While tragedies at sea involving African and Arab refugees continue to shock Europeans, Italy intends to push the migratory issue up the political agenda during its presidency, as Rome feels alone in dealing with what it considers a European “emergency”.
“We cannot let a boat full of people sink because we don’t know whose competence is to rescue them,” said Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, speaking in Rome on Friday (4 July) at the opening ceremony of the Italian presidency.
To deal with the emergency, after the Lampedusa tragedy, Italy launched Operation Mare Nostrum. Since then arrivals in Italy have soared (more than 73,000 so far since the beginning of the operation in October 2013). Greece also saw a 142% rise in the first four months of 2014, as fighting in Syria intensified.
The Mediterranean Sea spans 2.5 million square kilometres and cannot be monitored by normal border controls.
Border security is a matter of the individual member states. But when they become overwhelmed and need support, they turn to Frontex, the EU agency which was designed as an instrument for border control, not migration policy.
Last year, the Warsaw-based institution had to tighten its belt as its budget dropped from €93 million to €89 million.
The Italian-led operation, which is currently costs between €9 million a month, cannot be financed exclusively by Italy, said Vice Admiral Filippo Maria Foffi, the commander in chief of the Italian fleet.
“We are the aspirin, but not the medicine. The medicine is a UN resolution to help Libya,” added the Vice Admiral.
The migratory problem comes from Libya, explained Renzi, adding that 96% of those crossing the Mediterranean are refugees coming from the Horn of Africa and Syria and who use Libya as their departing port.
Italy vowed to push for a reinforcement of the border control agency and turn it into Frontex Plus. Renzi now has the French government on his side. Paris has campaigned for greater border security in the EU elections in May. It is now turning words into action, by calling for enhanced security of the EU’s external borders. This is part of the French government’s detailed plan for the next Commission.
The problem of migration in the Mediterranean is not the problem of a single country, but of the EU as a whole, said European Commission president José Manuel Barroso. “Frontex needs more means. It is a joint responsibility that requires efforts from all countries in the EU,” he echoed.
The real obstacle to a concerted action and burden-sharing is not Brussels, but rather national governments. Italy’s partners argue that they deal with proportionately far more asylum-seekers than Italy. In the fourth quarter of 2013, Germany received proportionally three times as many applications as Italy. But no one is dealing with a humanitarian crisis which prompted the launch of a sea operation comparable to Mare Nostrum.
Even if a Frontex Plus could help the situation and reinforce security on Europe’s borders, the migration problem can only be tackled working with third countries.
“We need to find a way to help the Libyan authorities,” insisted Renzi.
According to the Libyan authorities, there are over three million “irregular migrants” in Libya, many from other parts of Africa. But the Libyan authorities insist that none of them is a refugee.
Refugees and asylum-seekers live in a legal limbo in Libya, regardless of their need for protection. Libya is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and has no asylum system.
“If you look at the situation in Libya, it is not easy to know who to talk to in order to have better control over the situation. That is why we need to work with the African Union, IOM and the UNHCR. We need to work in order to avoid having people facing difficult and dangerous journeys to try their luck,” said Stefano Sannino, the Italian permanent representative in Brussels, in an interview with EURACTIV.
The Italians will also push for the development of a Common European Migration Policy capable of contributing to the EU’s Growth Agenda and matched with a strategy for advancing economic growth in migrants’ countries of origin.
Greece has already made it a point to push for a single asylum system and more coordinated management of illegal migration flows into Europe during its six-month EU presidency.
In recent months, hundreds of people have died trying to reach European shores. Last October, 356 African immigrants drowned when their boat capsized shortly before reaching the Italian island of Lampedusa, near Sicily.
Experts say the issue is not only humanitarian. It is also an economic and political issue.