Italy Reduces Seaborne Migration Ignoring Big Questions and Opposition


by Lorenzo Holt

Filippo Infantino looked around his bar near the port of Palermo, across from the pier that had once been reserved for migrant landings. Since seaborne migration to Italy declined dramatically in mid summer, the pier – and Filippo’s bar – have been mostly empty.

“During the landings we were full of police, civil workers, medics, everyone,” Infantino said. “It was great for business. Now we’re back to normal, because I guess they’ve found a way to stop them in Africa.”

Almost 600,000 mostly West African migrants have reached Italy by sea over the last four years, picked up by Italian navy, EU and NGO ships somewhere in the waters between Libya and Sicily. Upon arrival, around 40% receive some kind of humanitarian protection while the rest are given expulsion notices but remain in the country. Since the migrant crisis began in 2013, deaths and arrivals by sea have risen steadily. This year was on track to break records until a sudden drop in July and August reversed the trend.

“We’re facing growing numbers that in the long run will test our reception system,” Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said in June, before the decrease in arrivals. “The sea rescue operations have been internationalized but the reception lies with one country only… we’re under pressure and we’re asking for concrete contributions from Europeans.”

But contributions from Europeans did not concretize. The EU’s refugee relocation program, created to relieve pressure from Italy by redistributing refugees across Europe, failed to meet even a quarter of its quota. Eastern European countries like Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic refused to take any refugees at all. French President Emmanuel Macron, despite reassuring rhetoric, maintained a ban on vessels carrying migrants from docking at French ports. And Italy’s northern neighbors, like France, Switzerland and Austria, established border checkpoints to prevent migrants from crossing over.

Meanwhile, pressure on Italy kept mounting. Almost 84,000 migrants came across in the first six months of 2017 – a 20% increase compared to the same period the year before – and many more were on the way. The tipping point was reached on June 28 and 29, when a single massive wave of immigration spurred the Italian government to stop asking for help and start acting alone.

“In 36 hours, 27 ships, 13,000 migrants,” Italian Minister of Interior Marco Minniti said during a panel discussion on August 8. “It became evident in that moment that we would either progress in stopping the migrant flow or, if we continued to have arrivals of such intensity, we would risk breaking the social and democratic fabric of our country.”

Collaborating with the shaky Government of National Accord (GNA) in western Libya, Italy sent naval reinforcements to the Libyan coastguard and placed limitations on humanitarian NGOs picking up migrants at sea. Soon after, Reuters reported on a mysterious new armed group emerging in Libya to prevent migrants from leaving towards Italy.

Italy’s actions have been as successful as they’ve been controversial. Seaborne migration plummeted to around 11,000 in July from about 24,000 the month before. In August arrivals dropped to less than 4,000. Yet humanitarian organizations like the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Amnesty International point out that preventing migrants from coming to Italy exposes them to inhumane conditions in detention centers in Libya.

“It’s disconcerting to see that certain principles have been abandoned in politics,” Gianfranco Schiavone, vice-president of the Italian Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI), said. “With this block we’re risking violating codes of the Geneva convention concerning refugees. And anyway, although fewer arrivals may help lighten the reception system [in Italy] they will not transform it into a good one.”

For now, however, the drop in arrivals has made the situation at ports, aid camps, and migrant reception centers much more manageable.

“We can’t say that the situation is qualitatively better because the less migrants get here, the more are suffering in Libya,” Marco Rotunno, spokesman for UNHCR in Italy, said. “But practically speaking, if there are less people getting off the boats [in Italy] we have more time to do our jobs.”

Rotunno is part of the UNHCR’s 25 person team in Sicily working to give legal information to newly arrived migrants and to identify vulnerable ones to the Italian authorities. Fewer migrants at the landing zones makes it easier for Rotunno to speak to everyone and spot victims of human trafficking or torture, he said.

Federico Saracini, a project coordinator for Doctors without Borders (MSF) in the Italian town of Ventimiglia near the French border, also said that the impact was evident.

“No new arrivals – a few a day at most – and a constant decrease in people at the Red Cross camp, which in two weeks went from having over 500 people to around 250,” Saracini said. “At the evening meal distribution … we don’t see more than 100 people, down from 800 in previous months.”

In Sicily in particular, where most migrant land, the decrease in arrivals has relieved chronic overcrowding in migrant centers, especially those for unaccompanied minors.

Caterina Sanzone, a manager at a center for unaccompanied migrant minors in Palermo, said that her center had been at overcapacity since it opened in 2015.

“Our official capacity is 60 but this time last year we had around 270 minors,” Sanzone said. “Just a few months ago we had around 140 kids and [the prefecture] kept bringing us more.”

Sanzone’s center is technically a first-stage reception center where minors are supposed to stay for no longer than a month before being brought to specialized structures. But the lack of space elsewhere and the high numbers of arrivals meant that minors ended up staying there for years, often coming of age in the process. To cope, the center set up language classes and education programs but the high numbers made it hard to keep everyone involved. Many ran away, Sanzone said.

“Since the landings stopped we only have around 45 minors,” Sanzone said. “Everyone breathes a little easier and we can keep track of them better. Some still run away of course, and others leave when they turn 18, but nobody arrives to replace them anymore.”

A 2017 special commission by the Italian government found that there were approximately 31,635 migrant minors unaccounted for in the country. Hundreds of thousands of adults are also untraceable.

“Overcrowding in centers is only a small part of the migrant reception system’s problem,” Schiavone of ASGI said. “The problem is that Italy does not have a rational system for internally distributing migrants, and it lacks a comprehensive program for their social integration. This block in Libya is not going to fix that, but it may give a window of opportunity for reform.”

Around 80% of migrants enrolled in Italy’s reception system are held in temporary centers, called CAS, that lack national oversight and have become notorious for corruption, poor services and interminable waiting times. Efforts to establish an effective, nationally regulated system have been hampered by legal obstacles.

One West African migrant, A., arrived in Sicily at 16 and has turned 19 waiting for his documents. Although approved for humanitarian protection, bureaucratic delays have prevented him from getting his hands on the papers, he said.

“I am always grateful to Italians, they saved me at sea,” A. said. “If I get my documents, I would like to stay in Italy. I already know the language and have done middle school here. But if I cannot get my documents, I will run away. I cannot wait for nothing.”

A.’s situation is typical. He lives with ten other migrants in a temporary migrant center – simply an old apartment – in an empty town in the Sicilian countryside. He receives 45 Euro a month as “pocket money”, which he spends on phone cards and food because he does not like the meals provided by his center.

“We do not eat the food they bring,” A. said. “Every day it is the same. The rice is too hard. We leave it here and at the end of the day they come and take it to the animals.”

Migrants complaining about food in centers is common, and sometimes results in protests, which pro-migrant activists defend by pointing to cultural dietary differences, months of receiving the same dish, and instances of poor food quality. Indeed, numerous migrant centers across Italy have been flagged for bad services, including poor food, but remain open because authorities are unable to find new structures to place migrants in.

Nonetheless, the issue has been seized upon by right-wing parties whose growing popularity is threatening the ruling center-left Partito Democratico (PD). Frequent reports of migrant protests over repetitive menu items, music being played during Ramadan, or slow wi-fi have been exploited to great effect by politicians who criticize the PD for giving food and housing to “ungrateful” migrants while poor Italians wait for housing and rely on charities for their meals.

Even politicians like the PD’s Matteo Renzi, who during his time as prime minister from 2014 to December 2016 supported search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, has come out in favor of the decrease in arrivals. France, Germany and Spain have all seconded Italy’s move by pledging their support for the Libyan coastguard.

“The sudden shift in Italian policy from picking up migrants at sea to supporting processing centers in North Africa is part of the same phenomenon of established European parties trying to look tougher on migration,” Russell Foster, lecturer in European Politics at Kings College London, said.

Italian elections are due before May 2018, and the current government is unstable. Libya is more unstable, and it is unclear how long the drop in migration will hold. But as of September 8, the block has worked and only 716 migrants have reached Italy by sea.

“For the upcoming elections in Italy I think we’re going to see what we’ve seen elsewhere in Europe,” Foster said. “Renzi and other mainstream politicians are going to try and get back some voters by adopting the mannerisms and the rhetoric of the anti-immigrant right.”


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