“With eight to ten million migrants still on the way, the refugee crisis is the responsibility of the entire international community.”
At first it was refugees streaming into Hungary, which saw 67,000 migrating from Greece across Macedonia and Serbia. Then it was the Balkan route, which caused a sharp rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in the Balkans and neighboring central Europe, and bolstered nationalist parties and inspired protests in many countries.
Now Italy is the epicenter of this demographic earthquake, and it has become Europe’s soft underbelly as hundreds of thousands of migrants arrive. Europe desperately needs short-term solutions to the migrant crisis, Italy’s Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni warned, “A failure to act would further destabilize the region.”
The EU has failed to recognize the problem at hand, since its discourse has primarily focused on Merkel’s “open doors policy” and largely ignored problematic developments in Italy.
Are Other EU Countries Helping?
The deeper problem, namely the failed redistribution of refugees to other EU countries, has still not been solved despite two years of dialogue. Technically, the other states would be obliged to take thousands of refugees from Italy and Greece every month.
Italy’s prime minister has also accused other European countries of “looking the other way” when it comes to the migrant crisis, saying “I want to ask Europe, some European countries to stop looking the other way, because this is not sustainable.”
The EU has pledged more financial support for Italy, but it hasn’t followed through on a previous plan to relieve the country’s migrant crisis. Under a solidarity plan agreed in 2015, EU countries were meant to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers between them, to help relieve pressure on Italy and Greece.
The UK and Ireland were exempt from the plan, while Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary voted against accepting mandatory quotas. So far, only about 20,900 of the 160,000 refugees have been relocated.
Attention to Libya
The Italian leader said his country’s top priority continued to be Libya, the source or transit point for 97% of the migrants arriving on Italy’s shores.
“Stabilizing Libya is fundamental,” Gentiloni said. He cautioned that the North African country could turn into a “new theater for competition of external powers, both regional and global, which is a risk.”
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an agency that cooperates with the UN, 85,000 migrants fled to Italy from North Africa by boat in the first half of 2017. That figure is 19% higher than the one for the first half of last year. And that is just the tip of the iceberg: during the summer, the number of arrivals from Libya will only increase.
Under EU law, asylum-seekers must apply for protection in the first EU nation they set foot in. But Italy only has around 200,000 spots for refugees and migrants, and most of them are full. Because of the country’s close proximity to Libya, Italy is the main destination for migrants fleeing across the Mediterranean.
The Mediterranean crossing is a dangerous one. Flimsy tugboats and rafts, overloaded with migrants, set off on their journeys from June to September, because that’s when the stretch of Mediterranean between Libya and Italy is at its calmest. Simply put, the chances of holding on for dear life and survival until being rescued are greater during that period. The UN estimates 2,030 migrants have died or gone missing since the beginning of the year.
That influx has left some Italian politicians threatening to close some ports to aid groups rescuing migrants off Libya’s coast, forcing other Mediterranean countries to take in more migrants. The move comes after rescue boats delivered some 10,000 people to the country in recent days.
On June 28, Italy threatened to stop vessels from other countries unloading migrants at its ports after rescuing them in the Mediterranean, saying some 80 percent of migrants were seeking better economic opportunities and were not fleeing from war or persecution.
“We are confronted with growing numbers that over time could severely test our reception system,” Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said.
It’s not clear if Italy could even legally shut its ports to asylum-seekers. International Maritime law says ships that learn of distress at sea have an obligation to help. Those same laws say the country that normally operates in that area is responsible for taking care of the people in need.
Why Does the Migrant Crisis Matter?
The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees has called on Europe to help Italy with its growing migrant crisis. Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, on July 1 said that “what is happening in front of our eyes in Italy is an unfolding tragedy. The international community should do more to help Italy contend with the massive numbers of migrants arriving on its shores.”
The interior ministers of France, Germany, and Italy met in Paris on July 2 to discuss a “coordinated approach” to help Italy deal with increasing numbers of migrants arriving in its ports.
The European Union’s executive branch promised Italy an extra 35 million euros in a bid to quell tensions in the bloc over how to respond to an increasing number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Libya. Interior ministers from France and Germany have promised Italy more support.
Prime Minister Gentiloni warned that a failure by the parties to come together could create openings for the Islamic State terror group, which has seen its forces in Libya reduced substantially following a sustained U.S.-led air campaign. He also urged the U.S. and other world powers to “please keep Africa on top of our agenda,” saying various conflicts and crises in sub-Saharan Africa had helped fuel the migrant crisis.”
Gentiloni, who was a former minister of foreign affairs, and well acquainted with the problem, has announced his intention to prioritize the issue. This is in order to safeguard not only Italy’s political and social landscape, which his own governing majority centered around. The Democratic Party (PD) believes it is being affected by uncontrolled immigration in unpredictable ways. Europe’s unity could also be affected by the rise of anti-immigration parties.
Such parties usually are in the majority and are nationalist. These parties hold anti-European stances. Several countries have argued that they need border controls to combat the threat of Islamic militancy. The Paris attacks on November 13, 2015, have only exacerbated fears of Islamist extremists using the refugee crisis as an easy avenue into Europe, raising questions of not only immediate border security, but assimilation policies and radicalization prevention.
The director of the United Nations office in Geneva, Michael Moller, has warned that Europe must prepare for the arrival of millions of migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
The migrants arriving there are overwhelmingly economic migrants seeking a better life in Europe. Only a very small number appear to be legitimate asylum seekers or refugees fleeing war-zones. According to the IOM, the migrants who reached Italy during the first three months of 2017 are, in descending order, from: Guinea, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Senegal, Morocco, Mali, Somali, and Eritrea.
In an interview with The Times, Moller, a Dane, said: “What we have been seeing is one of the biggest human migrations in history. And it’s just going to accelerate. Young people all have cellphones and they can see what’s happening in other parts of the world, and that acts as a magnet.”
German Development Minister Gerd Müller has echoed that warning: “The biggest migration movements are still ahead. Africa’s population will double in the next decades. A country like Egypt will grow to 100 million people, Nigeria to 400 million. In our digital age with the internet and mobile phones, everyone knows about our prosperity and lifestyle.”
With eight to ten million migrants still on the way, the refugee crisis is the responsibility of the entire international community. A new system will need to be implemented in order to deal with the unprecedented numbers destined to arrive.