“The Upper Limit has been Reached” - More Refugees in Italy and less European Solidarity

Today, most migrants to Europe arrive in Italy. Because the EU has failed to provide enough help in accommodating them, the country increasingly has chosen to take a defensive posture.

 Of all the countries in the European Union, Italy consistently has been the one most affected by movements of displacement and migration over the past four years. Those effects have been especially severe since March of 2016. To be sure, the island of Lampedusa long has served as a magnet for people from Africa or Asia attempting to reach Europe. Yet there are good reasons for thinking that, until 2013, its appeal was more of an “optical illusion” than a reality. Each year only a few thousand people crossed the Mediterranean. The relatively small numbers were the result of deals struck between Italy and Libya under the government of Muammar Gaddafi and Tunisia to keep a tight rein on refugee crossings.

How Italy became the most important destination country in the EU for migrants

The situation changed dramatically beginning in 2013-14. In the wake of the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, Libya became a failed state, on the coasts of which smugglers could operate more or less without interference. The new situation was reflected in the rapidly rising numbers of Mediterranean crossings by refugees and migrants. In July of 2014, 170,000 people headed out to the sea from the coast of Libya. By 2015 the number had dropped slightly to 154,000, but in 2016 it rose again to tie the old record of 180,000. This year's figure probably will probably eclipse the previous record once again.

The closure of the Balkan route and the accord with Turkey in early 2016 finally restored Italy to its position as the current top destination for migrants among all EU countries. Although the number of arrivals to Italy has been consistently high for years, the composition of the migrants' countries of origin has changed considerably. As recently as 2014, Syrians and Eritreans, each with 40,000 migrants, made up half of all refugees, but since then their numbers have fallen noticeably. This fact contradicts the prediction that the closure of the Balkan route from Turkey would shift migration movements westward.

No longer do refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq constitute the majority of new arrivals. Instead, during the first half of 2017, the principal countries of origin have been Nigeria, Bangladesh, Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire, Gambia, Senegal, and Morocco. In other words, with the exception of Bangladesh, the countries of West Africa have sent the most migrants, probably because the route via Libya is, so to speak, a “natural” one for them, given that the routes via Morocco (with the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla) or Tunisia are mostly closed.

The opposite of a “European” refugee policy

Moreover, Italy's situation changed significantly in a second respect since 2015. For years Italy had complained that it had been “abandoned by Europe,” whether in terms of rescuing refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean or of taking them in. So when the so-called European “refugee crisis” broke out in 2015, it stirred hopes, especially in Italy, that refugee policy might be Europeanized at long last.

Yet precisely the opposite happened. Up until 2015 the rhetoric of “abandonment” was only partially justified, because Italy in fact never had been a stickler for observing the Dublin rules. To cite just one example, of the 170,000 migrants who turned up on Italy's shores in 2014, only 64,000 actually submitted applications for asylum or humanitarian protection there. Most of the rest—with the Syrians and Eritreans out in front—moved on to countries north of the Alps. But this situation reversed itself after 2016. Italy was promised that a reallocation of refugees within Europe would occur, although that commitment was never fully honored. But in return it had to promise that it would register every single one of the newly arrived refugees and migrants, without exception.

In short, the hoped-for “Europeanization of refugee policy” has turned out to be the exact opposite: today, Italy remains pretty much stuck with “its own” new arrivals. So unsurprisingly, the situation in the totally overburdened reception centers has grown increasingly tense, and it has become correspondingly more difficult to find new places for them in the towns. These circumstances have found expression in the political debates as well.

“Upper limits reached”: Italy in a defensive posture

By this time a consensus has been reached--extending from the right wing to the moderate left governing party, the Partito Democratico (PD) under Matteo Renzi, and on to the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S or Five Star Movement) started by the comedian Beppe Grillo—that the problems can be solved only at the European level. But there is more. Until a few months ago, the anti-migrant right wing faced a party, the PD, that defended the policy of admitting refugees and migrants. But now a new discourse has begun to pervade even the moderate left and the M5S, according to which Italy has reached its “upper limit.” The PD's leader, Matteo Renzi, has talked explicitly about upper limits and added in his newly published book, Avanti, that migrants need to be helped “at home.” Italy may have an obligation to save everyone, but it doesn't have an obligation to take everyone in.

This new line is reflected in the positions of the PD as well as the government it dominates under Paolo Gentilone. Its harsh words about the NGOs whose ships have been operating off of Libya's coast (they supposedly should be subjected to strict rules) are matched by appeals for the Libyan unity government to take tougher measures to protect both its maritime zone and its southern borders in the desert. Given the fact that militia leaders call the shots across wide areas of Libya, it is unlikely that these calculations, intended to check the migratory movements, will work out any time soon.  

Kontakt:Dr. Michael Braun, FES Italien

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