Italian legislation does not foresee a general limitation on the freedom of movement of asylum seekers. Nevertheless, the law specifies that the competent Prefect may limit the freedom of movement of asylum seekers, delimiting a specific place of residence or a geographic area in which they are free to move. In practice, this provision has never been applied so far.
Dispersal of asylum seekers
The placement of applicants for international protection throughout the Italian national territory is governed by a series of official acts, prepared with the involvement of several local public actors, with the aim of achieving a distribution proportional to the possibilities of local absorption and the territories’ specificities. Since 2014, several interventions have been directed at reaching a fair distribution of asylum seekers on the territory; said measures had however limited impact, and distribution is still far from homogeneous on the territory.
In the Unified Conference of 10 July 2014, Government, regions and local authorities reached an agreement on a National Operational Plan, which represented an attempt to develop a system of planning, organisation and national management of the reception of migrants and refugees. The fundamental aspect on which the implementation of the Plan was based is the progressive overcoming of the logic of emergency that had characterised the Italian reception system until then.
The agreement affirmed the centrality of the former SPRAR system (now SAI) considered pivotal of the reception system for both adults and for all unaccompanied foreign minors. In this context, any solutions implemented as a matter of urgency (reference is to CAS facilities) should have a residual role and still tend to the characteristics and services provided according to the SPRAR model.
The plan acknowledges the need to organise distribution of arriving migrants and states that, if the capacity of the SPRAR system is insufficient or not immediately available, distribution must take place on a regional basis, according to the following agreed criteria:
- percentage of access, by Regions, to the National Social Policy Fund;
- exclusion of municipalities affected by earthquakes and of municipalities affected by emergency situations;
- quotas relating to the actual presence of migrants in the territories and not to the initial allocations.
Based on the agreement reached, it is up to the National Coordination Table to prepare the distribution forecast, while the subsequent allocation within each region must be agreed within the coordination tables chaired by the Prefect of the regional capital municipality and specifically with local authorities where facilities are identified for temporary reception. The adoption of such criteria was meant to avoid an excessive concentration of migrants in reception on the same territory and, on the contrary, to favour their relocation to different areas of the national territory.
The implementation of this agreement in the following years was only partial, for reasons of both political nature (e.g. linked to changes in local political majorities weary of applying agreements reached by previous majorities), as well as for reasons related to a lack of effective planning and implementation of the planned interventions. First, although the Plan was based on the rapid expansion of the SPRAR system, as it was recognized that it would have allowed an orderly distribution on the national territory, the expansion did not take place before 2017, while in those years sea arrivals had increased by more than 200%, with the consequent extensive growth in the number of CAS.
Another crucial passage of the agreement provided for the activation of regional hubs of first reception, whose main functions would have had to be to quickly relieve the congested ports of disembarkation, to act as facilities for the distribution of asylum seekers within each region and to lead to a progressive dismantlement of the enormous CARA collective centres, which were predominantly located in the South. In fact, the only regional hub to be formally activated was the Mattei Centre of Bologna, in the Emilia-Romagna region, opened in 2014 with a capacity of 200 people (in summer 2016 it reached the number of about 1,000 people) and suddenly closed and converted to CAS in June 2019. In a scenario like the Italian one, characterised by successive sea arrivals within a short time frame of hundreds of people, who must be disembarked, identified and transferred in a short time, the failure to activate regional hubs has resulted, up to the present, in serious logistical problems in the national distribution of migrants, putting additional pressure on the mechanism of transfers from Southern Italy and depriving the regions of a distributing platform that was also meant to be used for the screening of migrants’ vulnerabilities, in view of the definitive accommodation of the applicants.
The years following the 2014 agreement saw a strong expansion in the use of emergency reception facilities, at the expense of the ordinary reception and the permanence, if not a worsening, of strong imbalances in the distribution of asylum seekers at a national level. Between 2015 and 2017, the increase of people in reception and the fact that increasingly more local administrations opposed the use of emergency reception facilities was accompanied by an uneven distribution of migrants, so much so that CAS existed in 2,600 Municipalities out of a total of about 8,000, while the Municipalities engaged in the SPRAR system were less than a thousand.
It is for these reasons that in 2016 the Ministry of the Interior designed a new plan, together with the National Association of Italian Municipalities (ANCI). Starting from the mechanism of regional quotas set in July 2014, it conceived a system focused on the wider involvement of municipal realities and the maximum “diffusion” of migrants within the various territories. The objective of this plan was to involve all Italian municipalities in the reception, in sustainable numbers of migrants, uniformly distributed over the territories, according to criteria of demographic proportionality. The ultimate goal was to gradually reduce the use of extraordinary reception, in favour of joining the SPRAR.
To do so, quotas were set for each Italian Municipality, proportional to the population of each.
These quotas corresponded to the number of asylum seekers or protection beneficiaries that each municipality would have to accommodate in SPRAR facilities. The number was calculated in three different ways, depending on the type of Municipality concerned:
- Municipalities with less than 2,000 inhabitants (3,493 in total) were allocated a fixed quota of 6 asylum seekers.
- Metropolitan cities (14 in total) were allocated a variable quota, equal to 2 migrants per thousand inhabitants.
- Municipalities with more than 2,000 inhabitants (4,491 in total) were allocated a variable number of places calculated for each region (calculated on the basis of the regional quotas of July 2014), net of the number of reception places already allocated to small municipalities and metropolitan cities in that given region. The distribution was made using the ratio (per 1,000 inhabitants) between the total places for reception and the total inhabitants of the Municipalities belonging to this group. The amount thus calculated varied, but corresponded to around 2.5 people per thousand inhabitants.
The plan thus created was based on the estimation of a system of reception which counted a total of approximately 200,000places.
In an effort to convince as many municipalities as possible to adhere to the new plan, the Minister of the Interior gave binding instructions to all Prefects, providing for a “safeguard clause” that exempted the SPRAR municipalities from the activation of “further forms of reception”.
According to this clause, Prefects could not open new emergency reception facilities in the municipalities that voluntarily joined the SPRAR network for that given number of migrants. Furthermore, all non-SPRAR reception centres already present in said territory should have been removed or transformed into SPRAR.
As a result of these important measures, there has been a significant acceleration in voluntary joining the SPRAR system by Italian Municipalities, from 2,800 to 3,386 (+21%) between December 2016 and December 2017, and consequently an increase in SPRAR places of 37% during 2017. The expansion of the SPRAR network enabled the reduction of concentration of asylum seekers in some of the larger centres. For example, the CARA of Mineo passed from 3,733 to 2,585 migrants present (-31%) between December 2016 and December 2017, while that of Conetta di Cona dropped from 1,420 to 761 people (-46%) in the same period. Finally, in 2017, 672 temporary or first reception centres could be closed, while 9,211 remained operational.
With the entry into force of the Salvini Decree (Decree Law 113/2018) and the exclusion of asylum seekers from SPRAR (then SIPROIMI), the extension of the latter and the equitable distribution between Municipalities have ceased to be a priority of the Government, which has gradually abandoned the forms of local consultation that have been activated in the meantime. The subsequent adoption of the Lamorgese Decree (Decree Law 130/2020) saw the return of asylum seekers to the current SAI system, but it was not an opportunity to restore the mechanisms of consultation and fair redistribution inaugurated a few years earlier, that indeed appear now abandoned. The consequence of this is that to date, even though there has been a gradual increase in the total number of places in the SAI, the territories still see a very strong imbalance in the distribution of reception places.
At the end of 2022, the total number of asylum seekers and beneficiaries of international protection accommodated was 107,677 (including those hosted in SAI) and their distribution across the regions (as per the 2014 Plan quotas) was as follows:
|Distribution of asylum seekers and beneficiaries of protection accommodated in Italy per region: 31 December 2022
|Number of individuals
|Percentage on the national total (regional quotas)
|Number of individuals hosted in SAI
|Percentage of individuals hosted in SAI against the total number of individuals per region
Source: Ministry of Interior, Cruscotto statistico giornaliero, 31 December 2022 and (for data regarding SAI) 31 January 2023, available at: https://bit.ly/3ZhYhZk.
As can be observed, the distribution of asylum seekers and protection holders in Italy still remains highly imbalanced between regions. A recent study showed that less than one out of four municipalities (precisely 23.2%) in 2021 reported on the presence on its territory of a reception facility, be it prefectural (CAS or first reception centres) or afferent to the SAI system. Similarly, the distribution is heterogeneous even between one province and the other. For example, in the Province of Reggio Emilia 93% of Municipalities were involved in reception, while in the Province of Florence only 56%. On the other hand, the closure of thousands of centres has led to a greater concentration of migrants, especially in some large metropolitan cities. The territories with the most places available in 2021 were the metropolitan cities of Rome (3,796), Turin (3,637), Milan (3,524), Bologna (2,579) and Naples (2,578). Overall, in these five metropolitan cities in 2021 there were over 16,000 places in reception facilities, accounting for 16.5% of the total number of places in the country.
Not only that: the SAI network, in addition to being still largely insufficient, is characterised by a very significant territorial imbalance, so that there are regions such as Apulia where the SAI make up more than 60% of the places in reception, and others such as Friuli-Venezia Giulia where SAI places are less than 5% of the regional total. This continues to be a serious problem in terms of the effective possibility for asylum seekers to access quality services and especially in terms of the availability of places dedicated to vulnerable people, that are still completely absent in many Italian regions.
Transfers between reception centres
After their initial allocation, asylum seekers may be moved from one centre to another, passing from: (1) CPSA / hotspots; to (2) governmental first reception centres, to (3) CAS or to (4) SAI projects. As previously mentioned, in case of a shortage of places, it is likely that an applicant will remain in first reception facilities or in CAS centres for the entire duration of the asylum procedure.
Asylum seekers can be moved from one CAS to another of the same province or between different provinces, to achieve better redistribution between territories. The Prefectures organise transfers within their own province, whereas transfers between the different provinces are decided by the Ministry of the Interior. In these procedures, the opinion of the individual asylum seekers on the place of their reception is rarely taken into consideration. Transfer decisions cannot be appealed, but the refusal by the affected person to be transferred is equivalent to a non-acceptance of reception itself and can therefore give rise to a measure of withdrawal of the reception measures.
In this context were set the transfers requested by the Prefectures of Friuli Venezia-Giulia and organised by the Ministry with the purpose of reducing the number of migrants in the region, which is a border area and therefore the first point of arrival for those coming through the Balkan Route. During 2022, which saw an increase of around 30% in border crossings from Slovenia compared to 2021, the Ministry periodically sorted thousands of asylum seekers from the first reception centres of the Prefectures of Gorizia, Trieste and Udine to other regions. In July 2022, due to the progressive saturation of other regions’ reception facilities, the frequency of these transfers has significantly decreased, with the consequence that hundreds of people were crammed into old overcrowded barracks or forced to live rough (it is worth noting that only 268 SAI places are active in that region).
Considering the far from perfect distribution of the SAI projects in Italy, and therefore the absence or scarcity of SAI places in certain territories, it happens frequently that a transfer from CAS to SAI involves the relocation of the migrant far away from the place where they were hosted and lived for months or years, often outside the region and towards SAI projects in Southern Italy. The prospect of a new uprooting and of having to start anew your own path of integration in an unknown territory is often so traumatic as to induce those interested to give up the transfer into SAI, and therefore to lose the right to reception to which they would be entitled. No data is available on non-acceptances of transfer measures into SAI, but ASGI observed that this is one of the major problems resulting from an ineffective dispersal policy, as it can bring well-established paths towards autonomy and social inclusion to a sudden halt.
There are no specific law provisions regarding the possibility for an asylum seeker to obtain a transfer from one reception facility to another for personal reasons, such as the need to be closer to their workplace, or to be closer or reunite with family members elsewhere, and no known regulatory provisions providing for families to be accommodated together exist. The observation of local practices shows that the unity of families is usually valued, and therefore the institutions involved ensure, where possible, that members of the same family are hosted in the same accommodation (it is not uncommon for members of the same family to be separated during search and rescue operations at sea, as a result of which they are transferred and accommodated in different places). More variable and less guaranteed are the practices relating to requests for transfer for work reasons, especially when the transfer would involve different Prefectures (and consequently the Ministry).
In general terms, a transfer between SAI projects is usually more likely than a transfer between Prefectures, for reasons related to faster and more effective communication between the former, as well as generally greater openness to the practice by the SAI Central Service.
Restrictions in accommodation in reception centres
The Reception Decree clarifies that asylum applicants are free to exit from first reception centres during the daytime but they have the duty to re-enter during the night time. The applicant can ask the Prefecture for a temporary permit to leave the centre at a different time for relevant personal reasons or for reasons related to the asylum procedure. The law does not provide such a limitation for people accommodated in CAS, but rules concerning the entry to / exit from the centre are laid down in the reception agreement signed between the body running the structure and the asylum seeker at the beginning of the accommodation period.
Applicants’ freedom of movement can be affected by the fact that it is not possible to leave the reception centre temporarily e.g. to visit relatives, without prior authorisation by the Prefecture. Authorisation is usually granted with permission to leave for some days. In case a person leaves the centre without permission and does not return to the structure within a brief period of time (usually agreed with the management body and regulated by the “reception regulations” of each facility), that person cannot be readmitted to the same structure and material reception conditions can be withdrawn by the Prefecture (see Reduction or Withdrawal of Material Reception Conditions).
On 16 June 2017, the Prefecture of Naples adopted a new regulation to be applied in CAS. The regulation establishes a curfew at 22:00, or 21:00 in spring and summer. The regulation also foresees Withdrawal of Material Reception Conditions if the curfew is not observed. The regulation has been challenged by ASGI before the Council of State, but the latter rejected the appeal, considering that the regulation cannot imply an automatic withdrawal of the reception conditions since the administration is required to evaluate case-by-case the reasons for the applicant’s absence.
However, in these situations the very existence of measures regulating the access to structures and the potential lack of legal advice prevent recipients from challenging revocations.
With regards to the reception project part of the SAI network, rules relating to absence are different and have been regulated through the technical-operational note of the Central Service 1/2018 of 12 April 2018. It provides that the hosted migrant loses the right to stay in reception after 72 hours of unjustified absence, where unjustified absence means a “voluntary removal, for more than 24 hours, without any agreement with the coordinator/ project manager for the local authority”.
Justified absence, on the other hand, means a period of absence from the reception facility, duly motivated (for example, to visit relatives or friends, for job search, for training, for work…) that the interested migrant can agree with the project manager from the local authority. Each beneficiary can benefit from 30 days (cumulative) of justified absence within 12 (every) months of SAI reception. In assessing the authorisation for the justified absence, “the local authority is called upon to assess the real needs of the beneficiary, considering its path of inclusion”. This provision is consistent with the spirit of socio-educational responsibility typical of the SAI, which requires project managers to make a qualitative assessment of the beneficiary’s inclusion path. Although these are indications aimed at protecting the hosted migrants themselves, a rule of this type gives a great discretion to the local authority. In any case, periods of absence due to administrative/judicial procedures or to therapeutic and rehabilitation needs, including hospitalisation, are excluded from the calculation of 30 days. In exceptional cases, the responsible for the local authority may agree with the Central Service on additional periods of justified absence, with appropriate supporting documentation. These general rules are outlined in the reception regulation that SAI projects are required to formally share with each guest,
As can be seen, the regulation of absences in the SAI is inspired by greater flexibility and a criterion of sharing choices in the reception process. This is in fact a provision of a potentially discriminatory nature, because the difference in treatment is essentially based on having had access to a SAI facility, which, as has been described, is often due circumstances that have no connection to the particular situation of the applicant.
 Article 5(4) Reception Decree.
 The Unified Conference (Conferenza Unificata) is a permanent body where the Central Government, Regions, Provinces and Municipalities are represented. It participates in decision-making processes involving matters for the State and the Regions, in order to foster cooperation between the State activity and the system of autonomies, examining matters and tasks of common interest, also carrying out advisory functions. More specifically, the regional allocation criteria defined by the National Coordinating Table are established in agreement with the Unified Conference, as per Article 16 (1) Reception Decree.
 The Table is established pursuant to Article 29 (3) of Legislative Decree no. 251/2007 (Qualification Decree). For more information on Table functions, refer to the previous Management and coordination paragraph.
 See Linkiesta, Morcone: “Sui migranti i sindaci non possono decidere quello che vogliono”, 1 December 2016, available in Italian at: https://bit.ly/3UcX6sv. For an in-depth analysis of the effect of electoral incentives on the reception, see the recent article by Gamalerio and Negri, Not welcome anymore: the effect of electoral incentives on the reception of refugees, in Journal of Economic Geography, available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/jeg/lbad002.
 The actual transformation of a reception facility from CAS to SAI was disciplined by the MoI DCLI with Circular letter 11610 of 4 August 2017, having as object: Conversione posti da Centri di accoglienza straordinari a SPRAR – disposizioni operative.
 In March 2017, according to an initial survey by all the Prefectures, 200 Municipalities without any reception facilities had given willingness to join the SPRAR, 200 other Municipalities had expressed their intention to transform into SPRAR the temporary structures already present in their territories. Finally, 31 Municipalities had indicated their intention to expand existing SPRAR projects in their territories.
 For more data on the subject, see Report on the operation of the reception system designed to meet extraordinary needs connected with the exceptional influx of foreigners into the country (year 2017), August 2018, available at: https://bit.ly/3MyqffW.
 Further information regarding the implementation of the plan can be found in Luca Pacini, Verso l’accoglienza diffusa: un cammino lungo tre anni per arrivare al Piano integrazione, in Libertà civili, issue 4/2017, available at: https://bit.ly/3KUhLys.
 A comprehensive analysis of the subject is available in the publication from Campo, Giunti and Mendola, The Political Impact of Refugee Migration: Evidence from the Italian Dispersal Policy, Center for European Studies Paper series, no. 456, December 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3o3zPgx.
 Article 15 (4) Reception Decree.
 Article 23 (1 a) Reception Decree.
 See Altreconomia, Il collasso dell’accoglienza e l’abbandono dei richiedenti asilo. Il caso Friuli-Venezia Giulia, 20 September 2022, available at: https://bit.ly/3nnpzzT. See also RAI TGR, Migranti, resta irrisolto il nodo dell’accoglienza, 11 April 2023, available at: https://bit.ly/3Hw4I4f. See also Il Fatto Quotidiano, Migranti, Lamorgese lenta nei trasferimenti: in Friuli Venezia Giulia i centri scoppiano e i richiedenti asilo finiscono in strada, 29 September 2022, available at: https://bit.ly/3p6ULUv.
 Article 14 (1) Reception Decree only foresees that asylum seekers have access to the reception measures “with the members of their family”. “Family members”, within the meaning of Article 2 (1 f) Reception Decree, shall mean: the spouse of the applicant, the minor children of the applicant, whether adopted or born out of wedlock, minors under guardianship, the parent or other adult legally responsible for the minor applicant.
 Article 10(2) Reception Decree.
 For more information about the differences in reception conditions at various levels of the system, see the paragraph Conditions in Reception Facilities.