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IMMIGRATION

‘Historic’ turning point in Italy’s migrant crisis

The year 2017 marked what Italian authorities hope was a turning point in the nation's struggle to manage a chaotic and deadly rush of migrants to its shores.

'Historic' turning point in Italy's migrant crisis
File photo of migrants waiting to be rescued from a sinking dinghy: Abdullah Elgamoudi/AFP

Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni this week called it a pivotal moment in Italy's “historic transition from immigration managed by criminals to controlled, legal and safe migration”.

While migrants who made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in rickety boats still numbered nearly 119,000, it was a roughly one-third drop over the previous year.

However, Italy's effort to tackle the issue has not been without controversy, including its moves to enlist the help of powerful militias to curb traffickers' activity.

Still the situation as 2017 closes, is vastly different than the first half of the year.

Between January and June, Italy saw a nearly 20 percent jump in the number of migrants arriving by sea, while asylum applications exploded as its EU neighbours — France, Switzerland and Austria — had closed their borders.

In just the last three days of June, a total of 10,400 people landed in Italy as its neighbours refused to allow even a single ship of migrants rescued off the coast of Libya to dock.

With legislative elections on the horizon — now set for March 2018 — immigration has been a key issue, particularly for Italy's right and the populist Five Star Movement (M5S).

Italy has tried to adapt how it handles the migrants on its soil, trying prioritise smaller reception centres believed to help new arrivals get on their feet.

Still tens of thousands of asylum seekers languish in large shelters, feeding into the mutual distrust of surrounding neighbourhoods.

'Inhuman'

But everything began to change in July as migrant boat departures from Libya suddenly dropped. The downward trend continued to the point that sea arrivals over the past six months have fallen by 70 percent compared with the same period last year.

The drop has been attributed to a controversial combination of an Italian-led boosting of the Libyan coastguard's ability to intercept boats and efforts to seek the assistance of powerful militias.

There have also been moves to tighten Libya's southern borders, accelerate repatriations directly from Libya and measures to stem the flow of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa through transit states such as Niger and Sudan.

It seemed to pay off as in early December, with the Libyan navy saying a total of 80,000 migrants were rescued or intercepted in 2017.

However, harrowing accounts emerged of desperate migrants throwing themselves overboard in order to avoid being sent back to the chaos in Libya.

Migrants intercepted or rescued by the Libyans are usually held in detention centres to await repatriation, but waiting times are often long and conditions deplorable.

International outrage over the situation was stoked in November by a CNN television report on migrant Africans being sold as slaves in Libya.

It got to the point that the EU's decision to help Libya intercept migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean and return them to detention centres was condemned as “inhuman” by the United Nations human rights chief, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein.

Safe corridors

Italy has continued to press its contacts in Libya to push ahead with another prong of its migrant policy. It has sought the processing of migrants on-site, in cooperation with UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), with a programme of repatriating economic migrants and transferring vulnerable people.

Returns increased from 1,200 in 2016 to over 19,000 in 2017. As far as refugees, Italy last week became the first country to welcome a group of 162 Ethiopian, Somali and Yemeni refugees flown in directly from Libya.

Italy's Interior Minister Marco Minniti says up to 10,000 refugees could benefit from these humanitarian corridors in 2018, provided they can be spread among EU partners.

“There is a reliable path we can take. We would not be pretending that the problem does not exist, but rather managing it humanely and safely” for both Italian citizens and migrants, Gentiloni said this week.

Despite these efforts, crossings remain deadly. According to the IOM, at least 2,833 men, women and children died or went missing off Libya this year, compared to 4,581 in 2016, a relatively constant level of about 1 in 40.

POLITICS

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.

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