On the 12th of September, the Italian island of Lampedusa witnessed a massive influx of migrants, with as many as 5,000 arrivals. This number increased by an additional 400 on Thursday. This is not a novel scenario for Italy as migrant crossings rapidly rose to 7000, sparking backlash from Lampedusa's residents. The emergency crisis has only highlighted a long-standing political issue within the region. As the Regional authority, the European Union is calling for action on the irregular migration in Europe, raising questions about whether they are doing enough as a regional hegemon. Furthermore, what course of action will remediate the root causes of such a vast issue?
Last Week: Immediate Concern
Designed to accommodate a mere 400 people, the reception centre in Lampedusa encountered an overwhelming surge of 7000 migrants entering the State for asylum. Thousands of men, women, and children who arrived by sea were rescued and forced to sleep on makeshift plastic cots, with many wrapped in metallic emergency blankets.
However, not everyone makes this journey. According to the UN migration agency, over 2,000 people have lost their lives this year while attempting to cross from North Africa to Italy and Malta. The tragedy continues, exemplified by the Italian Coast Guard`s harrowing discovery of a lifeless newborn baby on a boat during a rescue operation off the shores of Lampedusa on Friday. Additionally last week, a five-month-old infant drowned and tragically lost their life.
Needless to say, organisations like the Italian Red Cross are making concerted efforts to sustain those who survived the journey. The Italian Red Cross's Migration Head acknowledged the dire nature of the situation and said that they distributed food, and coats to people “... to prevent them from sleeping out in the open”
Amidst the chaos, some migrants ventured into the city, where they were seen queuing up for ice cream. While some merchants denied them service, reports of free service and tourist or resident financing showcase wholesome moments of human kindness.
However, this kindness did not extend to all. Protesters gathered on Friday to oppose the establishment of a tent city. One protester lamented, “I have two children at home. In the past years, I did not care about this issue. But now I have an instinct of protection for my children because I don’t know what will happen to Lampedusa in the future.” Whilst another said, “Lampedusa says stop! We don’t want tent camps. This message is for Europe and for the Italian government. Lampedusa residents are tired.” Undoubtedly they have reached the tipping point after dealing with three decades of migrant arrivals.
An Ongoing Crisis
Reuters reported that this year, almost 130,000 migrants have arrived on Italy's shores, almost twice as many as last year. Although the numbers have not surpassed 181,000 migrants recorded in 2016, the situation remains a pressing concern for Lampedusa.
Italy's Prior Efforts
In December of last year, Italy introduced new rules to fine charities rescuing migrants at sea and impound their ships if they violate these rules. The rule entails that ships must promptly request a port and sail to it after a rescue, instead of searching for other migrant boats in distress. Captains are at risk of a € 50,000 fine and vessel impoundment in cases where such violations are repeated.
Almost four months later in April, The Italian parliament approved measures to establish new migrant centres for asylum applicants awaiting decisions and called for the increase of detention facilities that were facing expulsion. A sum of € 20 million over two years was allocated for this purpose. Additionally, Italy signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Britain which stipulated that a joint strategic security committee be created to combat illegal migration.
Not long after, Italy passed the Cutro decree, a law similar to the Salvini Decree which excludes asylum seekers from accessing the SAI system [Reception and Integration System, former SPRAR, then SIPROIMI]. Access is limited to vulnerable asylum seekers and those who enter Italy legally via complementary pathways. Whilst the detention period for deportation was extended from 120 to 135 days, and a new accelerated border procedure permits the detention of asylum seekers at the border for up to four weeks, vital services such as psychosocial assistance, legal information, and language courses in first reception centres have been removed.
Furthermore, in a conference held in July, Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni established the 'Rome Process' agreement with Middle Eastern and African countries to address the root causes of illegal migration, including conflict, economic hardship, and climate change. However, with the Italian Government allocating € 45 million to Lampedusa earlier this month, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's promises to end mass migration are falling short of being fulfilled. Her Cabinet also convened to approve stringent measures concerning the proposal to construct detention and repatriation centres and an extension of the maximum period migrants can be held in custody.
With time running out, she has called for European Union (EU) assistance to mitigate the crisis. She articulated her belief that the most effective approach is preventing people from leaving for Europe, as opposed to redistributing migrants across the EU member states.
In line with her calls for European Union intervention, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited the Italian island on Sunday and vowed to implement a 10-point EU action plan to assist Italy. The plan involves the utilisation of the EU's external borders agency, Frontex, to ascertain the asylum eligibility of migrants arriving in Italy and repatriate those who do not qualify for such requirements. The agency will also bolster sea and aerial surveillance of migrant boats to counter human trafficking networks.
Due to its proximity to the Tunisian coastal city of Sfax, Lampedusa has long been a primary destination for individuals from North Africa seeking to reach European shores. Following this concern, she vowed to expedite the provision of supplies and funds to Tunisia under an agreement struck in July, which aimed to restrict irregular migration.
Von der Leyen also committed to strengthening access to legal channels for migrants, stating “The better we are with legal migration, the stricter we can be with irregular migration.”
But is the regional hegemon doing enough to address the root causes of such migration?
An article on the website of the Group of the European People's Party (EPP Group), the largest and oldest group in the European Parliament, says Europe has yet to adapt to the harsh realities of migration – the sheer scale and complexity of such.
In addition, in a publication by Carnegie Europe titled “Is Migration Europe's Achilles Heel,” experts highlight a cultural divide within European societies and a political unwillingness to update asylum policies. Migration Policy Centre Director Andrew Geddes pointed out the cultural contradiction: “While Europe has shown an open and welcoming stance toward millions of displaced individuals from Ukraine, there is a harsh policy of repression concerning migration from Africa and the Middle East.” The Barcelona Centre For International Affairs (Cidob) Senior Research Fellow Blanca Garcés-Mascareñas also noted that: “While economic considerations require millions of new migrant workers each year, political pressures call for stricter border controls.” Carnegie Europe Senior Fellow Pierre Vimont further stated that the failure of European efforts to create a more integrated and efficient EU migration policy over the past six years spans from addressing the root causes of migration in Africa to strengthening external border security, implementing relocation programs, and reviewing the European asylum system — all due to a lack of political will.
The ongoing crisis in Lampedusa is not just an isolated incident but a manifestation of broader issues such as the exclusion from economic growth, conflicts, oppression, and instability in Africa. It is a global and structural phenomenon that requires a multilateral approach that not only ensures border control and repatriation but also tackles the root causes in cooperation with the countries of origin.
While Italy has taken various measures to address the crisis, these efforts have not fully resolved the root causes of irregular migration. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen's 10-point action plan is a step in the right direction, but as experts point out, Europe's response to migration remains culturally and politically fragmented and insufficiently adapted to the complex realities of the phenomenon.
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