ROME – Over the past two weeks, the Italian government has evacuated nearly 5,000 Afghans after the Taliban’s lighting-takeover of Kabul, and the Catholic Church is among the chief actors in helping them get settled.
Several Catholic organizations and associations have rallied to support the newly arrived refugees, with much of the Church’s assistance coming from the Caritas charitable organization, and the community of Sant’Egidio.
Oliviero Forti, head of the Migration Policies and International Protection Office of Caritas International’s Italy branch, spoke to Crux about what comes next for the Afghan families now on Italian soil, and what Caritas is doing to help them.
Immediately after their arrival, the refugees were required to spend 10 days in quarantine to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and are staying in housing provided by the Italian Ministry of Defense, as well as other structures provided by some of Italy’s different regions, and one being run by the Italian Red Cross that has 1,245 spaces.
According to Forti, the refugees are also being offered anti-COVID vaccines, which have been made available by the emergency coronavirus commission.
Once their quarantine is up, the refugees will then be enrolled into the ordinary institutional System of Reception and Integration (SAI) and Extraordinary Reception Center system (CAS), “where the procedures of recognition of international protection will begin, which can last from a few months to over a year,” Forti said.
Many of the structures assisting in the process, he added, are managed by either cooperatives or associations “which are operational branches of the diocesan Caritas offices.”
In terms of distribution, Forti said the refugees will be dispersed “throughout the country based on availability, as is ordinarily the case with all migrants arriving by land or by sea. So, from Lombardy to Sicily, all regions will be affected by the redistribution of migrants.”
Ever since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul earlier this month, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been evacuated by numerous countries around the world, including the United States, and countries throughout Europe, South America, and Africa, with Italy holding the top spot in the EU for the number of Afghani evacuees it has airlifted to its borders.
At the moment, Forti said the main entity offering emergency support to Italy’s Afghan refugees is the Italian government, which he said is currently evaluating whether to allow direct involvement of other institutions, including those run by the Catholic Church, “given the great solidarity and willingness that is coming from individuals and associations.”
Forti said the Italian Ministry of the Interior is exploring ways to enhance its welcome system in light of the emergency arrival of so many, because while some things can be made up as they go along, “precise rules and uniform paths to integration are needed throughout the national territory.”
A special agreement will likely be drafted between individuals and local governments establishing the responsibilities of all parties involved, he said, noting that currently, the Interior Ministry has allowed any association that wants to assist to do so at their own expense, in agreement with local authorities.
Caritas itself is assisting with the refugee quarantines and they will also lend a hand in the SAI and CAS processes, as they already have agreements in place with local municipalities and leadership.
Forti said the organization is also in touch with its local diocesan offices to keep tabs on what is needed, and there is also open communication with other national institutions, and with the Ministry of the Interior.
“In the coming weeks, when the picture becomes clearer, we will evaluate whether there is the need to foresee a national plan and above all we will understand if and what are the needs on which we will have to go in support of local realities,” he said.
There is no specific long-term plan in place for the refugees from Afghanistan, Forti said, noting that the number is not high enough to justify any sort of extraordinary or emergency measures, so “we will work as we have always done for refugees arriving in Italy.”
What is of most concern, he said, are those who wanted to be evacuated but could not get out before the withdrawal of foreign military, including the United States, which established a firm Aug. 31 deadline for the pullout of all American troops on the ground in Afghanistan.
“Our thoughts go to those who have not managed to reach Italy,” Forti said, and stressed the need to set up urgent humanitarian corridors giving safe passage to those who still wish to evacuate.
“Humanitarian corridors could be activated by the countries to which Afghan citizens have fled or are trying to flee too, such as Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey, where Caritas Italy has already operated recently managing several humanitarian corridors,” Forti said.
In addition to re-opening corridors that have already been open, another option, he said, is to establish new humanitarian corridors along the Balkan route, and passing through Bosnia, “where thousands of Afghans have been trying to reach Europe for years.”
Pointing to Greece’s slow-paced processing of the migrants and refugees who crossed its shores, Forti said, “Let us not forget that thousands of refugees, also Afghanis, are stranded in the Greek islands in dramatic conditions waiting to be relocated to other countries of the European Union.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen