Record migrant arrivals in Italy as tensions rise

October marked a record monthly high in the number of migrants arriving in Italy in recent years, with over 27,000 people reaching its shores.

Record migrant arrivals in Italy as tensions rise
The International Organization for Migration says the smugglers are getting better organised. Photo: Andreas Solaro / AFP

Italy's interior ministry released figures Thursday showing that 26,161 people — almost all from West Africa and the Horn of Africa — arrived here this month. Almost another 1,000 were pulled from their dinghies later that day.

Even at the height of recent summers, arrivals have only ever once exceeded 25,000 a month. The new record brings the total number this year to 159,000, outstripping the 2015 total of 153,000 and approaching the record of 170,000 arrivals in 2014.

“The smugglers are certainly better organised, since they have been able to send off up to 11,000 people in two days,” Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Italy, told AFP.

“But the migrants tell us they are afraid that the route will close in a few months,” particularly with a new European programme launching this week to train the Libyan coast guard.

“And if there is one thing that migrants do not want, it is to be rescued by Libyan coastguards, who take them to detention centres and plunge them back into the cycle of abuse and violence,” he added.

The IOM, which speaks to the arriving migrants, heard “staggering” stories of torture, rape, starvation and murder in the crisis-hit country, he said.

Many were squeezing onto the overcrowded smuggler dinghies and increasingly unseaworthy boats, with over 200 people dying in the last ten days and fears of greater tragedies to come in the coming weeks if the mass departures continue.


Italy finds itself in a particularly challenging position with most of the new arrivals forced to remain in the country due to border blocks imposed by its neighbours.

Centres for asylum-seekers — now overwhelmingly located in former hotels– housed 66,000 people in 2014 and 103,000 by the end of 2015. That figure has now hit 171,000, and local authorities are struggling to find new places.

Despite the government's plan to spread migrants throughout the country, with an average of three migrants per 1,000 inhabitants, many mayors are resisting, backed sometimes by protesting locals.

On Monday, people in Gorino, a village of some 700 people in the Delta delPo, erected barricades to prevent the arrival of 12 women in a hotel that had been requisitioned.

“This is not how Italians do things,” raged the Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, though he was forced to allow the project to be abandoned and the women settled in elsewhere.

But Italy's anti-migrant Northern League party praised “the new heroes of the resistance against the dictatorship of hospitality”.

And during a protest late Thursday outside a barracks in Milan set to soon house 300 migrants, the party's leader Matteo Salvini called on security forces to rebel.

“It is right to obey, but so is it right to disobey bad orders,” he added in comments slammed by two police unions Friday as “a very serious and irresponsible provocation”.


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.