Italy's struggle to hold back the tide

Dealing with the boat people from Africa is a problem for all of Europe

The World Today Published 1 August 2014 Updated 28 September 2020 2 minute READ
Migrants wait to disembark from an Italian naval ship in the port of Palermo. Photo: Tullio Puglia/Getty Images

Migrants wait to disembark from an Italian naval ship in the port of Palermo. Photo: Tullio Puglia/Getty Images

Italy is at the very centre of the Mediterranean, both physically and in geopolitical terms. During the communist era, this was a great advantage and Italy’s south was viewed as a kind of NATO aircraft carrier. Today, Italy is the affordable mirage that draws desperate people from sub-Saharan Africa and from battered countries of the Middle East.

This summer, desperate boat people are arriving in growing numbers from the shores of Africa. By June this year, 65,000 migrants had crossed the Mediterranean, already in excess of the record 60,000 who arrived during the whole of 2011. The Italian Defence Ministry says that between October 2013 and June 2014, 72,490 people were saved at sea. Predictions are for tens of thousands to arrive over the summer.

The illegal immigration crisis is the result of wrong, or at least short-sighted, political choices and electoral calculations, as well as the inability of the European Union to handle this issue collectively. The fact that Frontex, the EU border agency, is based in Warsaw is quite telling. In Italian eyes this mirrors the distortion of the Old Continent due to the EU’s post-Cold War enlargement towards north and east. That explains why in recent years the ‘liquid frontier’ of the Mediterranean was considered a side issue.

The problem stems in part from the collapse of the status quo in the Maghreb, the lack of government in Libya to negotiate with, and Italy’s progressive disengagement from those countries. Today Italy is a laboratory of the trends we can see at continental level. Southern Italy is overwhelmed by immigrants, while northern regions take fewer people, citing security concerns to refuse their share of the burden.

As in Italy, so in Europe. Southern countries of Europe receive the asylum seekers, while the rest of the continent tends to dismiss the problem. As a result, Italy lets them pass through towards its northern borders, issuing temporary permits that attract illegal immigrants and criminals.

Asylum seekers don’t want to receive refugee status from Italy, because they would be forced to stay there. There is no pan-European asylum system, and under current laws, they are not allowed to move freely within the EU. So Syrians, Iraqis and Eritreans who want to join their families in northern Europe do not register, and so live and sometimes work as illegals.

This situation reinforces populist and xenophobic parties. It increases an anti-Europe mood, as the EU is blamed for the emergency. And it worsens relations with other European states, with mutual accusations of not doing enough.

Germany recalls that in 1992, when it was overwhelmed by 500,000 immigrants from the East, it took on the whole burden of welcoming them. Compared with some other states, the proportion of foreign-born people living in Italy – at 9.4 per cent – is not high.

The way out of this problem is clear: there has to be coordinated European action. Time was wasted due to the failure of the strategy embraced in 2002 by the centre-Right government of Silvio Berlusconi and the Northern League to intercept migrants at sea and push them back to the countries they set out from: an electorally rewarding but strategically suicidal approach. The new one, Mare Nostrum ‘Our Sea’ – the term used by Romans for the Mediterranean – is more humane but isn’t a solution. It looks like a palliative.

There is a vacuum, not a wall, between North Africa, the Mediterranean and the beaches of Sicily. If immigrants are to be stopped, it has to be in sub-Saharan countries. When they arrive on Libyan shores they are quite unstoppable because there is no Gaddafi to deal with. The old dictator used to control the flow of humans to get money or political advantages from Italy. Now the state is contested between tribes and Islamist radicals. The Italian navy has realised that today it must speak not just with one Libyan navy, but with five. This rules out any shared policy with Libya.

So, the short-term perspective is that of an asymmetric game. Today it is a story without any visible happy ending for the immigrants. But if this issue is not handled effectively, soon the disaster might become an Italian and a European one. This is not an ‘emergency’ but a structural geopolitical trend. Migratory flows are the orphans of the Arab Spring, of climate change, of religious and tribal wars in Africa and the Middle East – and of the EU’s lack of vision. Italy’s mistakes and calls for help come from the frontline. But they are a reminder of what may await the whole of the West.