Politico EU reports on a rare piece of good news about the immigration crisis in Italy: the month of July saw a sharp and unexpected drop-off in the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. More:
Data from the Italian interior ministry shows that about 11,100 migrants made the dangerous crossing in July compared to more than double that amount in the same month in 2016 (just over 23,500).
Indications of a change in migration patterns continued in the first days of August. Statistics released by the ministry Thursday indicate that between January and the first two days of August about 95,200 people crossed from Libya to Italy, compared to 98,500 over the same period last year — a 3.42 percent drop.
“It’s too early to say that we have won the battle,” warned a top migration official at the interior ministry. “But it’s a very encouraging sign and at sea right now we have only about 400 migrants to rescue, which is a reasonable number. It means this trend could last,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Officials have offered a variety of explanations to explain the downturn, from improved cooperation with the Libyan coast guard (which reportedly turned back 10,000 migrants in recent weeks) to a recent border protection agreement with tribal leaders in Libya’s southeast. The Italian government’s policy and tactics have also notably hardened of late. This week, the Italian coastguard seized a migrant rescue boat operated by a German humanitarian organization, which it accused of collaboration with Libyan traffickers. That move was seen as a demonstrative gesture to deter potential smugglers, and the first blow in a new campaign to crack down on NGOs that Rome suspects of facilitating the crisis.
So perhaps Rome is indeed learning how to better control migrant flows to its shores. At the same time, though, it would be wildly premature to claim any victory here. It was only a few weeks ago, after all, that the coastguard experienced a massive surge of 12,000 migrants in 48 hours. Whatever lessons Rome has learned since then, the roots of the crisis remain unaddressed, and the consequences of Italy’s inability to deal with its current migrant population are already threatening to tear the country apart at the seams.
As the Financial Times notes in a recent long read, the slowed growth of migration to Italy is less significant than the total accumulation of migrants, which the country remains utterly unequipped to handle:
Compared with 2016, the rise in migrants to Italy has actually been small. […] But it is the accumulation of this year’s arriving migrants on top of more than 500,000 over the past three years that is causing strain, logistically and politically, say officials.
The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has warned that reception centres are almost at capacity. “Close to 200,000 accommodation places are available for refugees and migrants across the country, but are nearly all full,” it says.
Italy deserves its fair share of the blame here, given its delays in processing asylum claims and decentralized relocation process. But its neighbors are not exactly stepping up to help. France, Switzerland and Austria have increased their border controls to prevent migrants from leaving Italy, Brussels’ financial assistance to Rome has been utterly insufficient to handle the crisis, and several EU members are refusing to participate in the relocation scheme to distribute migrants throughout the continent. That combination of factors has created a potent environment for Euroskepticism to thrive in Italy, which could well benefit populist parties.
In short, Italy shouldn’t take too much comfort in the temporary downturn. Given the EU’s collective action failures in guarding its borders, and the immense logistical challenges in assimilating existing migrants, the strain of the crisis will likely be bearing down on Italy—and potentially reshaping its politics—for many years to come.