Migrant arrivals to Italy down by over thirty percent since January

Migrant arrivals in Italy have dropped nearly 70 percent since summer as a deal with Libya blocks boats and would-be asylum seekers use other routes into Europe.

Migrant arrivals to Italy down by over thirty percent since January
The number of migrants arriving in Italy has dropped off significantly since the summer. Photo: Carlo Hermann/AFP

Nearly 150,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year, but the number landing in Italy is down by 30 percent compared to last year, and has plunged a whopping 69 percent since July, Italy's interior ministry said this week.

Arrivals in Spain, meanwhile, have more than tripled, with over 14,000 arrivals this year compared to 12 months ago.

The dangerous route to Italy was largely closed down at the end of June by a controversial deal Rome made with Libyan authorities, tribal leaders and – according to Libyan sources refuted by Rome – human traffickers.

The UN's refugee agency said last month it had found and rescued more than 14,500 migrants held by traffickers in appalling conditions in and around Libyan coastal city of Sabratha.

Locked up in farms and warehouses, the migrants described “shocking levels” of abuse at the hands of their captors, the UN said. Another 6,000 migrants are still believed to be imprisoned in the area.

With the European Union's full support, Italy has been training the Libyan coast guard to intercept boat migrants – both in Libyan territorial waters and beyond – in a move hotly contested by human rights advocates.

Not the end of the crisis

On Tuesday, the private rescue ship Aquarius – chartered by French humanitarian groups SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) – was sent to rescue two rubber dinghies which had run into difficulty more than 30 nautical miles (55 kilometres) off Italy's coast.

But the ship's crew had to watch as Libyan coast guards scooped up the 200 migrants on board and took them back to Libya.

“No-one should be returned to Libya,” MSF tweeted, pointing out that those who make it out of the crisis-hit country often bear the scars of physical and psychological violence suffered there at the hands of militias.

The sharp drop in the number crossing, stringent new rescue rules imposed by Italy and the threatening behaviour of the Libyan coast guard have convinced most of the private rescue organisations to leave the area.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) held a conference Monday on the challenges faced by commercial ships sailing off Libya which are regularly called on to help save lives despite not being equipped for rescues.

The vessels have been ordered to change course and take part in 10 percent of rescue operations over the past few years, IMO said, including in 101 cases so far this year.

“Although governments and the merchant shipping industry will continue rescue operations, safe, legal, alternative pathways to migration must be developed, including safe, organised migration by sea, if necessary,” said IMO secretary-general Kitack Lim.

The drop in numbers from Libya does not signal the end of Italy's migration crisis. Arrivals from Tunisia have tripled this year, while those from Algeria doubled and those from Turkey shot up 63 percent. And the country is struggling to absorb newcomers – while reception centres overflow, asylum applications jumped from 84,000 in 2015 to 123,000 in 2016, with more than 106,000 so far this year.


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.