Migrants: 87% drop in arrivals in August, UN warns of risks to refugees

Refugees off the Libyan coast, 8 July. [EPA]

New statistics published by Italy’s Ministry of the Interior shows that arrivals have dropped by 10% since the beginning of the year, as asylum seekers are stopped at the Libyan border.

Arrivals increased month-on-month in 2017 until July, which registered a 50% drop compared to last year, followed by a 87% decrease in August – with only 3,235 arrivals compared to 21,295 in 2016.

Migrants coming from Nigeria, Guinea, Bangladesh, Ivory Coast, Mali and Eritrea account for more than half of the total arrivals. The ministry also released data on the number of refugees relocated to other EU member states an neighbours in 2017.

Germany took the lion’s share with 3,124 refugees, followed by Switzerland (779) and the Scandinavian countries (Norway with 816, Finland at 755, and Sweden at 513). Austria and Croatia only took on 15 and 18 relocations, respectively.

Libyan buffer

Italy and the rest of the EU is supporting Libya’s government in halting the flow of migrants. A €220 million deal was signed with Tripoli, to train the Libyan coast guard to prevent unsafe and overcrowded boats from attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

“The reasons for this drop have been many,” said Barbara Molinario, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in southern Europe.

“Adverse weather conditions, and increased activity by the Libyan coast guard that intercepted a large number of migrants in its waters and brought them back to land, and strong pressure by the Italian government on numerous actors in Libya to halt departures. The EU’s ban on the sale of dinghies to Libya has also stemmed migrant flow.”

In recent weeks, NGOs involved in migrant rescue have been chased out of Libyan waters and have responded by saying that discouraging rescue operations increases the risks to refugee lives.

NGOs say Italy’s ‘code of conduct’ threatens migrants’ lives

Thousands more refugees could be at risk of dying at sea if a proposed ‘code of conduct’ for NGOs conducting search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean is put into practice, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday (12 July).

According to The New York Times, the Libyan government enlisted militias to stop migrants – the same militias involved in human trafficking.

This increases the economic power of militia groups in a state where the stability of the government is questionable.

The UNHCR believes it is too soon to identify a trend. In the meantime, it is working across Libya to improve the treatment of asylum seekers. The agency is present in all 12 centres where the Libyan coastguard offloads migrants caught at sea, and is applying pressure to free those detained.

“It is clear that we can’t stop people,” continued Molinario, “especially when these people are fleeing war and prosecution. It is equally clear that Italy can’t take the burden by itself. We are asking that other states step increase their efforts and share the burden, but also that alternatives be provided to this dangerous crossing.”

Alternative routes

The UNHCR is calling for the facilitation of humanitarian visas and family reunions.

But solutions should be weighed up carefully. A recent French proposal to place EU border controls in Chad and Niger to process asylum seeker claims prompted criticism for empowering states to deal with requests, made by refugees who may be fleeing from those very countries.

African and European leaders renew efforts to tackle migration

African and European leaders gathered in Paris on Monday (28 August) to broach the subject of migration, where support was expressed for moving the EU’s external border into Africa itself, so that asylum applications can be handled locally. EURACTIV France reports.

“France’s commitment to strengthen its processing capacity in the region, including through the placement of additional personnel for efficient and timely processing in Niger and Chad could provide welcome additional support,” said a UNHCR spokesperson.

“However, any initiative along these lines would need to avoid unintended consequences, notably by raising expectations or creating ‘pull factors’,” they added.