Italy’s interior ministry released figures Thursday showing that 26,161 people — almost all from West Africa and the Horn of Africa — arrived here this month. Almost another 1,000 were pulled from their dinghies later that day.
Even at the height of recent summers, arrivals have only ever once exceeded 25,000 a month. The new record brings the total number this year to 159,000, outstripping the 2015 total of 153,000 and approaching the record of 170,000 arrivals in 2014.
“The smugglers are certainly better organised, since they have been able to send off up to 11,000 people in two days,” Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Italy, told AFP.
“But the migrants tell us they are afraid that the route will close in a few months,” particularly with a new European programme launching this week to train the Libyan coast guard.
“And if there is one thing that migrants do not want, it is to be rescued by Libyan coastguards, who take them to detention centres and plunge them back into the cycle of abuse and violence,” he added.
The IOM, which speaks to the arriving migrants, heard “staggering” stories of torture, rape, starvation and murder in the crisis-hit country, he said.
Many were squeezing onto the overcrowded smuggler dinghies and increasingly unseaworthy boats, with over 200 people dying in the last ten days and fears of greater tragedies to come in the coming weeks if the mass departures continue.
Italy finds itself in a particularly challenging position with most of the new arrivals forced to remain in the country due to border blocks imposed by its neighbours.
Centres for asylum-seekers — now overwhelmingly located in former hotels– housed 66,000 people in 2014 and 103,000 by the end of 2015. That figure has now hit 171,000, and local authorities are struggling to find new places.
Despite the government’s plan to spread migrants throughout the country, with an average of three migrants per 1,000 inhabitants, many mayors are resisting, backed sometimes by protesting locals.
On Monday, people in Gorino, a village of some 700 people in the Delta delPo, erected barricades to prevent the arrival of 12 women in a hotel that had been requisitioned.
But Italy’s anti-migrant Northern League party praised “the new heroes of the resistance against the dictatorship of hospitality”.
And during a protest late Thursday outside a barracks in Milan set to soon house 300 migrants, the party’s leader Matteo Salvini called on security forces to rebel.
“It is right to obey, but so is it right to disobey bad orders,” he added in comments slammed by two police unions Friday as “a very serious and irresponsible provocation”.