Governing Asylum without ‘‘Being There”: Ghost Bureaucracy, Outsourcing, and the Unreachability of the State
1. Introduction: Governing through Absence
2. Methodological Notes
3. The Bordering Nature of Asylum “Ghost Bureaucracy”
“Detention centers for unwanted immigrants in France, refugee camps for Palestinians displaced by the Israeli state and fenced reserves for Native Americans and Australia’s indigenous population have been reconnected to imperial practices and their spatial logic. In using ‘natural’ landscapes and sophisticated architectural design to limit access to resources, to intensify vulnerabilities, and to cordon off subject populations in the name of protection and welfare, they rehearse as they elaborate upon practices long in imperial use.”
4. Experiencing State Absence
4.1. The Withdrawal of the State: Closed Doors and Digital Bureaucracy
“Before, people who wanted to apply for asylum queued up in front of the police station, even at night. The lines were long, but at least the problem was visible. Now it is not. We do not know how many people are trying to apply for asylum because now they first have to request an online appointment. They must request an appointment online even to express their willingness to apply for asylum. However, they cannot get an appointment on the police website because no appointments are ever available. So, access to asylum is blocked by this digital bureaucracy. Now the queue is done virtually.”(Lawyer, NGO, Spain.)5
“I was running out of money, but to get the appointment, I went to a call centre that a friend had recommended. Because getting the appointment alone was impossible. The web was always crashing, and I didn’t know how to handle the internet well. I paid 30 euros, and after a while, they told me I had an appointment.”(Colombian female asylum seeker, 60 years old, Barcelona.)
4.2. Who Is the State?
“We do not receive clear instructions, and we cannot give accurate information. We say to all asylum seekers that the information we give is provisional and that there may be changes that do not depend on us. And that we are very sorry, but… We receive all the complaints from the asylum seekers, we implement the program, but we don’t make any decisions. They don’t always distinguish between us and the Ministry. For them, the state is an abstract entity.”(Social worker, NGO that manages the entrance to state reception program, Spain.)
4.3. Looking for the Human Factor
“It does not make sense. We have been without a regulation of the asylum law since 2009, and, if there are no contradictions, the previous regulation continues to be applied. But the previous regulation dates back to 1995! Moreover, it is no longer useful because it does not address our current problems. In addition, they have been changing the Management Handbook every few months […]. It is tough for us to keep up because the norm changes rapidly. I do not know anymore how many management handbooks we have had. That causes us a lot of trouble, and it is upsetting because we go from telling a person, ‘you have the right to certain support’ and then, with the sudden changes, which are sometimes applied retroactively, telling them that they were no longer going to have it.”(Coordinator, NGO of the state reception program, Spain.)
“Many things are not clear to us either. When we have doubts about the program, which is frequent, we ask the central office to email the ministry. Then we wait. […] In the end, you have the feeling that everything depends on you, on your perception, and it shouldn’t be like that because it should be the same program everywhere in Spain. Despite our best efforts, we cannot provide clear information to asylum seekers, everything is provisional. Based on what I tell them during the first interview, they plan a course of action. Then, the program changes and you find yourself in a moral dilemma: what can you tell them? What do we do? Consequently, it is the social workers and beneficiaries of the program who must deal with the problems.”(Social Worker, NGO of the state reception program, Spain.)
Institutional Review Board Statement
Informed Consent Statement
Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
We consider the distinction between voluntary vs forced migrants misleading for several reasons beyond this article’s scope. These and other categories’ usefulness in analysing the phenomena of international mobility and asylum has been the subject of academic discussion (for example, Zetter 2007; Crawley and Skleparis 2018; Thomaz 2018), and we have already addressed this specific issue somewhere else (Poy et al. 2023). In this article, we will use the term “asylum-seekers” to refer to people who have formally applied for asylum in Italy and Spain.
Even under the same European directives, their respective asylum and reception systems might present specific significant differences. However, they still fall into a similar model: one based on a shrinking asylum regime, partly mitigated by compensatory forms of protection, and with the state reception system for asylum seekers and refugees increasingly outsourced to nonstate actors. It is beyond the scope of this paper to elaborate an exhaustive historical analysis of the emergence of the Spanish and Italian asylum and reception systems and the frequent, complex changes they have undergone (see Giannetto et al. 2019; Garcés-Mascareñas and Moreno-Amador 2019; Caponio et al. 2019).
In Spain, the asylum procedure in borderland contexts operates differently from the ordinary procedure (see Accem 2019, p. 47).
Except in a small number of provinces, where the implementation of digital procedures is still ongoing.
All names have been anonymised. If a name appears, it is a pseudonym.
For a thorough description of the different types of permits available on the Italian immigration market and the ways to get (and keep) them, see (Tuckett 2018).
Another detail is that among the paperwork noncitizens need to collect to renew their permesso, there is a specific document called dichiarazione di ospitalità (declaration of hospitality), which states that they have a place to stay in the receiving country. The managing organisation provides such a document for asylum seekers hosted in a reception centre.
The Prefettura is the local branch at the provincial level of the Italian Interior Ministry. Among its duties are some immigration procedures (family reunifications, citizenship applications) and the administration of the extraordinary reception programme for asylum seekers. Prefettura is the authority that appoints NGOs to manage the programme, administers and transfers the funds, assigns beneficiaries a place in a reception centre, and, finally, decides who stays and who must leave.
This is not a theoretical scenario: Caterina often found herself in the situation we are describing, especially since the Prefettura of the province where she used to work decided, after the COVID-19 lockdown was over, that the time had come for some decluttering. Throughout 2021–22, revocations became very frequent.
The state considers asylum seekers to be able to provide for themselves if they make more than 6000 euros a year (that is, 500 euros per month). However, that is an insufficient amount to survive autonomously in most parts of Italy, given the average cost of living.
When an asylum seeker leaves a reception centre, he/she may have trouble obtaining the dichiarazione di ospitalità mentioned in Section 4.1 because of the complications of the housing market (it is improbable, if not directly impossible, for an asylum seeker to get a lease in his/her name, the most common solution being subletting a room/bed from someone else, who might not have the possibility—or the will—to issue a dichiarazione di ospitalità).
The Spanish state still needs to develop its asylum law through regulation, and it still needs to transpose the current European directives, so many aspects of the regulatory framework need to be defined or covered. In the absence of a regulation that would develop the Asylum Law 12/2009, up to the Real Decreto 220/2022, the regulations regarding the reception services were established informally for more than ten years in the Management Manuals, a tool provided by the State to NGOs to which the management of the state reception program is outsourced. Until recently, outsourcing through annual subsidies, together with the ever-changing rules, has been at the cost of the precariousness of both the NGO workers and the asylum seekers themselves.
SIRIA stands for Sistema de Información sobre Programas para Refugiados, Inmigrantes y Solicitantes de Asilo (Data system on Programmes for Refugees, Immigrants and Asylum Applicants). The system was launched in 2007 to unify data management between NGO and state centres and digitalise grant management for NGOs in reception (Aparicio and Martínez n.d.).
When the architecture of the Italian asylum seekers reception system was first conceived at the end of the 1990s, it was initially composed of two main blocks: a first phase of basic protection before the status definition (called prima accoglienza), followed by a more structured one for both asylum seekers and refugees (seconda accoglienza, SAI), granting access to a varying number of welfare programs aimed at fostering social inclusion. At least, this was true until 2014 when, with the so-called “refugee crisis”, the system’s capacity was quickly overrun. For new admissions, priority started to be given to holders of international protection, de facto excluding asylum seekers from the Italian reception system. That is why an intermediate, third block—accoglienza straordinaria (CAS)—was added between the first and second reception in a humanitarian and political emergency climate. In 2018, when the first of two Legislative Decrees, n. 840/2018 and 53/2019, known as the “Security Decrees’’ or “Salvini Decrees’’ entered into force, such exclusion became official: seconda accoglienza was now addressed only to holders of international protection, while the “extraordinary” one was cut down to the bone by wiping out all services intended for social integration. In 2020, after the umpteenth cabinet shift, the Lamorgese Decree smoothed some of the harshest aspects of the previous norm, allowing asylum seekers back into seconda accoglienza. Nonetheless, despite numerous foreclosures of CAS centres in recent years, accoglienza straordinaria still host 60% of the beneficiary of reception measures in Italy (see Centri d’Italia 2023).
The vocabulary employed by the new Italian Minister of Interiors, Matteo Piantedosi, when referring to the hundreds of migrants aboard humanitarian vessels stranded in a Sicilian port in November 2022 could not have been more explicit in this sense. Initially, a “selective disembarkation” was authorised only for those considered the most vulnerable, while the others were labelled as “residual load” (see https://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2022/11/07/carico-residuale-le-parole-usate-da-piantedosi-per-i-migranti-che-hanno-indignato-politica-e-associazioni-sono-esseri-umani-non-merce/6864847/ (accessed on 28 February 2023). The greyness of bureaucratic language fails to hide the banality of evil in these words, as Hannah Arendt would have said.
The Council Directive 2001/55/EC of 20 July 2001 on minimum standards for giving temporary protection in the event of a mass influx of displaced persons and on measures promoting a balance of efforts between Member States in receiving such persons and bearing the consequences thereof, also known as the Temporary Protection Directive or TPD, is available at: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/en/TXT/?uri=celex:32001L0055 (accessed on 15 January 2023).
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Borelli, C.; Poy, A.; Rué, A. Governing Asylum without ‘‘Being There”: Ghost Bureaucracy, Outsourcing, and the Unreachability of the State. Soc. Sci. 2023, 12, 169. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci12030169
Borelli C, Poy A, Rué A. Governing Asylum without ‘‘Being There”: Ghost Bureaucracy, Outsourcing, and the Unreachability of the State. Social Sciences. 2023; 12(3):169. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci12030169Chicago/Turabian Style
Borelli, Caterina, Arnau Poy, and Alèxia Rué. 2023. "Governing Asylum without ‘‘Being There”: Ghost Bureaucracy, Outsourcing, and the Unreachability of the State" Social Sciences 12, no. 3: 169. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci12030169