The recent surge of migrants crossing the Mediterranean in search of protection has presented a major challenge for the whole European Union. What has been labelled as a ‘refugee crisis’ is first and foremost a crisis of international politics and the result of inadequate response mechanisms at local level. This paper focuses on the case of Sicily, the second main area of arrival, after Greece, when migration to the Mediterranean reached its peak. With a long history of immigration, since 2015 the Italian island has seen the implementation of a new approach based on ‘hotspots’: designated areas for the separation of those deemed as economic migrants from ‘genuine asylum seekers’. In the view of some, this has made Italy into a model of migration management, as opposed to the chaotic situation of the Greek islands. The hotspot approach, however, has been also criticised for being engrained on practices that many deem unlawful, actively producing discrimination and condemning many migrants to an illegal status on the Italian soil. Informed by findings from an international research project (EVI-MED), this paper examines this complex scenario, exploring the social, legal and human implications of the refugees’ reception system in Italy.