Blog post by Chiara Scissa*
There are plenty of alarming sources projecting the arrival of “mass influxes” of people displaced by disasters, especially from third countries impacted by the effects of climate change into wealthier countries (here and here).
Over time, scholars, international organizations, and NGOs active in the field of post-disaster assistance and in the protection of displaced persons have tried to forecast the number of people who will be displaced by future disasters, climate change and environmental degradation. For instance, according to the International Federation of the Red Cross, “environmental refugees” could double by 2050 and exceed those displaced by war, while the International Organization for Migration observes that projections vary from 25 million to 1 billion by the year 2050. According to Myers’ estimates, 200 million people will be displaced by climate change by 2050.
These numbers, criticized by some scholars, may have contributed to a climate of securitization and reluctance towards the recognition and protection of those displaced by disasters, climate change and environmental degradation. National interests of public order and security may have strained the discussion on the necessity of an appropriate protection status. The European Union (EU) and its Member States are no exception. For example, after the tragic earthquakes that have devastated parts of Turkey and Syria in February 2023, Greece announced the reinforcement of border controls along its land and sea frontiers with Turkey and the building of a 35 km-long wall amid expectations of “mass movement of millions of people” displaced by the disaster.
Despite the EU Commission’s repeated acknowledgement that climate change, disasters and environmental degradation “were likely to assume greater importance in influencing migration in the future, particularly within developing countries”, the EU has never seriously taken into consideration the possibility of developing a new protection instrument or expanding those already available to address the protection need stemming from such hazards. This is why, up to now, the protection of people displaced in the context of disasters, climate change and environmental degradation has mostly been left to national competence. This means that such protection may be susceptible to significant variation across the EU and subject to radical changes or repeal according to the political orientation and priorities of the national government in power.
In light of the upcoming EMN Swedish Presidency Conference of May 2023, which aims to explore the potential impact of climate change on displacement to the EU Member States and Observer Countries (Norway, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova, Ukraine, Montenegro and Armenia), this blog post aims to reinforce the need to provide adequate protection to those fleeing disasters, climate change and environmental degradation. At the same time, it aims to recalibrate the debate around the expected movements of related cross-border displacement. To do so, it presents Italy’s original approach towards disaster displacement and illustrates the unprecedented results of an innovative research enquiry conducted by the author on Article 20-bis of the Consolidated Act on Immigration (CAI). The analysis proceeds as follows. First, a brief overview of Article 20-bis is provided. Afterwards, the main results of the mentioned enquiry are introduced and analyzed. Finally, the relevance of the Italian experience at the EU level, beginning with the upcoming EMN Swedish Presidency Conference, are highlighted.
Italy is currently the only EU Member State to provide multiple and explicit protection statuses to people displaced in the context of disasters. In particular, since Decree-Law n. 113 of October 4, 2018, a new provision (Article 20-bis CAI) has been introduced to offer protection to foreigners whose country of origin was in a situation of “contingent and exceptional calamity” that did not allow for a safe return.
Although the legislator did not define the nature of calamity, the requirement for it to be “contingent and exceptional” probably meant that only sudden and isolated events, such as earthquakes or floods, could be considered eligible events in opposition to slow-onset processes, such as costal erosion or environmental degradation. Originally, this provision provided for a six-month permit, renewable for a further six months if unsafe conditions persisted.
On October 21, 2020 the Decree-Law n. 130 amended, inter alia, Article 20-bis CAI. Its current formulation provides for the issuance of residence permits in the context of a “serious” calamity. This amendment seems to allow for broader coverage of calamities based on the degree of severity rather than on its progression over time. Additionally, the provision no longer specifies the maximum duration of renewal, thus potentially suggesting that the initial six-month permit can be renewed for as long as the conditions of environmental insecurity in the country of origin persist. Finally, protection is convertible into a work residence permit.
It is relevant to note that a residence permit based on calamity can be obtained by two feasible means. First, it can be issued directly by Questure (police stations) upon request. In fact, protection against calamities is not part of the three statuses fulfilling the constitutional right to asylum pursuant to Article 10(3) of the Italian Constitution (refugee status, subsidiary protection, and the national institute of humanitarian protection now called special protection). Thus, whereas international and national protection claims are normally assessed by an administrative authority (called Territorial Commission) and are examined by judicial authorities on appeal, protection pursuant to Article 20-bis CAI follows a different assessment process. Second, if the Questura rejects the foreigner’s claim or if the Territorial Commission denies international and protection, judicial authorities may require the competent Questura to issue the residence permit on calamity, where appropriate. The Ministry of Interior provides accessible data concerning the number of claims lodged, pending cases and decisions released concerning the refugee status, subsidiary protection and special protection as well as data concerning the nationality, age and sex of the persons concerned. But specific data on Article 20-bis CAI are not publicly available.
In compliance with the right to generalized civic access (diritto all’accesso civico generalizzato) provided by Legislative Decree n. 33/2013, any person can be granted access to data, documents and information held by public administrations, including the data on asylum which are collected by the Department for Civil Liberties and Immigration under the Italian Ministry of Interior but which are not made public.
The author has therefore relied on this right and submitted an official enquiry to the Department for Civil Liberties and Immigration, which was asked to provide: 1) The number of residence permits on calamity issued by Questure pursuant to Article 20-bis CAI from its entry into force (October 4, 2018) to the date of the enquiry (March 31, 2023); 2) the nationality of the beneficiaries of such permits; 3) the type of calamity on the basis of which a residence permit ex Article 20-bis CAI has been issued; 4) the sex of the beneficiaries. Competent authorities responded solely to the first two requests. No data have been received concerning the last two requests.
According to the Department for Civil Liberties and Immigration, since 2018 a total number of 153 residence permits on calamity have been issued by 44 Italian Questure. The highest rates have been reached by the Questura of Bari (36), Genoa (9), Gorizia and Lecce (8), Foggia (7), Messina and Naples (6), Vercelli (5), Ancona and Reggio Emilia (4). 27 Questure have issued one or two residence permits on calamity since 2018. This means that the majority of residence permits have been granted by Questure in front-line Southern regions, although Questure in Central and Northern regions have played a significant role.
Beneficiaries of protection against calamities come from all continents except for Oceania. Asia, Latin America, Africa, Central Asia, and South Asia are all present. Protection against calamities has been provided to the following nationalities in particular: Pakistan (57), Albania (15), Bangladesh (14), Nigeria (13), China (12), Brazil (6), Colombia (5), and India (4). That most protection against calamities has been recognized to nationals of these third countries is not surprising given the disproportionate effects of climate change and related hazards affecting these populations. However, it is interesting to note that Article 20-bis has found application also to less evident cases, such as to nationals from Serbia (2), the Russian Federation (2), Ukraine (1), and Belarus (1).
Although the type of calamity triggering the protection need for these beneficiaries is unknown, it is likely that sudden-onset events have led the way. Indeed, from 2018 to 2020, as seen, the calamity needed to be “exceptional and contingent” for Article 20-bis to apply. This excludes slow-onset events for two out of the four and a half years at the centre of the enquiry. Moreover, there is clear evidence that Italian judicial authorities have requested the application of Article 20-bis CAI in cases concerning protection from recurring floods in Bangladesh, and from the devastating earthquake that severely affected Albania in November 2019. Moreover, the comparative analysis of the notion of “calamity” in Italian environmental law and migration law demonstrates that the term has been commonly used to indicate exceptional and sudden hazardous events, mainly associated with extreme weather events.
Relevant insights can be drawn from these data concerning the application of Article 20-bis CAI, which are briefly illustrated here below.
To begin with, 153 residence permits have been issued by Italian Questure in four and a half years. It means less than three residence permits per month have been issued since 2018 in a front-line Member State. Compared to 81.821 foreigners who obtained an (inter)national protection status from 2018 to 2021 (data for 2022 are not yet available), it is evident that disasters, climate change and environmental degradation are not currently giving rise to mass cross-border displacement into Italy. Hence, providing protection against these phenomena seems not to constitute a burden for the Italian State.
The reasons behind such a small number are at least threefold. First, these data only take into account the number of residence permits issued by Questure. Hence, this number would probably increase if judicial decisions were considered in the counting. Second, Questure can start the evaluation of an Article 20-bis claim solely upon an official request lodged by the applicant. Hence, the claimant’s legal representative needs to know about the nature and features of this provision to adequately advise their client. Unfortunately, sound knowledge about the legal avenues of protection against environmental and climatic threats available in the Italian legal order is still scant and needs to be upheld. Further, people fleeing extreme poverty or insecurity often do not sufficiently stress the real cause behind their vulnerability in relevant fora. As a result, they are often labelled as “economic migrants”, while the rooted cause of their socio-economic status (extreme weather events destroying their home, crops, and livelihood; or drought or desertification causing hunger and famine, lack of employment; patterns of discrimination forcing certain groups to live in disaster-prone areas, among others) is not adequately investigated. It appears therefore essential to raise awareness within the (inter)national protection-seekers community of the disaster-related causes of displacement and their relevance in the determination process of their claim. Finally, it is relevant to note that, in order to assess the actual existence of a calamity, the competent Questura may submit an official enquiry to the diplomatic and consular authorities of the claimant’s country of origin in order to receive specific information on the environmental and climatic conditions of the area or territory of the State in which the person would be removed. It is not clear whether Questure need to take into account other criteria or sources of information to establish the need of protection against calamities.
Despite these small numbers, the protection against calamities offered by the Italian State is of utmost importance. It innovatively recognizes the vulnerability of people displaced in the context of disasters and that their return to a disaster-affected area or territory would violate their human rights. Not only does it leverage human rights law and comply with international and constitutional obligations, but it avoids leaving vulnerable persons in a normative limbo, where they would otherwise languish in unsafe circumstances and be ineligible for the established categories of international protection. Furthermore, in allowing access to the labor market, Article 20-bis CAI also facilitates the socio-cultural and economic integration of disaster displaced people, enhances their self-determination and allows them to support their families remaining in the country of origin in the phases of disaster-recovery.
To conclude, the Italian experience shows that providing protection against disasters, climate change and environmental degradation does not open the gate to uncontrolled flows. Rather, it complies with international and national human rights obligations and with several soft-law instruments calling for the adequate protection of victims of disaster displacement (such as the Global Compact for Migration). Italy’s approach to disaster displacement may provide relevant insights at the EU level, and the upcoming EMN Swedish Presidency Conference can be a perfect starting point to discuss the feasibility of an EU common protection arrangement. In particular, the Italian example can help enhance the understanding of cross-border disasters and related displacement, while assessing the possibility of leveraging (aspects of) existing national protection measures to people displaced in the context of disasters, climate change and environmental degraadation at the EU level.
Chiara Scissa is a PhD candidate in Law at Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies (Italy) specializing in disaster displacement. Since June 2022, she has been designated by UNHCR as Expert in International Protection and Human Rights at the Territorial Commission for International Protection. Between 2021 and 2022, she was Visiting Researcher at the Institute for Migration Studies at the Lebanese American University (Lebanon), at the Migration, Environment and Climate Change Division of IOM Regional Office in Vienna (Austria), and at the Centre for European and Comparative Legal Studies at the University of Copenhagen (Denmark), where she conducted focus-specific research on disaster displacement in and from Central Asia to the EU and Russia, trafficking in persons, and harmful environmental activities. She is a Research Affiliate at RLI and is involved in its working group on climate displacement. Email: email@example.com
 C. Scissa, Alla ricerca di un fil rouge tra le molteplici nozioni di “calamità” nell’ordinamento italiano, in Rivista di Diritto Agrario, n. 3/2021.
 The number of unsuccessful claims pursuant to Article 20-bis is currently unknown.
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