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ROME – Barely a week in office, Italy's new, populist interior minister was losing no time in bringing home his message: His government will make good on a campaign pledge to swiftly deport 100,000 migrants from Italian soil.
Standing next to two bus drivers who were allegedly assaulted by four migrants — one of the drivers was still wearing a neck brace — Matteo Salvini boasted to reporters in the lakeside town of Como that the four "fake asylum-seekers," whose bids for asylum had earlier been rejected, would be rapidly deported back to Gambia and Nigeria.
"These guys won't be taking the bus in Como anymore," Salvini vowed.
Italy's hardline migrant policy is in the spotlight after its new government turned away a rescue boat with hundreds of migrants aboard from its ports, a pointed move signaling the country has had enough of coping with the migrant influx arriving on European shores. Salvini has quickly proclaimed his next urgent mission: kicking out huge numbers of migrants already here.
Thanks to complicated bureaucracy, a lack of diplomatic agreements with the refugees' homelands and unwillingness of impoverished countries to have migrants return, most of those who have lost asylum bids have so far run little chance of being deported.
Salvini is determined to reverse those odds.
"Over the next weeks, we'll start working on increasing expulsions," Salvini told a rally earlier this week of his right-wing League supporters, who often blame migrants for crime or fear they rob Italians of jobs.
At a migrant squatter tent camp that sprawls across an abandoned parking lot behind the Tiburtina train station in Rome's working class outskirts, the promised expulsion crackdown prompted bewilderment and even disbelief.
"You receive us as European United (Union), Italy is one of the European United (Union) and you return us to Sudan? I don't believe that," said Ibrahim, a tall, thin young Sudanese man who was brought by a rescue boat three weeks ago to Calabria, the southern "toe" of the Italian mainland. Like other migrants at the camp, he spoke only on condition his last name isn't published, for fear of upsetting Italian asylum authorities.
"I thank Italy because although I am in this camp, it's safe, I have food and I am free," he said in halting English. "I sacrificed myself to come, to cross the ocean, maybe die ... Sudan is disgusting, there is a dictatorship, it is unsafe and there is hunger."
Ibrahim said he hadn't yet filed his request for asylum.
Experts on asylum are skeptical Salvini can achieve his ambitious expulsions target.
"I think that it's understandable that the government will want to try and make this move, but the numbers that have been floated by Mr. Salvini are going to be very difficult to achieve," said Federico Soda, who oversees the situation in the Mediterranean at the U.N.'s International Organization for Migration.
Some 600,000 migrants from dozens of countries have landed in Italy in the past few years after rescue at sea. Except for those who managed to elude fingerprinting at dockside and slip northward into other European countries to claim asylum there, the vast majority filed asylum requests in Italy.
The Interior Ministry didn't respond to emailed and phone requests seeking the number of migrants who were ordered expelled in the past few years, or the numbers who have been actually expelled.
But it said that as of June 15, 133,815 requests for asylum were pending. So far this year, and in 2017, roughly 60 percent of those seeking asylum failed to receive any kind of protection, such as refugee status or humanitarian residency permits, the ministry said. That percentage included migrants who could no longer be found when a final decision was made. Such migrants are probably impossible to expel.
Those familiar with Italy's asylum and expulsion workings estimate that as many as 150,000 migrants could be awaiting expulsion.
According to European Union statistics, 7,045 migrants were expelled last year by Italy.
At that rate, it could take decades just to kick out all the migrants who have already been issued expulsion orders. That's not counting the many migrants who arrived legally but haven't had their permits renewed.
Yet the Italian government has formal expulsion agreements with just four countries: Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and Tunisia.
Soda noted that more than 18,000 Nigerians reached Italy by sea in 2017, making up the largest number of asylum-seekers there. But overall, Nigerians represented just some 15 percent of the total sea arrivals that year.
"In the absence of a lot more (bilateral) agreements, it's quite difficult to step up these efforts" at expulsions, he said.
Asked at a news conference this week how mass expulsions can happen without more diplomatic treaties, Salvini sounded unfazed — but didn't give any details. "We need to do in a year what others didn't do in many years," he said, expressing confidence his government would notch more accords.
Often, countries are reluctant to take back their citizens in large numbers.
Migrant remittances sent home — even from poorly paid black market jobs — are important to their homeland's economy.
"They have to explain to their people why they are having them come back," said Mario Morcone, who recently retired after a decades-long interior ministry career. The countries prefer small numbers of deportees to be sent at any one time, he added.
Tunisia has agreed to take back expelled migrants by charter flights, accounting for about 40 deportees aboard the twice-weekly flights.
The other three countries with bilateral accords insist on using commercial flights. Under Italy's regulations, a pair of Italian police officers must accompany each deportee on these flights. The costs are high — the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, has estimated the cost of repatriating each migrant at about 8,000 euros (about $9,500).
The entire expulsion process is slow from the start. Each migrant's identity must be carefully confirmed by an embassy's consul and supporting documents must be scrutinized, which can take several months.
Those designated for expulsion are brought to secure repatriation centers to await their deportation. But under Italy's rules, anyone not expelled within six months is free to leave the centers — and these migrants then often blend into compatriot communities in Italy.
Italy's populist politicians have proposed extending the maximum time in repatriation centers to 12 months or more. But that might just result in overcrowded repatriation centers if few actually get expelled.
In the tent camp, Jawred, a 28-year-old Afghan, described himself as more deserving that many of the rescued Africans who arrived from Libya's shores.
"Everyone knows Afghans are escaping war," he said, and refused to entertain the thought of deportation. "The Taliban will kill me if I go back because I worked for the (Western) military as an interpreter."
Crossing hands in front of himself to indicate handcuffs, Ahmed, 24, a spiky-haired Somali, pantomimed how German authorities sent him back — not once, but twice — to Italy.
Ahmed showed a notice from Italian police informing him that his asylum bid was rejected because he tried to elude border authorities aboard a train headed toward Germany.
He has another week to lodge any last, legal objection to the notice. What if he becomes one of Salvini's deportees?
"I'll try again to come back" to Europe, Ahmed said with a shrug.
Simone Somekh and Paolo Santalucia contributed to this report.
Frances D'Emilio is on twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio