How Italy is still struggling with the refugee crisis


Picture of Giampiero Gramaglia
Giampiero Gramaglia

The Arab Spring marked for Italy the start of a migration emergency that has since been worsened by developments in Syria and Iraq, and most of all in Libya. Hundreds of thousands of people have been leaving Libya by sea to reach Italy, and of these several thousands have lost their lives.

The Italian island of Lampedusa is the closest part of Europe to Africa, and while agreements with the Qaddafi regime had greatly limited the number of migrants reaching it, the overthrow of Qaddafi in 2011 has since seen a proliferation of human trafficking from Libya.

Italy initially dealt with the problem as a seasonal emergency since the crossings are mainly undertaken in the summer months. It was nevertheless unable to organise efficient procedures for the treatment, identification and checking of asylum requests, or for the rejection of so-called economic migrants.

No less than four different Italian governments opted for different approaches; some blamed the EU for its inefficiency and failure to respond to Italy’s calls for assistance, and others looked for buffer solutions while trying to convince their EU partners that the migrant crisis was not just a passing phenomenon but a structural fact.

Meanwhile, other EU countries blame Italy for having disregarded existing agreements concerning economic migrants who should be returned to their own country, and asylum-seekers who need to be assessed by the EU country they first entered.

Italy’s inability to do this has quickly encouraged migrants to quit Italian refugee centres and head for their real destinations in France, Germany or Sweden. This has generated border tensions, especially with France.

The drowning tragedies that shocked public opinion in Italy saw the launch in autumn 2013 of the Mare Nostrum patrol mission in Libyan territorial waters to rescue migrants aboard unsafe ships. A year later, Mare Nostrum was replaced by the European Triton mission as part of the Frontex programme for securing the EU’s external borders.

The Italian argument that all this is a European issue, not a national one, has been reinforced by the much greater number of migrants reaching not only Italy but also Greece. The result has been the European Commission’s plan for sharing the burden among all 28 EU states. But Italy, like others, still needs to manage immigration not just as an emergency but as a structural reality. And it also needs to accept the idea that immigration, even the economic kind, can be a development opportunity for countries with an ageing and shrinking population.

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