The number of refugee arrivals in Italy this year is already 80% higher than in the same period in 2015. At the UN’s Geneva conference on Syrian refugees last Wednesday (30 March), Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Paolo Gentiloni, announced that 3,700 people had been rescued over the previous five days alone. EurActiv Spain reports.
Gentiloni put the total number of asylum seekers having made the crossing in the first three months of 2016 at 18,234.
This is 80% more refugees than in the first three months of 2015, and concern in the country is growing. If the Ministry of the Interior’s estimates are correct, 270,000 refugees will reach the country this year.
The latest spike in arrivals from the Central Mediterranean route, which involves a boat crossing from Libya, is largely down to the arrival of good weather after a mild Easter. But the Italian authorities fear that new routes will open up from Greece and Turkey following the EU-Turkey agreement and the closing of the Macedonian border.
According to the Italian media, the country’s Interior Ministry has been holding urgent discussions on a “crisis plan”, to include the establishment of new asylum centres, the adaptation of hotels or barracks and the installation of campsites in fields. With all the Italian reception centres currently full, the additional refugees will have to be spread out across the country.
So far this year, the majority of the refugees rescued by boat from the Strait of Sicily, the area of sea between the Italian island and the north of African continent, have come from sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn of Africa.
Nigeria (2,462), Gambia (1,948) and Senegal (1,373) account for the largest numbers of asyum sskers since the start of 2016, and in the past three months, Italy has not registered a single arrival from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan by this route.
Barbara Molinario, the spokesperson for the UN’s High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), believes the EU-Turkey agreement has had no effect on the effectiveness of the Italian borders. So far, Italy has continued to see arrivals from the same countries.
For Molinario, it is too early to tell whether or not the closing of the land migration routes will have any effect on Italy. The spokesperson added that this was a distinct possibility, and stressed that border closures has blocked large numbers of people in certain countries, allowing them neither to continue their journey nor to return home.
Luigi Ammatuna, the mayor of Pozzallo, one of the main ports of arrival for migrants in Sicily, is also worried about the possible effects of the closing of the Balkan route. “The Syrians will start arriving again like in 2014,” he said.
That year, according to official statistics, the 42,323 Syrian refugees arrived in Italy.
Change of route
Emiliano Abramo, the spokesperson for the community of San Egidio in Sicily, told EFE that the Syrian refugees that had already made the journey to Italy were in regular contact with their compatriots on the migration routes, giving advice on which routes to take.
He believes that the closure of the Macedonian border will push the Syrians into the arms of the Libyan traffickers. Although this alternative is more dangerous, for those that decide to take it, “it is better than being stuck in some border refugee camp”.
The management of economic migrants from certain African countries is another headache for Italy. They have no right to international protection, and are not covered by any relocation agreement.
According to the UNHCR, 90% of the asylum seekers in Greece are refugees. But in Italy, separating those who have the right to asylum, like the Eritreans, Somalis and South Sudanese, from those that do not, is a mammoth task.
In recent years, economic migrants and refugees have had no problem crossing the borders into France or Austria. But with the recent strengthening of border controls, Italy has become a bottleneck.