Illegal crossings Libya to Italy are rising sharply, raising alarms in Rome that now that Greece has been protected by a new EU deal, Italy will face an inundation of immigrants. The Financial Times reports:
[There has been] a surge in migrant traffic through the Sicilian channel in recent weeks, coinciding with the approach of warmer Spring weather and calmer seas. This year, however, the surge has started earlier and seems more dramatic than in the past, posing a new risk for Matteo Renzi, Italy’s centre-left prime minister.
Nearly 15,000 people have made the dangerous crossing from north Africa to Italian shores in the first three months of 2016, which is a 43 per cent increase on the same period in 2015, and a 38 per cent increase on the same period in 2014.
If that percentage increase holds, or rises further through the year, many Italians are likely to see it as a sign that EU policy on migration has done little to address Rome’s needs, even if it succeeds in limiting the number of migrants travelling through Greece.
Such a sentiment could embolden populist anti-immigrant parties such as the Northern League, which is Italy’s third-largest, and damage Mr Renzi’s political standing ahead of municipal elections in June and a crucial referendum on constitutional reforms in the autumn.
The worst case scenario for Rome is that the closure of the Balkan route sanctioned by Brussels’ deal with Ankara diverts Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis to Italy instead.
Migrants already in Greece could travel through Albania and across the Adriatic.
Before the Syrian Civil War sent over a million people streaming through Turkey and Greece north to Germany, Italy had been the epicenter of Europe’s gathering immigration crisis, receiving refugees from a wrecked Libya and migrants fleeing grinding poverty in sub-Saharan Africa for better opportunities north. Now that the Turkey-EU deal (take three) may be clamping down on the Greek crossing, Italy is back on the hot seat—with the addition of the Syrian and Middle Eastern refugees to worry about too.
And now, some of the tricks Italy had up its sleeve last time to deal with the problem won’t be available:
The vast majority of migrants arriving in Italy recently are from sub-Saharan Africa — Nigerians, Gambians and Senegalese are the largest nationalities to arrive in Italy in 2016 — and are not automatically eligible for international protection. This means they cannot qualify for the EU’s relocation programme, which applies to Syrians and Eritreans fleeing war and persecution, redistributing them to other EU countries. Many are likely to have their initial asylum applications rejected and will be stuck in legal limbo in Italy for months, until a final ruling is made.
In the past, Italy could count on many undocumented migrants moving on to northern Europe, taking advantage of the EU’s passport-free travel zone. But since Austria has said it will step up checks along the Italian border and limit the number of refugees allowed to enter, migrants are more likely to remain boxed in south of the Alps. France, too, is expected to further intensify its own border controls, in response to terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris.
Italy’s economy is already in trouble, and it has been dealing with refugees and migrants for years. A fresh wave could prove politically destabilizing in one of the most important countries in Europe. This in turn would have crucial implications for everything from euro monetary decision to the future of the EU’s sanctions regime on Russia.
As we wrote after the latest iteration of the EU’s bargain with Turkey, Europe has bought itself some time (at great price) to deal with the refugee problem in more comprehensive fashion. The demographic pressure from Africa is so vast, Europe is so comparatively wealthy, and the Middle East is so comprehensively wrecked that refugees and migrants will still be seeking new ways though—or to better exploit old ones such as the Libya-Italy crossing. Europe has got to use this time it bought to come up with a comprehensive answer for patrolling and enforcing all of its external borders, not just the one in Greece, or the trouble will just keep rolling to the next country down the line.