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So You Said You Care About Poor Countries? From Index to Action

November 6, 2012

By Fiorenzo Conte

The last post looked at what one can dig out of indices, what are indices good for and what makes the Commitment to Development Index particularly useful. This post takes the index into the real world and explores what scoring 4.7 in migration for Italy looks like. It traces why Italy is doing bad on some indicators and it looks at the odds for Italy to improve its ranking. Finally, it points out at information, which CDI could spell out in the subsequent years.

Open up the Black Box. Italy’s overall score in migration is 4.7 and it ranks 20th in 2012. When one opens the migration indicator black box one discovers that Italy’s strongest contribution to development comes from its openness to students from developing countries. One can also see Italy’s weaknesses: since 1990 Italy did not substantially increase the number of unskilled migrants living in Italy and when it comes to humanitarian responses it bears a small share of the burden of refugees during humanitarian crises. The latter indicator sums the resident stock of refugees and the number of asylum applications accepted in the previous year taken over the host country GDP. If Italy wants to go up in the ranking it must start from here.

The Reality Behind Scoring 4.7. If the index is to be geared toward action, it must point to action points for each country. In the case of Italy and migration, the priority for Italy therefore is to let many more refugees entering Italy and increase the number of asylum seekers accepted in Italy. There is one caveat however: Italy’s CDI score on the refugee and asylum seekers indicator is based on the 2010 data and therefore does not take stock of the changes which took place in 2011 and early 2012. In other words it takes into account only partially the post Arab Spring migration flows and the displacement which ensued the NATO interventions in Libya. When one looks at this time frame one sees that Italy today is not at the same place as Italy was in 2010.

Trend Over the Years. If one looks at the trend over the years one finds out that Italy in 2008 was the fifth largest recipient of asylum-seekers applications among the 44 industrialized countries[1]. Between the end of 2008 and 2009 the numbers of people requesting international protection to Italy dropped by almost half. In 2010 the trend continued and it Italy ranked 14th among the 44 industrialized countries. Following the Arab Spring in 2011 arrivals to Italy resumed and tripled in one year: Italy jumped to the 4th recipient of asylum-seekers (see graph above). What caused the asylum-seekers to drop in 2008, 2009 and 2010?

Why?  The simple answer is the Treaty of Friendship signed by Berlusconi’s Italy and Qadddafi’s Libya in late 2008. On the basis of the Treaty both countries committed to stem the influx of illegal emigrants: this translated in the interception of migrant boats and their forcible return to the Libyan coasts without a thorough assessment of their identities.  This practice is problematic from many perspectives. Firstly, out of the migrants intercepted many were refugees and asylum seekers (this is why UNHCR talks of mixed migrant flow and estimates that in 2008 70% of those arriving to the Italian island Lampedusa qualified as refugees) and therefore were to be differentiated from illegal migrants seeking jobs: Italian authorities on the other hand were just sending them all back (thereby infringing the principle which forbids collective expulsions). Secondly, many of the migrants intercepted were nationals of a third country and therefore sending them back to Libya exposed them to the risk of being repatriated in their country of origin (such as Somalia and Eritrea) and to ill-treatment by Libyan authorities: Libya in fact is not a signatory of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees[2]. In 2011, in the aftermath of the NATO interventions in Libya, Italy suspended the application of the treaty: according to UNHCR the repealing of this policy is closely connected to the tripling of asylum-seekers application in 2011.

It could have done better. Italy in 2011 therefore seems to bear a significant larger share of asylum-seekers as compared to the previous 3 years. It could have done better though by accepting more refugees.  The movements out of Libya are insightful: by May 2011 365,000 people had crossed from Libya into Tunisia and 270,000 from Libya into Egypt. Of both influxes only a small percentage were nationals working in Libya going back to their countries (10% in the case of Tunisia and 34% in Egypt). A the same time the new arrivals to Italy since January 2011  were just 34,460 individuals. Of these however the majority were Tunisian seeking for jobs whereas no Libyans were recorded. If Italy did significantly increase the share of asylum seekers in 2011 vis-à-vis other industrialized countries, its performance vis-à-vis Tunisia and Libya shows on the other hand that Italy could have done significantly better.

All Is Well? So by looking at the CDI 2012, one sees that Italy is lagging behind with regards to the number of asylum seekers accepted. However, UNHCR data for 2011 with regards to number of asylum-seekers applications show that Italy is likely to improve on this dimension, if the steep increase in asylum-seekers applications is taken as a signal of Italy’s increased willingness to bear a larger share of asylum-seekers. So all is well? Not really. Italy in 2012 is gravitating back to the same policies which caused the drop in 2009 and 2010. As reported by Amnesty International, Italy signed in April 2012[3]  a new agreement with the new Libyan authorities which not only didn’t include any safeguards on respect of human rights and didn’t put in place any guarantees that Libya would respect those seeking or enjoying asylum  but  focused exclusively on stemming the flows of illegal migrants, a term loosely defined so to encompass migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

Spell It Out. In sum, the post showed how the score in the CDI 2012 in migration can be traced back to the policies a country undertakes and understand why a country is below or above average. The index tells where a country’s weaknesses lies. There is a caveat however: the index does not spell out which year the indicators are associated with and therefore there is no straightforward link between the ranking in 2012 and which policies (over what years) lead to that score. Timeframe indeed plays a big role: in the case of refugees and asylum applications the post showed that in 2010 Italy was indeed bearing a small share of the burden of refugees but that seems likely to change: events (such as the Arab Spring) and policies (i.e. the temporary repeal of the Treaty of Friendship) caused however the situation to change significantly in 2011. If the number of applications received is correlated to the number of asylum applications accepted, one could find out that in 2011 the priority for Italy, to go up the ranking, is not anymore to increase the number of asylum seekers looking for protection in Italy. To be geared towards action the index can do two things. Firstly it can spell out for what year each indicator is so that one can link the performance in that year to policies in previous years: time matters a great deal. Secondly, it can show the time trends for each country for each of the indicators so that one can see to what extent a country is committed to improve on that specific dimensions: Italy was not doing so well from 2008 to 2010, it is likely to improve in 2011 but new policies in 2012 could bring down its rank again. Indicator-based trends would spot this inconsistency.


[1] The number of asylum-seekers applications received over one year can be taken as close proxy to the number of applications accepted, as countries which wants to limit the number of applications accepted tend to do so by taking measures to reduce the number of asylum-seekers entering its territory.

[3] Two months after it was sanctioned by the European Court for Human Rights: see note 1

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