsion (CIE), 13 Hosting Centres for Asylum Seekers (CARA), and 430 ‘projects’ of the Italian System of Protection for Asylum Seekers and Refugees (SPRAR), all in all accounting for a total capacity of 29.568 persons.[2] But the list is not over yet. There are another 3.090 Centri di Accoglienza Straordinaria (CAS) – Centres for Temporary Assistance – accounting for a total of 70.918 beds. In other words, despite the provisional nature of these centres, they have become normality in the majority of cases. Basically 7 out of 10 asylum seekers in Italy are hosted there. But let’s zoom in on Tuscany. At the end of 2014, based on data and statistics downloadable from the Italian Ministry of Interior there were in Tuscany 144 CAS hosting about 1887 people.[3] A few months later, as of 10 October 2015, they have peaked to 416, hosting about 6900 people.[4] What kind of structures are these?

The Mugello is the northern, half farmed half wooded part of the province of Florence. Cimabue and Giotto, just to give you some coordinates, were from this region, made of fields, hilly landscapes, forests, rivers, valleys, as well as remote villages, or ‘borghi’. Some perched on a slope, others nestled in the folds of the woods. It is a beautiful setting for holidays, trekking, and resting, away from the chaos and the glamour of the tourist flows pouring into Florence or the Chianti region. And, as a matter of fact, the Mugello is sprinkled with B&Bs, holiday farms, along with more structured accommodations, bricks-and-concrete old style hotels, leftovers of the 1970s or 80s. Refugees and asylum seekers are accommodated in this kind of facilities, as well as in local governments’ properties, second houses, otherwise cold and empty apartments, or used-to-be municipal kindergarten. Essentially the Tuscan “accoglienza diffusa” is this. I am not engaging in a discussion about the way these centres have been set up, or just converted, from tourist oriented facilities, sometimes luxury resorts, some other times remote crumbling properties, to refugees’ temporary homes. I also deliberately skip all issues revolving around the procedure and the procurement process as managed by the Prefectures.[5] Here it suffices to say that it seems to be an attractive opportunity for many locals, who, in a period of crisis for the tourist sector and beyond, have eventually rediscovered the rhetoric of beauty in diversity.


Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Gambia, Bangladesh, Mali, Senegal, and Ghana are, in this order, the first ten claimed nationalities of those landed on the shores of Italy in 2015 – as of 10 October.[6] Let’s zoom in on Tuscany again, and on this part of the Mugello, where I focused my research.[7] In a major departure from the national aggregated totals, in Tuscany there are very few Eritreans, Somalis, Sudanese and Syrians. There is a reason for this, but it would take us too far afield. Hence, the most commonly claimed nationalities among asylum seekers in Tuscany are Nigeria, Bangladesh, Gambia, Senegal, Mali, and Ghana, more or less in this order, and with Nigeria by far the most represented country.[8] According to my estimations in this area 1 every 4 or 5 asylum seekers come from the oil cursed country in Western Africa. By far, males outnumber females, while adults outnumber minors, in line with the national data, and as a peculiarity of the flows reaching Italy from North Africa. At EU country level women and minors seeking asylum account separately for between 23-38% and 20-31% of the migratory flows, with peaks in France (women 38,2%) and Germany (minors 31,6%). By contrast, in Italy they are only 7,6% and 6,8% respectively.[9] This is another aspect, somehow confirmed at local level, which should be borne in mind when interpreting the nature of these flows. More in general the centres I have visited were male dominated or just male, hosting boys and men between the age of 20-35, originating from two main areas of departure. Western Africa on the one hand, and Bangladesh/Pakistan on the other hand. Both areas have made of Libya the first landing place along the so called Central Mediterranean Route to Europe.[10] Why on earth people from Senegal or Bangladesh are travelling all the way to Libya looking for a better life in Europe? With the kind permission of the various CAS’ management boards I have interviewed some of these young men and a few women. These are the main findings, while I try to approximate the majority of cases.[11]


“Come to Libya, there are job opportunities for you here”: Libya is everybody’s trade-mark. In one way or another (most) asylum seekers in Italy are the offspring of Libya. In their narratives this country has turned from a supposed to be Promised Land into a black hole. In many cases Libya was their actual destination, a preference most probably accorded based on ‘viability’ considerations, constructed by or borrowed from others.

“I had a contact based in Libya”: in one way or another they all claim to have had some kind of contact in Libya, someone who has further motivated them to go there, someone who has eased the process, someone who has ‘sold’ an opportunity of escape.

“I didn’t know anything about Italy or Europe before coming here. I never planned it”: Most of them did not decide to come to Italy in the first place, or thought of it either. First they decided to leave their own countries, and in many cases to reach Libya, because that was the (only) possibility that was given, the only “direction” they “could move to”, or that they had heard of. Italy and Europe became destinations along the way, and once in Libya. In very few cases Italy was planned and thought of as a destination since the beginning (e.g. among Nigerian women, Senegalese, and Malians).

“Did you apply for international protection, for the refugee status? – No, what is it?”: Most of them do not know a clue about asylum seeking, refugees, or other forms of international protection. Asked about it most of the interviewees looked at me their eyes wide open, puzzled, wondering about the concept. Yet, all of them have a ‘temporary’ residence permit – permesso di soggiorno – released by an Italian Prefecture pending the decision of the Territorial Commission for their application as a refugee.[12] They meticulously keep it folded in their wallet, but they are not aware of what it is exactly. For them it is just a preliminary step towards accessing a real ‘document’, a real residence permit.

“All in all I paid about 400.000 CFA to reach Libya by land”: coming from Western Africa with destination Libya means, in most cases, travelling along this route: from any western Africa country to Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, then Agadez and Dirkou in Niger, and finally Libya via Qatrun and Sabha. Smugglers’ tariffs and fees vary sensibly, depending also on ‘clients’ negotiation power and point of departure. In average the land crossing costs between 100.000 and 4-500.000 CFA (150-750 Euro).

“Because Saudi Arabia or Australia is too expensive for getting a Visa”: for those coming from Bangladesh and Pakistan, Libya was a destination that could only be reached by plane. They bought a ticket via Turkey or UAE, and a Visa, a (fake) working Visa, for which they have paid the equivalent in Bangladeshi Taka of between 4000-5000 Euro.

“I paid 2000 Dinar for boarding the boat”: in order to reach Italy, notably Lampedusa, from Libya, the average cost of the sea-crossing is between 2000-4000 Dinars (1350-2700 Euro).

“I knew they would accept me because I came by boat”: once they had decided or were forced to leave Libya they somehow knew that someone would have rescued them from the sea, that there was a possibility of being assisted. But very few knew about the system in place once in Italy/Europe.

“I would like to work, but there are no jobs here”: many wait for, hope for, or long for a job. In the meantime they sit idle, as if they were real tourists, in some remote accommodation here and there in the Mugello. Those who are luckier receive some Italian classes, in the quite demanding attempt at tearing down the language barrier that further isolates them. Otherwise the main occupation, in those remote spot in the countryside, is waiting. Supposedly waiting for the day they will be issued proper Documents – in capital D – and they will be able to work.

“I left my country because…”: motivations are mixed. Many are looking for an opportunity to lead a better life, to support their families back home, to find a proper job and lift themselves from a state of poverty. In some cases this is combined with the necessity to escape forms of political, religious, or sexual harassment, distress, or concern.


CAS management bodies (associations, cooperatives, private people, etc.) are assigned a daily budget, which ranges in average between 30 and 35 Euro a day per asylum seeker.[13] This money is meant to cover full board expenses, management costs, and other services (such as Italian classes) provided or just organised by the contracted entity.[14] While they wait for the decision of the Territorial Commission, asylum seekers linger in this kind of limbo, between dependency, immobility, and the false prospective that such a decision would be crucial for their destiny.

It takes about a year to the Italian authorities to examine an individual asylum application and adopt a decision.[15] In case of rejection – diniego in Italian – applicants (or their managers) would most probably file an appeal, unless the need to make room for new comers prevails. By doing so they would be able to extend up to two years the time of permanence in a CAS, before being assigned a form of international protection, or being ‘sent back’ home, at least in principle. Now, it turns out that the recognition rate in Italy for 2015 is below the 50% in average, with negative peaks in the case of nationalities different from Syria, Eritrea, Iraq, and Afghanistan.[16] In other words, for those nationalities well represented in the CASs of the Mugello, chances are very high they will be refused any form of international protection. Then, the so-called return system comes into play. Irregular migrants are supposed to be returned ‘home’.

Based on these arrangements, during a two-year period, the management body receives some 25.000 Euro per asylum seeker. But this money does not serve any integration or sustainable goal if applicants are ultimately rejected. Moreover, to this money one should add all the costs of the emergency relief phase, of humanitarian assistance, of police and security checks at the borders, of the personnel of Territorial Commissions’, Prefectures, local governments, third sector actors, and so on, all engaged in tackling the migratory crisis. And yet, the greatest portion of these costs, are the human and monetary ones, borne by the would-be refugee: trauma, wounds, sometimes their own life; visa and travel costs; time, labour, and savings spent and invested along the way.[17]

Now, does this system make sense? If Mugello in Tuscany is a good approximation – as I presume – of what happens at national level, and at many other EU countries level, no, it does not. There is something economically wrong in a process that discards its professed justification. The supposed to be beneficiaries, the would-be refugees, who have put their lives at stake, do not seem to be the final recipients of any of these disbursements, not in the mid-long term. Maybe it is time to look at the migratory flow that comes from the Central Mediterranean Route from a different perspective, and have the courage to call these people by their name. Be it XXI century economic and post-colonial migrants, be it refugees, be it something in between the two. Only then we could start from reviewing the current legal framework in force and discuss the mismatch between legal provisions and motivations or real aspirations. It is time to abandon this merely security driven approach to migration, which only contributes to feed ‘migration industries’ of various sorts,[18] while further perpetuating delusion and post-colonial asymmetries. Let’s discuss about information, awareness, labour shortages, frontiers, how to make regular the irregular, etc. So far, in this entire story, the only losers are the migrants and the would-be refugees themselves.


Photo: Painters Giotto and Cimabue’s Ring – Vicchio di Mugello (FI) – ITALY. By Guido il Pellegrino, 8 November 2012.


  1. The Tuscany Region’s share of the entire undocumented migrations to Italy is the 7%. See La Buona Accoglienza - Analisi comparativa dei sistemi di accoglienza per richiedenti asilo in Europa, Fondazione Leone Moressa, January 2016, p. 12. ↩︎

  2. Rapporto sull’accoglienza di migranti e rifugiati in Italia. Aspetti, procedure, problemi, Rome October 2015, released by the Gruppo di Studio sul sistema di Accoglienza, Ministry of Interior – Italy, p. 28. ↩︎

  3. Italian Ministry of the Interior, Dipartimento per le libertà civili e l’immigrazione, Data and Statistics, retrieved 29 January 2016. ↩︎

  4. Rapporto sull’accoglienza di migranti e rifugiati in Italia, op. cit. p. 28. ↩︎

  5. Upon new arrivals, the alerted local Prefecture, in coordination with the Ministry of the Interior, processes the relocation of new dispatches of refugees. A call for setting up new temporary shelters, which are agreed with the local governments, is then published, while actors of the third sector, NGOs, cooperatives, private people can apply. In case of particular emergency also the institute of direct custody is contemplated. For more details see Decreto Legislativo 18 August 2015, no. 142, as well the calls Manifestazione di Interesse per l’Affidamento del Servizio di Accoglienza di Cittadini Stranieri Richiedenti Protezione Internazionale, Prefettura – Uffico Territoriale del Governo di Firenze, retrieved 29 Januray 2016. ↩︎

  6. Rapporto sull’accoglienza di migranti e rifugiati in Italia, op. cit., p.7: Eritrea 36.838, Nigeria 18.452, Somalia 10.605, Sudan 8.533, Siria 7.147, Gambia 6.530, Bangladesh 5.038, Mali 4.860, Senegal 4.821, Ghana 3.754, Others 29.854. ↩︎

  7. Namely in the communalities of Borgo San Lorenzo, Vicchio, Dicomano, San Godenzo, and Londa. ↩︎

  8. I employ the word claimed nationalities because not in all cases corresponds to the effective one. ↩︎

  9. Rapporto sull’accoglienza di migranti e rifugiati in Italia, op. cit., p. 7. ↩︎

  10. This naming reflects the one adopted by FRONTEX in the Annual Risk Analysis 2015. ↩︎

  11. I conducted semi-structured interviews in 5 different CAS for a total of 16 interviewees. Additionally, I extensively benefited from conversations with 4 CAS officers and other CAS managers. ↩︎

  12. Based on the new legislation in force, Decreto Legislativo 18 August 2015, no. 142, this residence permit – is issued for a period of six months (three months previously). Expired 60 days from the date of the asylum application, asylum seekers can in principle work – svolgere attività lavorativa. Previously they had to wait 6 months. ↩︎

  13. The exact amount differs – also in consideration of the applicability of VAT – depending on whose property the shelters are organised (regional or local government, other institutions, private people, etc.). For more details see the calls Manifestazione di Interesse per l’Affidamento del Servizio di Accoglienza di Cittadini Stranieri Richiedenti Protezione Internazionale, Prefettura – Uffico Territoriale del Governo di Firenze, retrieved 29 Januray 2016. ↩︎

  14. See footnote no. 13. ↩︎

  15. See La Buona Accoglienza, op. cit., p. 17. ↩︎

  16. Rapporto sull’accoglienza di migranti e rifugiati in Italia, op. cit., p. 19-22, and European Asylum Support Office (EASO), Latest asylum trends – 2015 overview, retrieved 29 January 2016. ↩︎

  17. According to my estimations some 2000-6000 Euro are paid in average by every single migrant to smugglers and traffickers. The travel to Europe can last some months in some cases, but years in many others. ↩︎

  18. See Hein de Haas, Don't blame the smugglers: the real migration industry, http://heindehaas.blogspot.it/, retrieved 29 January 2016. ↩︎