Fighting the pandemic in the asylum battleground: Evidence from north-eastern Italy
The COVID-19 pandemic and the draconian measures enforced to mitigate it have shed light on, and magnified, the fragilities and injustices of Italy’s asylum system. Civil society organizations have en-gaged in assorted solidarity practices to cope with the plight of migrants, including emergency health interventions, provisions for poverty relief, and assistance in regularization procedures. This paper ar-gues that such initiatives have not unfolded in a vacuum, but in a battleground entailing vast constella-tions of actors inside and outside the state, located at various territorial scales, and bearing contrasting interests, values, and frames—thus producing divergent outcomes over space and time.
Empirically, the study focuses on six medium-sized localities having highly different political, admin-istrative, and civic trajectories—Venice, Treviso, Belluno-Feltre, Bologna, Ferrara, and Ravenna. While diverse, these cities are all located in north-eastern Italy, an area where the impact of COVID-19 has been huge and the size of immigrant communities is historically high. The analysis draws on as-sorted qualitative data, including media outlets, social network contents, policy documents, and ap-proximately 30 semi-structured interviews with governmental and nongovernmental actors.
Our findings show that the asylum crackdown enacted by national authorities over the last years had far-reaching consequences in the midst of the pandemic. In large-scale, hardly accessible reception centers located in peripheral areas the pandemic could spread with great virulence and civil society ac-tors had limited chances to mitigate it. The municipalities that have voluntarily decided to keep small-scale facilities in place in spite of the crackdown, instead, could more easily cope with the emergency and provide high-quality services to migrants hosted therein. Thus, solidarity practices have to be un-derstood through the prism of the multi-level political and governance dynamics that local actors must navigate.