How Italy’s richest region is feeling the migrant strain

Wealthy South Tyrol - a little bit of Austria in Italy - is the latest bottleneck in Europe's refugee crisis. Angela Giuffrida finds a region battling with the consequences.

How Italy's richest region is feeling the migrant strain
Moussa, a migrant from Mali, waits at Brenner train station. Photo: Angela Giuffrida/The Local Italy

Moussa, a 37-year-old from Mali, waits at Brenner station everyday in the hope that the kindly guard will finally let him board a train to Munich.

He arrived in southern Italy by boat via Libya eight months ago, before making his way to the northern border with Austria in the hope of eventually being able to join his brother in Germany.

Clutching his only form of identification – a piece of paper proving he has a permit to stay in Italy – he said he sometimes spends the night on the station floor.

“My brother managed to get from here to Germany about five months ago,” he told The Local, just after being prevented from getting on the Munich train, which passes through Austria, on Friday afternoon.

“He keeps telling me to go to Germany. It's better for work there,” added Moussa, a mechanic by trade. “I can stay here, but it's impossible to work.”

His brother’s unhindered journey came before Italy was forced to send extra guards to reinforce patrols at the Alpine Brenner Pass crossing point after Austria threatened to step-up anti-migrant controls.

See also: Why talks of barriers is opening up old wounds in South Tyrol

Austria, which last year accepted 90,000 asylum requests, hinted at building a 375-metre long fence unless Italy stemmed the flow of migrants. The threats to raise the boundaries sparked protests from pro-migrant activists.

Sign at the Italy-Austria border. Photo: Angela Giuffrida/The Local Italy 

Fearing the impact on trade – the historic Brenner Pass is a crucial lifeline for exports to northern Europe – Italy was swift to react, eventually leading Austria to back down on its threats on Friday.

“He has no passport, if I let him cross into Austria he’d immediately be sent back,” the train guard told The Local.

“He has a permit to stay in Italy, I can’t let him pass.”

The guard added that while other migrants still came to the station each day, the number had dropped significantly in recent weeks.

Until last summer, the mountainous South Tyrol, Italy’s richest region, was relatively untouched by the migrant crisis.

Before then, most would make their way up to Ventimiglia, in the hope of crossing over to France. That was until French authorities effectively ‘closed’ the border, forcibly removing people from trains and carrying out stringent checks of cars and even mountain paths.

Exacerbated by its own influx, Austria has also sent hundreds back to Italy.

A centre, capable of hosting 70 migrants, was set up in Brenner last year as it became a prominent transit hub.

“The centre assisted 17,000 people over the course of the year,” the mayor of Brenner, Franz Kompatscher, told The Local.

But few of those people stayed in the town, he added, admitting he had “no idea” where the rest end up.

“Some wait in Brenner, but for the most part, they don’t stay.”

Under a government plan, South Tyrol, which has a population of 511,000, must take in 0.9 percent of the total number of migrants who seek asylum in Italy.

As the measure got underway last year, migrant centres were hurriedly built across the region, with the majority being housed in the city of Bolzano. Apart from Brenner, other centres, managed by the charity, Caritas, have sprung up in Vipiteno, Malles, Tesimo, Vandoies, Val di Vizze and Brunico.

But the arrivals have created social challenges, with some 240 asylum seekers sleeping rough on the streets of Bolzano, according to recent reports in the local press.

Meanwhile, migrant arrivals have sparked “a war among the poor” in Vipiteno, local businessman Roberto Giordani told The Local.

“Until a couple of years ago, there was no Caritas here,” he said.

“Now around 300 families in Vipiteno depend on it. But there is resentment over the €35 a day that goes to each migrant.”

The patience of locals, especially in Bolzano, has also been put to the test. In late December, the prestigious Museion Bozen-Bolzano turned off its free wifi because the service was attracting too many migrants.

And although few are in Brenner, residents there are worried that the summer could bring more than the area can handle.

Italy last week eclipsed Greece in terms of migrant arrivals for the first time since June 2015, with 8,370 landing in April alone.

“People are generally open in this region – but only up to a certain point,” Kompatscher said.


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.