Every summer, from June until September, Italy serves as the front line in Europe’s efforts to deal with the ongoing refugee crisis. Long from the front pages of major newspapers, this humanitarian crisis has rumbled on in the background, a steady stream of thousands fleeing across the Mediterranean, mostly from Libya, with 2,030 having died so far this year. This is a burden that Italy views as unfair, and a burden they feel is exacerbated by the actions of their European partners, which has led to divisions within the bloc over how to react to the crisis. While Europe seeks an agreement, the busiest period in the trafficking of refugees across the Mediterranean continues unabated, and with a huge humanitarian toll.
The Current Situation
Over 500,000 people have landed in Italian ports as refugees since 2014, the largest portion of these people arriving in the summer months, putting significant annual strain on Italian asylum policy. This comes after France, Switzerland, Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia have all either partially implemented or wholesale adopted border closures in order to stymie the flow of refugees from Greece and Italy into their countries. The situation between Italy and its neighbours has deteriorated sharply in the last couple of years. The Mediterranean country got into a spat with Switzerland following the country’s decision to clamp down on the number of refugees crossing the Swiss-Italian border in the summer of 2016. In the last few weeks however, Italy’s relations with its neighbours have worsened sharply, after seeing a 20% rise in the number of refugees crossing the Mediterranean compared to this time last year.
In response to the on-going situation, and the lack of any concrete action taken by the EU to alleviate it, Austria announced it was preparing to send 750 soldiers to secure border crossings with Italy. The soldiers, and armoured vehicles, are stationed near the Brenner Pass, and would be ready for deployment within 72 hours should a ‘migration emergency’ trigger Vienna’s decision to block the crossing. While Austria pursued a similar strategy with Slovenia in 2015, the fact that an EU foreign minister openly condemns the lack of control over the crisis, and threatens to contravene the continent’s commitment to free movement and open borders, has caused concern. Italy summoned the Austrian ambassador, who stood by the country’s position, which many claim has been partially affected by Austrian elections in the autumn of 2016, where the Freedom Party of Austria, a right-wing populist party, came close to securing the Austrian Presidency.
In the face of division amongst its members, the EU is set to meet several times in the coming weeks to try and reach some sort of agreement on how to diffuse the situation and avoid a situation as bad as previous summers, which led to thousands of deaths and strained services in Mediterranean countries. While a previous EU agreement committed to resettling 160,000 refugees, only 12,000 have so far been settled. Italian Prime Minister Gentiloni accused other European nations of “looking the other way”, including prominent members such as France. In response, the EU has launched legal action against the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland; all of whom have failed to meet their refugee target.
The pace of EU action has not proved sufficient in Italy though, and the country has touted some radical policies to try and deal with the crisis on its own. One such policy that was floated was a parallel of Australia’s refugee system, where they would turn away any boats from their shores that were not affiliated with their own coastguard, which many assume would lead to similar offshore detention centres to the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea. Human rights groups have reacted angrily to such suggestions, claiming that aid is the obligation of the country most immediate to the crisis, which in this case would be Italy. The rise of Silvio Berlusconi’s political career from the ashes of his resignation amid scandal, on a platform that promised to put an end to this series of humiliating and debilitating crises, has injected some urgency into Italy’s politicians to address the situation.
In response to these political developments and condemnation from human rights groups, Italy announced plans to subject non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in the Mediterranean to a code of conduct drawn up by the Italian Government, similar to the one used by its own coastguard. This will essentially cede control of the humanitarian situation in the region to the Italian Government. This move comes after accusations from Libya however that these NGOs create a pull factor for refugees, and are helping destabilise Libya, and drive the large number of deaths in the region. Furthermore, NGOs have been accused of violating international law and operating in Libyan territory without oversight or permission. This is another bone of contention Italy has with its European neighbours, whose NGOs are often the ones disembarking refugees on its southern shores, helping to create and refusing to help solve the problem.
The situation in Italy is at risk once again of boiling over into a broader crisis, as tensions rise between European partners, and the country’s electorate signals an appetite for decisive action. It is against this backdrop, that the EU will meet to decide future refugee policy.
Neil Reilly is a research assistant at Bright Blue