Interview with Mr. Giovanni Comba, President of our Italian member CSD Diaconia Valdese (Waldensian Diaconia)

Italy is in the front lines in the welcoming of immigrants. How many migrants landed on Italy’s shore in 2017?

In 2017 a total of 119,310 migrants landed in Italy, (15,731 of whom are unaccompanied minors). This figure represents a 36% decline from 2016 when 181,436 arrived. The first months of 2017 showed a small increase in the numbers but from June onward there has been a sharp fall as a result of the accord signed between Italy and Libya on the monitoring of seacoasts. While we believe that some form of control of our frontiers is necessary, we are convinced that the accord with Libya is a bad idea because in Libya, migrants’ rights are regularly trampled upon and the living conditions in the camps where migrants are housed are appalling.

In 2017 Italy’s parliament approved the so- called “Minniti decree” on migrants.  This provides for, among other things, an acceleration in the procedures for examining the motions of recourse made by those seeking asylum there, the possibility for asylum seekers to take on work “of benefit to the public” on a purely volunteer basis and introduces strong new measures to combat people trafficking.  What do Waldensians think about all this?


In April of last year Italy’s parliament converted into law what had been called the Minniti decree.  The intent of the promoters of this new legislation was to slim down the procedures required to gain refugee status.  However in our view the “slimming down” of procedures in this case means eliminating one level of recourse in the courts and thus injures the rights of asylum seekers.  The Italian system already finds it difficult to recognize and deal with the rights of each single applicant, the right to have his or her specific case and life story examined.  The elimination of one level of legal recourse poses the risk of moving the whole system toward a bureaucratization of the process.  We also have reservations about the question of permitting asylum seekers to work for free because we have come to know, through our own experience in the field, the importance of work for those moving toward social inclusion.  This law treats the question in a simplistic manner.  The young migrants we work with and sustain see the opportunity to work as a chance for redemption, for re-acquired dignity, autonomy, economic advantage and self-fulfillment. Instead, working just to work, just to pass the time does not seem to us a valid solution.

In your view, can nation states impose limits on migration?


As I’ve said just now, we believe that some form of border control is necessary but we are against the model of a closed border and we believe that it is inadmissible that the world be divided between rich and poor countries. We are all of us equal and we all have the same hopes of a better life.  There are certain fixed points that, in our view must be respected. First of all, each life must be saved and each individual must be guaranteed fundamental rights: not only housing and food but also medical care, respect and above all freedom of conscience.  In addition, we believe that particular care and attention must be directed to the most fragile, among them, women and unaccompanied minors.

Are there some strategies that can be applied to deal with what seems to be a truly biblical exodus without giving way either to populism or foolish gullibility?  If so, what are they?


We are facing a global phenomenon which requires a global responses. Climatic disasters, armed conflicts, persecution and violence of all kinds are the causes of this unprecedented exodus, although of course in the past there have always been migrations. We don’t believe there is one simple recipe that can be applied universally but that the process of welcoming migrants must be done in an orderly manner, requiring contact with the countries they leave from and those they pass through on their way.  We are convinced however that the basis of every national law or international accord there must be a respect for human rights.

Addressing the question of migratory flows cannot be a question only for Mediterranean countries.  Do you think the rest of Europe is doing its share?


Frankly no, although Italy does receive significant financial support from the European Union. I think a fundamental point should be a modification of the Dublin Accords which require the migrants to complete the entire process of obtaining their papers in the first European country they entered. Many of the migrants who arrive in Italy already have another destination in mind, another European country where they have friends or family whom they wish to join.  Keeping them blocked in Italy throughout the long process of examining their asylum request is unacceptable and has grave effects on all the mechanism of inclusion and integration.

Tell us a little about the humanitarian corridors organized by the Diaconia Valdese.  What are they?  Have there been some tangible results?


The project Mediterranean Hope was created in reaction to the shock and sadness so many felt at the shipwreck of a people trafficking vessel on October 3, 2013 that claimed 368 lives.  In response to this, the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy, together with the Waldensian Church and the Roman Catholic Comunità di Sant’Egidio decided to launch an ecumenical initiative aimed at saving lives. After lengthy and eventually successful negotiations with the Interior and Foreign Ministries, since 2016 this project has safely brought more than 1000 people to Italy, in particular from migrant camps in Lebanon, many of them Syrians in conditions of extreme fragility.  The Diaconia Valdese, the part of the Waldensian Church which has the task of managing more structured projects in the diaconal area, has been busy organizing accommodation for these people throughout Italy, generally in small groups housed in apartments.  In our view, this approach best lends itself to the integration and social inclusion of migrants.