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Stemming economic migration

For the last three years, Italy has borne the brunt of the migration crisis as the central Mediterranean route into Europe has become the chief entry path into the EU. More than 83,000 migrants arrived in southern Italy in the first half of this year, an increase of 19 per cent on the first six months of last year. Over 2,300 have died on the crossing in 2017, after more than 4,000 last year.

The use of Italian ports has become a touchy subject with Italian voters. The Italian government, which faces an election early next year – with the populist Beppo Grillo’s 5-Star party currently in the lead – has adopted a tough approach to migrant boats. 

Helpfully, Libya’s Prime Minister, who is the head of the UN-backed unity government, has asked Italy to send its navy to help the Libyan coastguard pick up migrants within Libya’s 12-mile territorial waters and take them back to shore.

Italy’s tough policy shift has led to a number of repercussions. One incident involved a standoff between Italy and Malta. A charity vessel, the Golfo Azzurro, was refused entry by the Italian government to allow three rescued migrants to disembark in Lampedusa. The ship was re-directed to Malta, but the Maltese authorities refused it entry on the solid grounds under international law that people rescued at sea should disembark at the closest safe port of call.

The Maltese government was absolutely within its rights to adhere to that principle for fear of setting an important precedent.

But there are broader issues at stake. Before Italy’s recent agreement with Libya, the majority of migrants would sail from Libyan ports into international waters to be rescued by charity boats or the Italian coastguard. Critics have accused the rescue NGOs of operating a “taxi service” for migrants.

The people-traffickers’ ploy had been to deliver migrants not to Italy, but just outside the boundary of Libya’s territorial waters so they could be rescued by NGO charity boats beyond. Though there can be absolutely no doubt that the charities were – and are – motivated by noble intentions, they were in effect inadvertently aiding the traffickers.

The deal just reached with Libya makes it very difficult for people-smugglers to operate, and is an important element of EU policy. But by teaming up with the Libyans, Italy is facing accusations of helping their coastguard to force migrants back into camps where rape, torture and slavery are commonplace.

Turning back the boats in Libya’s territorial waters may carry risks in the short term, but Italy has recognised this in its plans to establish proper refugee camps in Libya. It must now press ahead with these urgently to ensure that the Italian intervention inside Libyan waters does not exacerbate an already bad humanitarian situation.

As Bill Gates – definitely not a hard-liner on migration – has said: “Europe must make it more difficult for Africans to reach the continent [of Europe] via the current transit routes.” The top three countries of origin of those arriving in Italy in the first quarter of this year were Nigeria, Bangladesh and Guinea.

UN figures suggest that 70 per cent of those who have arrived in Libya were escaping poverty.

Unless and until the central Mediterranean is viewed by economic migrants as a cul de sac, the numbers will continue to increase along with the profits for the people-traffickers. 

Long term, the most benevolent and sensible strategy is to improve life in the poorest countries and so weaken the desire to migrate. But this is work which will take decades. It is in Europe’s – and overwhelmingly in Malta’s – self-interest that this surge into Europe from poorer nations is held at bay.

For the sake of Europe and the developing world from which they leave (which is losing a swathe of their young and enterprising citizens) realpolitik demands a much firmer line must be drawn.

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