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World As Italy turns into a migrants’ trap, help from EU falls short

Migrants are seen in the Mediterranean sea off the Libyan coast on June 18, 2017.

Stefano Rellandini/REUTERS

Italy has turned into a migrants' trap.

Tens of thousands of African migrants are landing in southern Italy. Few want to stay in a country with limited job opportunities – Germany and Scandinavia have better prospects – but the northern route is all but blocked. This week, Austria announced it would send armoured cars and 750 troops to its Italian border to stop migrants travelling through the Brenner Pass, the alpine route between Austria and Italy.

Faced with overflowing migrant camps and European Union countries that are reluctant to take some of the migrant burden off Italy, the Italian government resorted, in effect, to a form of blackmail. Last weekend, it threatened to close its ports to rescue ships operated by charities, which are responsible for about 40 per cent of the rescues in the waters between Libya and Italy, and then demanded an emergency EU summit on the migration crisis.

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Read more: Thousands of desperate migrants are trapped in limbo in Southern Europe

On Tuesday, it got a deal, of sorts, but one that apparently pleases no one. The EU plan would see Libya and its coast guard receive €46-million ($67.7-million) to try to stem the flow of migrants. Another €35-million would go to Italy to help the country deal with the migrant surge. The EU also promised to help Italy write a "code of conduct" for the charity rescue ships operating in the Mediterranean.

Italy was hardly assuaged. The money offered by the EU was negligible, given the enormity of the migrant arrivals, and Austria gave no indication that it would free up its border. Marco Minniti, Italy's Interior Minister, called Austria's move an "unjustified and unprecedented initiative" that would jeopardize security co-operation between the two countries.

Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni has warned that Italy's status as a migrant holding pen risked triggering a backlash among Italians. "We are asking for the work to be shared," he said on Monday. "This is necessary if … we are to avoid the situation in Italy becoming unsustainable and stoking hostility in a society which until now has responded in an exemplary way."

Meanwhile, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the rescue charities condemned Italy's threat to close its ports and put controls on the rescue ships (the ports are unlikely to be closed; doing so would be a clear breach of international maritime law).

The IOM and the charities challenged the widespread notion held in Italy that the rescue ships' presence acted as a "pull" factor – encouraging migrants to make the dangerous voyages knowing they stand a fair chance of being rescued before their clapped-out rafts sink.

Joel Millman, IOM spokesman in Switzerland, said, "People decide to migrate for much broader reasons than whether or not the rescue boats will be there," noting that about 2,200 migrants have died so far this year making the crossing.

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In a tweet, Medécins San Frontières Sea said: "Those who claim Mediterranean rescue is a pull factor aren't acknowledging that the alternative to search & rescue is mass drowning at sea."

Italy's Interior Ministry said that by Monday morning, almost 85,200 migrants had reached Italy this year after their rescue in the central Mediterranean, up from 71,300 in the same period in 2016. The migrants were mainly from Nigeria, Bangladesh and Guinea. Most were economic migrants, not refugees, meaning they were unlikely to gain asylum.

In all of 2016, about 181,400 migrants who were rescued from smugglers' boats reached Italy. Almost all of the boats were launched from Libya, though some from Tunisia and Egypt make the trip.

While Italy is to receive some fresh EU funds, it has received little help from other EU countries in relieving the migrant burden.

During the 2015 migrant-crisis year, EU countries agreed to relocate some 160,000 people who had reached Italy and Greece, many of them Syrians. So far, only about 21,000 have been relocated and the prospects of the rest finding new homes outside of Italy and Greece appear slim. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have outright refused to participate in the program, exposing great rifts in the European unity project.

Italian efforts to convince other EU countries to open their ports to rescue ships have also gone nowhere. France is reluctant to make its ports available, arguing that doing so would merely encourage more migrant voyages from North Africa. The crews of the rescue ships are also against the idea, since the French ports are much farther away from Libya than the Italian ports.

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The refugee crisis has raised political tensions in Italy, which must hold a general election by the spring of 2018. If the crisis intensifies, the centre-right and the far-right parties, which are hardening their security and anti-immigrant stances, could rob votes from the ruling, centre-left Democratic Party. Luigi di Maio, leader of Italy's main opposition party, the Five Star Movement, and a contender to be the next prime minister, has described the rescue ships as a "taxi service" for migrants.

Francesco Galietti, chief executive officer of the Rome political and economics consultancy Policy Sonar, said in an interview that the migrant crisis has become so sensitive that it may effect the timing of the Italian election. Migrants tend to arrive when the weather is good, between May and October. But that's also when the newspapers fill with headlines of drownings, overflowing migrant centres, Mafia exploitation of the crisis and crimes allegedly done by desperate migrants. "The Democratic Party should know that you don't want a vote to take place at the peak of the migrants' inflow," Mr. Galietti said.

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