Sunday

20th Aug 2017

Italy: struggling to make itself heard on migration

  • 'Gateway to Europe': Lampedusa monument to migrants who died at sea, by Italian artist Mimmo Paladino (Photo: DukeUnivLibraries)

In the hills just outside Rome, tucked away from the road and about 50km from the coast, is the headquarters from where Italy struggles to deal with one of Europe's most pressing social crises - migrants making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better life.

In the gleaming building, officers from the Italian navy monitor large screens, assessing a steady stream of information about the kind of vessels that are on the busy sea.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now and get 40% off for an annual subscription. Sale ends soon.

  1. €90 per year. Use discount code EUOBS40%
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • The Mare Nostrum HQ near Rome - the screens show ship activity on the waters around Italy and Africa (Photo: EUobserver)

They are looking for "anomalies" - boats going in a direction at odds with the formal destination they have given, boats that, through thermal scanning, show warmth where normally dead fish would be stowed, or boats which are not moving.

"This headquarters is on the frontline," says the head of Italy's navy, Filippo Foffi. But, with an area of 73,000 square kilometres to cover, he says "it's not easy to detect where the bad guys are."

A main indicator of how many boats are going to try to make it to Italy from northern Africa at any given time is the weather.

When it is mild and the sea is calm off the coast of Libya, then around 10 boats usually set off. The north African country, in a state of anarchy, is the point of departure for the vast majority of migrants - often fleeing Syria or the Horn of Africa - crossing the Mediteranean.

On one day alone last week, some 20 boats left. Usually they are rubber dinghies about 7-12 metres in length.

If they sail in a straight line they can reach the Italian coast in a day or less. But this assumes they manage to sail - without GPS - in the right direction.

Another frequent launching point is Alexandria in Egypt. As it is further from Italy, a "mother ship" tows a small boat along behind it before cutting it adrift near the Italian coast.

The small boats are hard to detect. They are not in the official system, where details about cargo, departure and destination are filed into a central information network. Those monitoring the sea instead look for details about the size and features of the boat from the satellite picture to determine whether it has human cargo.

74,000 rescued

The boat that sank off the coast of Lampedusa last October killing 366 people was one which slipped across the seas undetected. No one noticed until it was too late.

That boat was the reason why Italy launched its Mare Nostrum programme later the same month.

It was the first formal response to the human tides unleashed in the messy aftermath of the Arab Spring, which saw the number of migrants choosing the Mediterranean route more than triple between 2012 (13,267) and 2013 (42,925).

Since the programme's launch almost 74,000 migrants have been rescued. But many never make it. Nobody knows how many have died at sea.

The migrants are crammed onto the vessels - one recently contained 645 people - without room for basic needs, without enough food and water, and exposed to the glaring sunshine.

The majority are men, but an increasing number are women and children. Of the just over 49,000 people that the navy has rescued as part of the Mare Nostrum programme alone, around 6,000 were under 18 years. Some of the children travelled alone, with no adult. These are the ones most in "danger", says Foffi.

The programme involves Italy's navy, coast guard, police, airforce and health ministry.

If a boat carrying migrants is located, a typical operation out at sea would involve one of the five major Italian ships sailing to within a short distance of it, releasing a smaller boat to sail to the migrants and then transferring them to the bigger ship.

They are given a medical examination, food, and water. Those in a state of medical emergency are flown to hospital. The rescued ones are also asked questions about smugglers.

Around 300 human traffickers have been prosecuted so far. "Prosecution means many years of jail in Italy," says Foffi.

Mare Nostrum represents a major change in approach for Rome. Just two years prior to its launch, Italy had a policy of pushing migrants back to Libya. But as Libya itself descended into chaos, this became harder to justify.

Now Italy's five ships act as "hubs" for rescues and it has accepted more of the responsibility for the waters off its coast.

"If we leave all the migrants go to Malta, it may be that within one year the migrants will be more than the population of Malta," says Foffi, referring to the tiny EU member state, which is another popular destination.

Seeking EU help

But the programme comes at both a financial and a political price.

Initially slated to cost around €1 million a month, it is turning out to be as much as nine times that price. Meanwhile, right wing politicians want it abolished saying it attracts more migrants.

Past efforts to get fellow member states to put migration on the political agenda have failed. Germany, for instance, argues that it processes proportionally many more asylum seekers than Italy.

With domestic pressure growing, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi wants to use his country's EU presidency to get some more support.

"The Mediterranean Sea is not an Italian sea. It is the border of Europe. It is the heart of Europe. That is why we need a European policy for the Mediterranean," he said recently in Rome.

He called for an increase in investment, particularly to extend the EU's border programme, Frontex, to help with Mare Nostrum: "Budgetary decisions need to be made."

Italy also needs Libya's co-operation. It wants Libya to agree to allow the UN refugee agency to set up in the country to manage the flows - separating asylum seekers and economic migrants - directly from there.

For the moment though, the naval operation continues. But there is grumbling within the navy itself about the humanitarian operation which it says should only be a stopgap response and which is using up money that could go for training or other military operations.

"This is money we cannot use for other important things," says Foffi.

News in Brief

  1. Macedonia sacks top prosecutor over wiretap scandal
  2. ECB concerned stronger euro could derail economic recovery
  3. Mixed Irish reactions to post-Brexit border proposal
  4. European Union returns to 2 percent growth
  5. Russian power most feared in Europe
  6. Ireland continues to refuse €13 billion in back taxes from Apple
  7. UK unemployment lowest since 1975
  8. Europe facing 'explosive cocktail' in its backyard, report warns

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceDoes Genetics Explain Why So Few of Us Have an Ideal Cardiovascular Health?
  2. EU2017EEFuture-Themed Digital Painting Competition Welcomes Artists - Deadline 31 Aug
  3. ACCABusinesses Must Grip Ethics and Trust in the Digital Age
  4. European Jewish CongressEJC Welcomes European Court of Justice's Decision to Keep Hamas on Terror List
  5. UNICEFReport: Children on the Move From Africa Do Not First Aim to Go to Europe
  6. Centre Maurits CoppietersWe Need Democratic and Transparent Free Trade Agreements Says MEP Jordi Solé
  7. Counter BalanceOut for Summer, Ep. 2: EIB Promoting Development in Egypt - At What Cost?
  8. EU2017EELocal Leaders Push for Local and Regional Targets to Address Climate Change
  9. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceMore Women Than Men Have Died From Heart Disease in Past 30 Years
  10. European Jewish CongressJean-Marie Le Pen Faces Trial for Oven Comments About Jewish Singer
  11. ACCAAnnounces Belt & Road Research at Shanghai Conference
  12. ECPAFood Waste in the Field Can Double Without Crop Protection. #WithOrWithout #Pesticides

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EU2017EEEstonia Allocates €1 Million to Alleviate Migratory Pressure From Libya in Italy
  2. Dialogue PlatformFethullah Gulen's Message on the Anniversary of the Coup Attempt in Turkey
  3. Martens CentreWeeding Out Fake News: An Approach to Social Media Regulation
  4. European Jewish CongressEJC Concerned by Normalisation of Antisemitic Tropes in Hungary
  5. Counter BalanceOut for Summer Ep. 1: How the EIB Sweeps a Development Fiasco Under the Rug
  6. CESICESI to Participate in Sectoral Social Dialogue Committee on Postal Services
  7. ILGA-EuropeMalta Keeps on Rocking: Marriage Equality on Its Way
  8. European Friends of ArmeniaEuFoA Director and MEPs Comment on the Recent Conflict Escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh
  9. EU2017EEEstonian Presidency Kicks off Youth Programme With Coding Summer School
  10. EPSUEP Support for Corporate Tax Transparency Principle Unlikely to Pass Reality Check
  11. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament Improves the External Investment Plan but Significant Challenges Ahead
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersCloser Energy Co-Operation Keeps Nordic Region on Top in Green Energy