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Italy to detain migrants for longer as arrival numbers surge

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AFP/The Local - [email protected]
Italy to detain migrants for longer as arrival numbers surge
Migrants board a Red Cross bus after arriving on the island of Lampedusa on September 18, 2023. Photo by Zakaria ABDELKAFI / AFP.

Italy’s government on Monday said it will increase the detention period for irregular migrants, under plans it says will deter people from making the perilous journey to Europe from northern Africa.

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Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni announced the move after soaring numbers of boat crossings reached Italy in recent months despite her pledges to stop mass migration.

Those who have their asylum claims rejected in Italy would be detained for up to 18 months in future - up from the current 135 days (just under 4.5 months).

READ ALSO: What’s behind Italy’s soaring number of migrant arrivals?

"It means that - and I sent a very clear message to the whole of Africa - if you rely on traffickers to break Italian laws, when you arrive in Italy you must know that you will be detained and then repatriated," Meloni said in a television interview on Sunday.

Meloni, whose far-right Brothers of Italy party was elected on a strongly anti-immigration platform, hopes that a longer detention might allow more time for a higher rate of repatriation.

The vast majority of irregular migrants who arrive in Italy are sent to reception centres where they must remain while they await a decision on their asylum request.

READ ALSO: Italy’s Lampedusa struggles as migrant arrivals double the population

Those who Italy determines should be expelled are then moved to "permanent repatriation centres" (CPRs).

Last year, only around half of those in CPRs were actually sent back to their countries when their detention period ended.

Migrants wait at the port after arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa, on September 18, 2023. Photo by Zakaria ABDELKAFI / AFP.

It was not clear what happened to the others, though migration specialist Alfonso Giordano, a professor at Rome's LUISS University, said they were likely ordered to leave the country within a certain time frame - but it would be difficult to ensure they did so.

Giordano also doubted extending the length of detention would work as a deterrent.

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"Many of these people have suffered things during the journey that are incomparable to those they might experience on European shores," he said.

The move to extend detention periods was quickly condemned by opposition politicians and rights groups on Monday.

READ ALSO: EU scrambles to address Italy island migrant surge

The Italian Coalition for Civil Rights and Liberties (CILD) described Italy’s detention centres as expensive and inefficient "black holes" where serious violations of basic rights take place, Reuters reported.

The cabinet's decree must be converted into law by parliament within two months, during which it can be changed.

Italy has nine CPRs across the country, from Bari in the south to Rome and Milan, according to data from the country's prison watchdog.

The time limit for detentions changes depending on the government in power, but it was previously 18 months between 2011 and 2014. 

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Nearly 6,400 people passed through them in 2022, most of whom came from Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and Albania.

Just over 3,150 were repatriated, the authority said.

Migrants on Lampedusa wait to board a ship to be transported to other cities, on September 18, 2023. Photo by Zakaria ABDELKAFI / AFP.

The government allocated 42.5 million euros at the end of 2022 for new repatriation centres, and the cabinet agreed on Monday to task the military with building new centres "as soon as possible" in "sparsely populated and easily guarded areas".

So far the government has targeted migrant rescue charities, impounding their boats, banning them from conducting multiple rescues and making them travel longer distances to disembark migrants.

Charities have been accused of working with human smugglers and encouraging migrants to set off at sea knowing that someone will be there to rescue them. Charities say both charges are false, and have described the government’s moves as “illegal” and likely to result in more deaths at sea.

Following a shipwreck in February that killed at least 94 people, the government stiffened jail terms for traffickers, and increased the number of migrant work permits available to those from certain countries.

Nearly 130,000 people have landed in Italy so far this year against some 66,200 in 2022, according to the interior ministry’s figures.

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