2 Jan 2014

Italy’s migration dilemma: no sign of a solution

Italy’s navy rescues more than 200 migrants off the island of Lampedusa in a sign that the migration crisis for Italian Premier Enrico Letta is set to continue in 2014.

Migrants aboard an Italian navy vessel after being rescued near Lampedusa (picture: Reuters)

Whilst much of the UK media coverage over the new year has been focused on migration from Romania and Bulgaria, in Italy the tragic route for thousands of African migrants to its shores is once again in the spotlight.

Italy’s navy said on Wednesday evening that it had rescued 233 mostly African migrants when a boat ran into difficulties off the southern island of Lampedusa.

The 10-metre boat was reported to be packed to overflowing, and passengers included asylum seekers from Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, Zambia and Mali, as well as from Pakistan.

Sea arrivals to Italy from Africa increased dramatically in 2013. On the central Mediterranean migration route, which covers migration from Northern Africa to Italy and Malta, there were 31,000 illegal border crossings in the first nine months of 2013, compared with 15,900 in 2012, data from EU border control agency Frontex says.

It is estimated that more than 40,000 migrants risked the sea crossing over the course of the year.

The treacherous crossing came into the spotlight on 3 October last year, when 366 migrants drowned in a shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa. Since then dozens more have died, and hundreds have been rescued, whilst attempting to enter Europe through Italy.

The problems for migrants to Italy do not end when they make landfall.

Prime Minister Letta has been under intense pressure over the conditions migrants have been kept in since a video was released in December showing around a dozen men being forced to strip in the cold to be hosed down and disinfected for scabies.

In response, the European Commission threatened to take legal action against Italy, and called conditions at the centre “unacceptable” and “appalling”.

Days later, nine illegal immigrants stitched their lips together call for their release from what they say are intolerable living conditions. Four Tunisians and five Moroccans made the gesture, after fashioning a needle from a cigarette lighter at a detention centre near Rome.

‘Comprehensive revision’

Mr Letta has responded by pledging to overhaul the condition in Italy’s refuge holding centres. Speaking last month, the Italian prime minister said centres are overflowing, and currently hold around 16,000 people.

He said that the government was compelled to “to immediately get to work on a comprehensive revision of the standards of the (centres) and the way we receive migrants in its entirety.”

Mr Letta added that the overhaul of centres would take into account the rights of migrants as well as Italians’ need for security. He said that he would take a personal interest in seeing that children born in Italy to immigrants can obtain citizenship.

His pledge followed comments made by Pope Francis after the death of over 300 migrants in a shipwreck off the island in October. The Pope described the tragedy a “disgrace” and called for concerted action to ensure it was not repeated in future.

Italy’s government began clearing 200 people out of Lampedusa’s holding centre last week, transferring them to other centres, and staff from the Red Cross are on the island monitoring the situation.

Earlier in December, European Union officials also proposed allowing people to claim asylum in Europe from abroad, in a bid to discourage dangerous crossings.

According to the International Organisation for Migration more than 7,000 migrants may have died trying to cross borders in 2013. Of these deaths, 707 were in the Mediterranean.

And with continuing violence in African countries, such as the Central African Republic and Somalia, the need and challenge facing Mr Letta is clear.