MILAN – Every day, boatloads of refugees arrive on Italian shores. European Union law requires Italy to fingerprint them, so that if they apply for asylum in another country they can be sent back to their port of entry. Instead, Italy is letting thousands of migrants slip quietly into northern Europe, with no record of their time in Italy.
An Associated Press analysis of EU and Italian data suggests that as many as a quarter of the migrants who should have been fingerprinted in the first half of the year were not. While EU law required Italy to share fingerprints for about 56,700 of the migrants, only 43,382 sets were sent.
Even accounting for possible delays in sending fingerprints to Brussels, it's clear that thousands of refugees are slipping through the cracks.
"It's a very serious problem," European Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem told the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter this week. After complaints from member states, the European Commission is studying whether Italy is living up to its EU obligations. The Italian government didn't respond to repeated requests for comment.
EU countries are angry that they can't send migrants back to their first port of entry when there is no record of where that was. Human rights officials also worry that the refugees can't benefit from U.N. protections for refugees if they don't officially exist.
Italy, by not fingerprinting migrants, avoids the possibility that they'll be sent back. It is already spending 9.5 million euros ($13 million) a month to rescue thousands of migrants making the perilous crossing from North Africa aboard smugglers' boats in an operation launched after 360 migrants drowned off Sicily last year, and feels it's doing more than its share already.
The refugees themselves are happy not to be fingerprinted. With unemployment at 12.6 percent and youth unemployment at 43 percent, new arrivals have little interest in staying in Italy, and would rather settle in northern Europe where there are better job opportunities and more established refugee communities.
Aided by Rome's blind eye, Syrian migrants in particular are falling off Italy's radar, making their way to Milan's central train station in groups of 100 or more. They are met by railway police, aid workers and city officials who offer food, a bed and — for those who ask — advice on asylum.
Of the 10,500 who arrived in Milan since October, only eight requested asylum in Italy, city officials said. Many others, after a few hours or days in Milan, headed north with no record of ever having set foot in Italy.
"No Syrian wants to get fingerprinted," said Shadi Howara, a doctor from Damascus passing through Milan.
The Italian Interior Ministry reported 60,435 migrants arrived by boat in Italy this year through June 30. A number of those are accompanied children who by EU rules shouldn't be fingerprinted; Save the Children estimates there were 3,700. During the same time period, the EU said Italy shared 43,382 sets of fingerprints.
As more Syrians began to arrive and officials spotted children sprawled out on stone benches, the city of Milan set up a welcome desk in the train station in October, according to the city's top immigration official, Pierfrancesco Majorino.
The welcome desk, a table on the mezzanine of the cavernous station, sits behind yellow plastic barriers marked "Syrian Emergency."
The scene is surreal: As a nearby escalator ferries fashionable commuters to and from work in Italy's financial capital, Syrian war refugees mill about in donated clothes and little more than a plastic bag's worth of belongings, waiting for the next train north.
Why haven't they been fingerprinted?
"You have to ask the Interior Ministry," Majorino said, adding that only law enforcement agencies — not city workers — are authorized to carry out the task.
The Interior Ministry declined repeated requests for comment on Italy's application of the EU fingerprinting directive.
Syrian refugee Issam Zarai, 35, spent 30 hours in a packed boat with his wife and two children, 6 and 7, before being rescued at sea. On his way to Sweden, he had no problem with Italy's lax application of the EU directive.
"They took no fingerprints," he said, "and no names."
Associated Press writers Kavitha Surana and Nicole Winfield contributed from Rome.