A group of 140 refugees from sub-Saharan Africa arrived in Europe on an early summer’s morning. The image in your head is probably of an overloaded boat crossing the Mediterranean. Except, this group of migrants landed at Rome Fiumicino – in populist Italy – with luggage and visas in hand, to be greeted by a friendly welcoming party of Italian citizens.
This is what’s known as a humanitarian corridor, a little-known alternative to risky journeys that’s growing in traction across Europe. It started with Sant’Egidio, a Christian group that wanted to fill the gap where the European Union and its Member States had failed.
While the European Resettlement Scheme brought just over 600 people to Italy in the 20 months from May 2015 to February 2017, Saint-Egidio have resettled a thousand people in 24 months.
This scheme would appear to be at odds with the hostile stance adopted by Italy’s new government, but humanitarian corridors continue to work in such a climate because they provide an answer to rhetoric about security and financial concerns surrounding the refugee crisis.
The participating civil society groups made an agreement with the Italian state, where they identify prospective candidates for resettlement (usually those who would not be eligible for strictly defined and limited resettlement programs or who are particularly vulnerable).These groups commit to support those people throughout their integration process: they teach them Italian, help enrol their children in schools, provide them with accommodation and assist them to find work.
In Lebanon, for example, UNHCR is not currently permitted to register refugees but Sant’Egidio can provide an opportunity for resettlement to people who fall through those cracks. Furthermore, the harrowing journeys people take create grey areas in classifying people as refugees or as economic migrants. These civil society groups base their decisions on vulnerability alone.
Italy’s sole responsibility is national security vetting of the proposed candidates. Humanitarian visas can then be issued under EU law, and asylum procedures run a lot faster as the evidence and support is already there.
The project has already been replicated in another EU state, through a network of French Christians cooperating with Sant’Egidio. Similarly, French civil society helps them with administrative processes and integration, with Air France providing preferential fares.
It takes political will to implement, but the results speak for themselves. All but two of the 125 people the French Federation of Protestant Mutual Aid assisted in the east of France since 2015 obtained residency, with 20 entering work and 10 entering training. Volunteers are the ones who assist them to learn the local language, take part in local communities and enter work or education.
So far, so Big Society. There are indeed British groups, both religious and secular, who have expressed an interest in private sponsorship of refugees and have participated in existing resettlement programs.
This is the key difference between existing resettlement programs and the humanitarian corridor scheme. It deliberately sets out to provide opportunities and alternatives for people who are not eligible for or not able to access UNHCR resettlement consideration.
The existing UK groups also state that they are only able to sponsor resettled Syrians, while the Italian program has resettled beneficiaries from sub-Saharan Africa. If the UK chose to replicate the Italian system, its NGOs would be able to focus on other groups in need of protection – for example, English-speaking Africans in overcrowded refugee camps.
Less than 1 per cent of refugees of concern to UNHCR around the world in 2016 were resettled that year. This program would allow more people to access a real alternative to dangerous journeys. Global resettlement needs sit at around 8 per cent of the total refugee population.(UNHCR, 2017)
What could this look like in practice? Although EU law has a provision for humanitarian visas – which is what Italy and France use to implement this programme — the UK does not offer them and requires people to claim asylum on arriving.
However, “Leave Outside the Immigration Rules” grants the Home Office the power to permit someone to enter or remain in the UK in compelling circumstances that do not otherwise fall into the existing legal categories. As such, the Home Office would be able to take part without having to spend parliamentary time on passing any new laws.
By nature of this programme being designed specifically to help people who have not been able to participate in traditional resettlement systems, they would have to apply for asylum in the UK.
This has not been a problem in the existing schemes, as the vetting procedures and civil society connections in the interior ministries have facilitated speedy asylum decisions. The civil society groups accompany people through those procedures, with the aim of integrating them into their new home and helping them stay out of poverty and in work.
A truly global Britain, in agreeing to participate in such a scheme, would make a grand statement about what kind of country it wants to be after Brexit. A country that not only lives up to its humanitarian commitments, but goes above and beyond them. One that provides opportunity and combats injustice for those who fall through the cracks in the system – regardless of nationality.
All it would have to do would be to conduct security vetting and asylum processes, and the brunt of the cost would lie with enterprising and committed volunteers from the private and third sectors. What’s not to like?