Published September 30, 2022 | Version 1
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Vulnerabilities and the Italian Protection System: An ethnographic exploration of the perspectives of protection seekers

  • 1. Ca' Foscari University of Venice



The following research is part of the Horizon2020 project “Vulnerabilities under the Global Protection Regime. How does the law assess, address, shape, and produce the vulnerabilities of protection seekers?” (VULNER, GA 870845) and focuses on the Italian context.
The first report (Vulnerabilities in the asylum and protection system in Italy), based on the research conducted in 2020, focused on the documentation and analysis of the existing legal and bureaucratic mechanisms in place, to identify and assess the vulnerabilities among “protection seekers”, meaning all migrants seeking protection, regardless of the legal status they have eventually achieved.
In this first report, we compared the ways in which Italian legislation and case-law approach vulnerabilities and how it arranges legal and bureaucratic instruments for recognition and protection, with the direct experience of legal experts and of those who, at different levels, make decisions on which situations of vulnerability can find effective legal recognition. On the one hand, our qualitative research deepened our understanding of the vulnerability assessment processes, as well as of the perspective of those who intervene in situations of vulnerability (decision makers, international organizations, legal actors, etc). On the other, the report highlights the effects of the transposition of these measures into concrete practices, both in terms of the most virtuous applications implemented in various territorial contexts and the disconnect between “law on paper” and “law in practice.”
In this second report, based on ethnographic research conducted in 2021, the focus shifts to the direct experiences of protection seekers and of those who work in close contact with them. Throughout the research, we investigated what opinion protection seekers as well as people working in reception and support services had about the protection system in Italy, both in terms of procedures and identification, protection, reception, and support measures provided for people in vulnerable situations. The inclusion of an operational and “bottom-up” point of view made it possible to check, validate and integrate what emerged in the previous report.
The fieldwork took place between April 2021 and February 2022. We conducted 64 in-depth interviews, ethnographic observation in several reception and support centers for migrant people, as well as multiple informal conversations with at least 200 people - including protection seekers and social workers. The work was carried out in two Italian regions (Veneto and Lazio) and it shed light on series of issues that cut across the two contexts – and thus are of national relevance – as much as on issues that were distinct to the local context.
The research shows how it is essential to consider the complex issue of vulnerabilities related to migration experiences through qualitative research methods that go beyond quantitative data. The ethnographic approach chosen within the framework of this research made evident the importance of investigating the issue of vulnerabilities through a methodology capable of bringing out the heterogeneity of situations, the social transformations taking place and the intertwining of several factors (personal, social, geographic, situational). The qualitative approach shed light, from the perspective of those involved, on the impact of broader issues – such as the functioning of the protection system at the European and national level or the functioning of local services and administrations – on individual experiences.
The research brings to light how situations of vulnerability may be understood differently by people seeking protection than by social workers and other legal and institutional actors, as well as how these situations may be pre-existing or become evident only at a specific moment in the migration journey.
The report devotes particular attention to how multiple situations of vulnerability are deeply connected to subjective conditions, migration trajectories, living conditions, and protection seekers’ agency. The research also shows how various situations of vulnerability can take on different meanings and forms depending on whether they are related to the country of origin, to the journey, to the arrival in Italy, to a long stay in the destination context, or to additional problems caused by having moved to other European countries.
One section of the report investigates how the reforms introduced in Italy between 2017 and 2020 on immigration law addressed protection seekers’ experiences of vulnerability, but also contributed in fostering them. Ethnography made it possible to highlight the daily life experiences of people who live or have lived in highly precarious situations, or who experienced forms of control or institutional abandonment.
The report highlights a number of critical issues that need to be addressed in the future. Indeed, the research results made evident how changes in regulations and their effects on procedures and reception services have had a profound impact on territories, services and protection seekers themselves.
The research documented how regulatory actions have often had a vulnerabilizing effect on protection seekers, while they do not seem to have facilitated the identification, recognition and protection of many situations of vulnerability described by migrants interviewed. The picture that emerges from our work is that several vulnerabilities deemed particularly serious find formal but not necessarily concrete and material recognition, while others tend to be ignored or at least underestimated. This has a negative spillover effect both in the lives of migrant people and on the work of local services and administrations. Furthermore, we found out that, in recent years, several critical issues that already existed in the system worsened, while the inability to intervene adequately in favor of full recognition and protection of situations of fragility increased. In our view, it is therefore necessary to intervene at the institutional level and enhance the point of view of protection seekers and social workers, including those working in the non-profit sector.


VULNER_WP4_Report 2.pdf

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Report: 10.5281/zenodo.5518933 (DOI)


VULNER – Vulnerabilities under the Global Protection Regime: how does the law assess, address, shape, and produce the vulnerabilities of protection seekers? 870845
European Commission