This week’s tragedy comes amid a steep increase since 2022 in the number of asylum-seekers from North Africa and South Asia attempting to cross the Mediterranean in hopes of reaching Europe. Indeed, the Italian coast has emerged as the first point of entry for many would-be migrants fleeing economic hardship, oppression, and political implosion.
What’s causing the uptick, and how are Italy and the European Union responding?
A post-COVID surge. The pandemic years saw a lull in migrants from North Africa crossing the Mediterranean, largely due to border closures. But that all changed in 2022 when a significant number of migrants from Afghanistan, Tunisia, Libya, Eritrea, Iraq, Egypt, and elsewhere resumed attempts to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe. Though the influx has not reached crisis levels seen in 2015-2016, when 1.3 million people sought refuge in Europe, roughly 100,000 people crossed the Mediterranean into Italy alone last year. Migration levels have also steadily risen due to an influx of refugees from the eastern flank of Ukraine, as well as the Western Balkan route, which accounted for 45% of all illegal entry attempts into the EU last year.
There has been a “build-up of migration pressure because of people who needed to leave during the pandemic but did not have the access,” says Eric Reidy, a reporter for The New Humanitarian focused on migration. This dynamic is also interacting with specific factors, Reidy notes, including the “Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan and the deteriorating situation for Syrian refugees in Turkey.”
Shipwrecked in Italy. Many refugees leaving Turkey or northeast Libya, two of the main points of embarkation, are opting to take a longer and more perilous journey to Italy to avoid disembarking in Greece, where authorities have been known to push back boats. Meanwhile, prison-like conditions at Greek refugee camps have been a boon for people smugglers promising to help would-be migrants reach the Italian coast.
But the Italian government isn’t keen to absorb the influx. Since coming to power last fall, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni of the far-right Brothers of Italy Party has sought to position herself as an anti-immigrant firebrand. While Meloni, a nationalist, has surprisingly avoided many of the anticipated confrontations with the European Union, her government has introduced sweeping anti-immigrant legislation and antagonized fellow member states into sharing the load.
“Italy wants more redistribution where they [migrants] can submit their asylum request elsewhere – but this is a non-starter in Europe,” says Luca Barana, a research fellow at Italy's Institute for International Affairs in Rome, pointing to bloc-wide rules requiring member states to process refugees who arrive first in their territorial waters. Rome, however, says the status quo is unsustainable.
Meloni takes on NGOs. In a move broadly condemned by rights groups, the Meloni government has focused on making it harder for humanitarian vessels to rescue migrants at sea by assigning boats to disembarkation ports in northern Italy. Essentially, this means that after conducting a rescue operation, vessels must return to their designated port – even ignoring subsequent distress calls – limiting their time on the sea. Those who ignore the order could have their vessels confiscated by Italian authorities.
Indeed, the anti-NGO push was largely championed by deputy PM and longtime anti-immigrant advocate Matteo Salvini, who has long argued that the presence of charity rescue vessels in the Mediterranean incentivizes migrants to risk the journey.
Unsurprisingly, this policy is causing deep rifts within the EU. Back in November, France and Italy were at loggerheads after Rome refused to accept the Ocean Viking, a ship carrying 230 migrants, claiming – in what France said was an act of bad faith – that Paris had agreed to take in the vessel (it had not). After three weeks of bobbing around on the waters, France ultimately accepted the NGO vessel but suspended an earlier goodwill gesture to take in 3,500 refugees from Italy.
What’s Europe doing about it? In recent years, both Italy and the EU have been trying to direct resources to countries of origin to try and stop the boats. Just last month, Italy delivered another ship to the Libyan coast guard, while Meloni also recently visited Libya to strengthen cooperation arrangements.
However, refugee advocates have long said that Europe’s ability to absorb refugees is simply a matter of political will. Many now point to the absorption of Ukrainian refugees over the past year as a case in point. “Around 4.8 million Ukrainians registered for protection in the EU in the past year,” Reidy says, while comparatively, the number of people crossing the Mediterranean to Europe is in the 120,000-150,000 range. For Reidy, this reinforces the “division of refugees into deserving and undeserving refugees” that pervades Europe.
As part of this effort to augment North African coast guards, intercepted migrants are often put in indefinite detention by Libyan authorities. They are “detained in horrendous conditions where forced labor, torture, extortion, and sexual abuse” are rife, Reidy says. Their only way out is to pay a hefty fine or, for women, to sexually exploit themselves. Otherwise, they risk languishing there indefinitely. What now? It’s easy to blame the bureaucracy in Brussels for policy stagnation, but that’s not what’s really going on here. Rather, the problem is that 27 member states with competing domestic priorities simply can’t agree on a possible solution. Italy, playing for a domestic audience that backs its tough-on-migration play, remains committed to employing cynical tactics to get the EU to play ball. But as crises mount around the world, would-be-migrants still calculate that risking their lives at sea is safer than staying put.