By Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) - Angelo Trovato is in charge of Italy's asylum-request system, and it shows.
In Trovato's office near Rome's Trevi Fountain, bulky columns of paperwork cover every inch of the bespectacled civil servant's desk. His fixed-line and cell phones take turns ringing.
The 63-year-old manages a national network of committees that weigh who can stay in Italy and who should be sent home. In 2014, there were 10 committees, he says. Today there are 48.
"Everything has changed," he said.
Since 2014, the number of migrants reaching Italy's shores has spiked: Half a million came ashore over the last three years compared with 119,000 in the previous three. And Italy's burden got heavier when a deal with Brussels last year forced it to honor its obligations and process mass arrivals.
Until this year, Rome turned a blind eye to many migrants and let them head north. Now, in line with European Union law, Brussels requires Italy to set up migrant centers called "hotspots." Here, officials distinguish between those who say they were persecuted or faced serious harm and those who fled poverty, who are supposed to be sent home.
As a result, Italy's asylum applications have jumped. As of Nov. 11 they were at nearly 104,000 this year, a record. That is a fraction of Germany's total of nearly 700,000, but more than four times Sweden's tally of around 25,000 for 2016.
Each applicant ends up in front of one of Trovato's committees. Requests are processed in about 100 days; rejected applicants can appeal in the civil court system, with their costs usually covered by the state.
But legal appeals can take years. Judges say they are overwhelming Italy's civil justice system, already among the slowest in Europe, and pulling them away from other cases. The government has said it will streamline the legal process, but it has not yet done so.
As part of the new policy, the EU promised to relocate 40,000 asylum-seekers to other countries over two years. But other European countries have taken in just 1,758 of them. Several states have refused to take any.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has demanded help, threatening to withhold Italian contributions to the EU's budget if fellow states don't show more solidarity. So far little help has come.
Italy has estimated that it will spend about 3.9 billion euros ($4.3 billion) next year on managing immigration, almost three times as much as in 2013. The annual bill could rise to 4.3 billion euros if arrivals increase – equivalent to a quarter of Italy's annual spending on defense.
"We're angry," said Mario Morcone, the Interior Ministry official in charge of the hotspots, in October. He took a deep drag on a cigarette as images of some of the 5,000 migrants Italy had rescued from the Mediterranean that weekend rolled across the flat-screen TV in his office.
"What bothers me most is the obsession with the hotspots," says Morcone, "as if they are a solution to the EU's failure to come up with a real immigration policy."
A QUESTION OF CREDIBILITY
As part of a strategy agreed in 2015, northern countries have tried to shut their borders, and now most migrants are fingerprinted at the hotspots. The records are stored in a common database. Once fingerprinted in Italy, a migrant who applies for protection in another EU country can be sent back to Italy.
Trovato's committees are rejecting more bids for asylum as arrivals include more West Africans, and fewer Syrians escaping civil war. The share of applicants granted protection has dropped to about 39 percent from more than 60 percent two years ago.
But more rejections mean more appeals.
The story of a 21-year-old Gambian shows how messy the process can be.
Yankouba Gassama arrived in Italy in July 2014 and requested asylum a few months later. The committee that interviewed Gassama in Rome in May 2015 spoke to him – through a translator – for an hour and a half and decided his story was implausible, said Matteo Virardi, Gassama's lawyer. It rejected him.
"Winning international protection mostly depends on whether the interviewer believes the story or not," says Barbara Boni, a lawyer who helps run an immigration services office in Rome. "Many have no documents proving they've been persecuted and are from countries where there is no war or instability."
Gassama appealed the ruling. His hearing is due next April. Until then, he lives with more than 100 male asylum-seekers in a shelter, an apartment building on the outskirts of Rome. The state pays 35 euros ($37) per day to house and feed each of them.
A transcript of his interview shows that Gassama told the committee Gambian police had arrested him for being homosexual. The interviewer appears to not know that in Gambia homosexuality is a crime which carries a 14-year penalty, or life in prison if "serial offenders" have the AIDS virus.
"Homosexuality is reason for arrest in Gambia?" the interviewer asks.
Such ignorance is not unusual, says Boni. Three of the four members of each committee may have little knowledge of asylum issues, she said, though most complete training offered by Trovato's office.
Trovato said by and large the committee system works.
Gassama says he deserves a second chance because he was anxious during his interview and forgot to tell the board he was tortured by police; and because he has since retrieved a police document that says he was arrested for homosexuality. He says he is not gay and the accusation stems from a misunderstanding.
Like Gassama, each rejected applicant has a right to a trial and two appeals. That can take almost eight years, according to a 2013 study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Some take even longer. The average across the rich world is two years.
"I have many, many cases to complete that were started before 2000," says Concetta Potito, 48, a civil judge in the southern city of Bari and a member of the executive council of the National Association of Magistrates (ANM).
"The appeals by asylum-seekers are having a devastating effect on the court system, because there simply aren't enough judges," she said.
In the first four months of this year, Bari received 417 appeals from migrants who were refused international protection. Nationwide, Trovato knows of 34,000 appeals lodged since 2014, though he says the number is probably much higher.
Judges around Italy are being redeployed from other cases such as divorce, separation and property disputes. The ANM wants the government to hire more people. Bari has brought in a judge from another city to help out.
Justice Minister Andrea Orlando said in August the government would propose a reform to parliament to streamline the process, but it has not happened. The bill was sent to the prime minister's office, a ministry spokesman said, but got held up by plans for a referendum in early December. "The ministry is aware of the problem and wants the bill sent to parliament as soon as possible," the spokesman said.
Meanwhile, Italy has capacity to house up to 200,000 migrants. It has 25,000 spaces left, the Interior Ministry says. October alone saw 27,400 arrivals.
Gassama is waiting for his day in court, where a Justice Ministry source said about half the committees' rejections are overturned. In his shelter, there have been 76 appeals in the past two years, the center's director told Reuters. So far only one has been rejected.
The Gambian has studied Italian and, with help from the immigration services, taken a test that says he was capable of completing Italian middle-school. Now he works part time for a removals company, loading and unloading trucks with furniture and boxes.
"I'm hopeful," he says. "I'd like to continue my education."
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Sara Ledwith and Simon Robinson)