According to the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, around 180,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea over the past year using the central Mediterranean migration route from North Africa. This is up from the approximately 154,000 in 2015, and confirms that Italy has surpassed Greece as the EU country with the highest number of arrivals from the Mediterranean. Around 173,000 migrants arrived in Greece, well below the over 856,000 of 2015.
After the EU migrant deal with Turkey started implementation in March 2016, the extraordinary flow of migrants to Greece dramatically decreased. However, the central Mediterranean route from Libya and its neighbors to Italy continued to be used, with numbers fluctuating according to the season. Italy saw a particular spike in October and November 2016, but the rest of the year was comparable to previous years.
Migrants have been using this route for years to reach Italy and the European Union. Many of those arriving are economic migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, from countries such as Nigeria, Gambia, Guinea, Senegal, Somalia and Eritrea. Italy has repeatedly been accused of ignoring the European Union’s Dublin regulations, which dictate that it must register and keep migrants within its territory. Officials instead say that Italy has been allowing migrants to transit through the country to reach other EU countries. Italy retorts that it does not get enough assistance from other EU member states. In response, some of Italy’s neighbors, such as France and Austria, have sporadically introduced border controls.
Maritime operations to rescue immigrants in the Mediterranean have not managed to effectively deter the illegal transport of migrants across the Mediterranean. And they also cannot be stopped at the source: In spite of attempts, Libya lacks a stable government with which the European Union could negotiate measures to manage flows. While the EU deal with Turkey to prevent migrants from reaching Greece is working, the bloc is struggling to reach similar agreements with countries of origin and transit in Africa.
Thus Italy has resumed its place as the main destination for migrants trying to reach the European Union. This is particularly troubling at a time when security and terrorism concerns are increasingly linked to migration in public opinion. After the recent terrorist attack in Berlin, Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement leader, Beppe Grillo, wrote on his blog that it is time for Italy to protect itself. He said that immigration to Italy is out of control and terrorists are transiting through Italy and across Europe thanks to the free movement of people in the Schengen zone. He proposed to suspend Schengen in the event of terrorist attacks, increase deportations of migrants and reform the Dublin regulations.
These statements suggest that the Five Star Movement is joining other anti-system and Euroskeptic parties in their criticism of immigration and the free movement of people. The Dutch Freedom Party leader demanded closed borders on Dec. 28, following previous comments by French National Front’s Marine Le Pen and Italian Northern League’s Matteo Salvini. With elections taking place in several EU countries in 2017, the migration crisis will remain in the spotlight.