EUROPE-MIGRANTS

Ratan Miah, 30 and from Bangladesh, received his final rejection for protection in late-June; he will become undocumented on Aug. 17 when his work permit expires.

MESTRE, Italy - For three years, Ratan Miah had lived legally in Italy. He worked kitchen jobs, when he could find them. He split rent with six others on a cheap apartment. He pursued his asylum case, telling officials about extortion and political violence in Bangladesh, and saying, "I'm asking the Italian state for help."

Then, in late June, Miah sat down with his lawyer and got Italy's response.

His last appeal for protection had been rejected. In seven weeks, after his existing permit expired, he would become Europe's latest undocumented migrant.

Miah is just one among the millions who arrived at this continent's shores in a historic migration wave, asking for asylum. But as those claims now wind their way through court systems, Europe is beginning to deal with a different kind of migration challenge: one focused not on new arrivals, but rather on the people who are told they can't stay.

Across the European Union, according to official data, hundreds of thousands of migrants are being rejected in their bids for protection. But, for a range of knotty logistical and geopolitical reasons, the migrants handed orders to leave are overwhelmingly not being sent home. European programs for the minority that wants to return voluntarily have focused primarily on people from Iraq, the Balkans and former Soviet nations.

Most rejected migrants tend to fall into a legal no man's land - one where they have no right to housing, no work permits, and scant opportunity to go elsewhere. The only option for many is to remain where they are and scrape by furtively.

"I have nowhere else to go, I have nothing else to turn to," said Miah, 30.

The forces growing the ranks of the undocumented are on particular display in Italy, where a law-and-order government has worked to reduce the odds that migrants win protection - while meantime falling short of its pledges to increase deportations. Italy's far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, last year warned undocumented migrants to get ready to "pack their bags," and he vowed to send home 100,000 people during his government's first year. Instead, facing off against countries that are resistant to accepting returnees, Italy deported fewer than 7,000.

"So, they stay here without rights," said Matteo Megna, a Rome-based immigration lawyer. "You can consider these people like ghosts."

Miah fell silent when his lawyer told him the news. In the weeks that followed, he rarely slept more than three hours a night. Little frustrations would make him cry or snap in anger.

He has been hesitant to tell his family back in Bangladesh, including his wife and two children, about his failed bid for asylum. That conversation is just one more thing he doesn't know how to navigate. He has no intention of voluntarily leaving, but his Italian documents expire Aug. 17. Where will he sleep? How will he work?

"Constantly," Miah said, "I'm thinking about my life after that day."

If Miah can't quite imagine what is in store, all around Italy there are glimpses of the kind of life that might lie ahead. Undocumented migrants sometimes wind up in Italy's agricultural south, working grueling jobs in tomato fields. They do small-time, under-the-table construction work. They hawk trinkets at tourist sites in Rome and Milan. They work in the vineyards here in northeastern Italy, trimming leaves, harvesting grapes, earning five or six euros per hour.

And in a sense, those are the lucky ones.

Some rejected migrants have lost their homes and live in rickety squatters' camps. Peter Okoyomon, a Nigerian who lost his asylum case last year, said that on days he is not called to the vineyards, he takes a bus to a neighboring town where he won't be recognized, stands in front of a supermarket and begs for coins.

"People don't see tears on my face, but I do cry inside," said Okoyomon, who crossed the Mediterranean in 2014. He sold his possessions to fund his trip and now says that, even as bad as things are in Italy, he wouldn't return to Nigeria unless forced. "Going home is like committing suicide," he said.

European leaders estimate that they will ultimately reject more than one million people who arrived during the migration surge and sought asylum. Migrants can also receive orders to leave if they never apply for asylum, or if they abandon their claims in the middle of the process. But no country has carried out deportations efficiently, particularly to countries in Africa and the Middle East.

European heads of government agreed last year that regular deportations send "a strong signal against undertaking dangerous irregular journeys to the EU in the first place." In June, Germany, which has rejected more than 400,000 asylum seekers over the past five years, passed a new law aimed at what its interior minister called "faster, more efficient" deportations.

For Italy, part of the challenge stems from the composition of people applying for protection. Syrians, who in Europe win protection more than 95 percent of the time, account for one-quarter of the 4 million people who have sought asylum across the continent since 2014, when migration levels first spiked; but they are largely pursuing those cases in northern European countries. The migrants who have applied for asylum in Italy are more typically from Senegal, Bangladesh, Gambia and Nigeria - people fleeing climate change, domestic violence, terrorism or deep poverty.

A complete picture of their success or failure is hard to determine, because many migrants who arrived during the surge have yet to conclude their cases. Since 2014, 60 percent of asylum seekers in Italy have been denied protection by an initial bureaucratic panel that hears cases. Of the smaller portion that has completed appeals, about one-third prevailed.

But the process is becoming harder. In 2017, during the final year of a center-left government, Italy removed one of the appeal options for migrants. Then, late last year, Italy passed a Salvini-backed law that drastically reduced the granting of "humanitarian protection" - a status that can be awarded in cases where migrants don't qualify as refugees, but where they have dealt with hardship and might still be at risk. Humanitarian protection had been the most common pathway in Italy for migrants to earn legal status. Lawyers say that pathway is now closing.

"The army of invisibles will become even bigger," said Francesco Tartini, an immigration lawyer in northeastern Italy who represented Miah in his final appeal.

Matteo Villa, a migration researcher at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, forecasts that Italy's undocumented population will increase by 90,000 by the end of 2020, reaching an estimated total of more than 700,000 - even though the country has all but closed its doors to new arrivals.

"The stock of irregular migrants does not only depend on sea arrivals," but what happens to migrants afterward, Villa said.

Though Salvini campaigned on a pledge to dramatically increase deportations, returns under his government lag slightly behind the pace of his center-left predecessors. Experts say the problems are logistical and diplomatic, and they are compounded when migrants arrive without passports, when their home countries have unreliable records, and when deportations require a security-heavy chartered plane ride rather than a drive across a land border.

One interior ministry official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he had not been authorized to speak publicly, said that Salvini has pushed the government to insert returns deals into broader financial and trade agreements. But the official also said that returns become "much tougher" when asking a country to accept "thousands" of deportees rather than just a few.

Over the past five years, Italy has deported 19 percent of foreigners given orders to leave, according to European data. The majority of the deportees are from three countries: Albania, Tunisia and Morocco, according to European data compiled by Villa. For most sub-Saharan African countries, the deportation rate is below 10 percent. For those from Bangladesh it is 7 percent.

A Bangladeshi with eviction orders, Villa said, "is destined to remain in Italy as an irregular."

While applying for asylum, to aid his chances, Miah had emphasized a political aspect of his story, not an economic one. In interviews with an asylum panel, according to a transcript, he described his life as a small shop owner in the village of Nowabpur, selling construction materials. He told of being extorted by goons connected to Bangladesh's ruling party - how they beat him with iron rods after a day when he had no money to pay them. He said he had been hospitalized. He said the police were in the ruling party's pocket and weren't interested in pursuing charges.

An Italian board called Miah's story generic and full of contradictions: The photos he showed from his hospitalization, for instance, seemed "incompatible" with the beating he described.

"The seeker should have sought protection from his own country," one of the Italian rulings said.

But since Miah's rejection, it has been the economic reason behind his flight - the aspect he didn't emphasize to authorities - that has determined his calculus. If Italy wasn't going to deport him, Miah said, he planned to stay where he was.

"Right now, I am poor," Miah said. "But I would be poorer back home."

He still owes 8,000 euros to brokers who funded his journey from Bangladesh, offering a high-interest loan, when he departed in 2015.

And his extended family is dependent on whatever money he can send back. In addition to his wife and children, he has seven younger sisters, and parents with medical problems that keep them from working. "I have responsibility for all of them," Miah said.

It was because of his family that he left an isolated government-run center for asylum seekers where work was nearly impossible to find, moving to the grimy outskirts of tourist-heavy Venice. Here, he found temporary jobs in two restaurants.

After his brother died of cancer, Miah blamed himself for not working more steadily and sending more money home, so his brother could get better treatment.

During periods of unemployment, he would set off early in the morning on buses in any direction, wearing a backpack filled with résumés, knocking on doors of restaurants and saying, with his modest Italian, that he was available as a dishwasher or a cook.

"Ciao," he'd say again and again, and in early July, one restaurant manager said he might have a position to offer; Miah should come back later.

So the following week, Miah was back on a bus, and then a ferry, returning to the restaurant. The ferry was packed with sweaty tourists hopping between Venetian cathedrals and museums. Miah took a seat and stayed quiet, gazing at this different version of Italy. By the time the ferry crossed through Venice and arrived at the residential island of Lido, he was one of the last people on board.

The restaurant was at the remote southern tip of the island. Only a few residents were around. They lounged in house dresses at an outdoor cafe, sipped late-morning wine and listened to waves lap at the shore. Miah was 90 minutes from where he had started but said he didn't mind - he just needed to work.

"Okay," he said, taking a breath, and he walked into the restaurant just before lunch service and sat down with the manager.

Several minutes later, Miah had a new position washing dishes.

But the job is tied to his legal status. It will end just before he becomes invisible.

- - -

The Washington Post's Stefano Pitrelli in Rome and Tasneem Khalil in Malmö, Sweden, contributed to this report.

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