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Italy aims to focus attention on the migrant emergency at G20 in Hamburg

by Andrea Carli

This week could signal an important change in European policy toward the management of the migration emergency. This is the hope of Italy and the Italians, who feel left alone to deal with the reception of those who leave the coasts of Libya mainly (but also Turkey) to reach its ports. All will be understood at the end of the week, when G20 heads of state unite in Hamburg.

Diplomacy at work

Diplomacy, the operative arm of governments, has been aimed at creating a wide consensus on individual proposals. Italy intervened through its premier Paolo Gentiloni, using strong words at the preparatory meeting for Hamburg, held in Berlin at the end of last week. Italy is under pressure, Gentiloni underlined. The reception system could be put to a hard test, because in the current state, it is focused only in one country: Italy. “We ask for a concrete contribution from the Europeans,” he concluded.

Wednesday in Tallinn: the first testing ground

The reaction of the main European governments came very quickly. While German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised help and the European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker said it is important to support Italy and Greece, who he described as “heroic nations,” French President Emmanuel Macron put on the brakes: “80% of those who arrive in Italy are economic migrants, we should not confuse those,” he said.
Macron believes that only refugees should be protected, or those who escape from wars and political and religious persecution. The statements will be put to the test on Wednesday, during EU interior ministers meeting in Tallinn, Estonia, although the first reaction coming from the Estonian Presidency are not so encouraging.

Italian threat delivered in Brussels

Last week there was an important shift in the Italian government’s strategy. Rome shelved its subdued tones and raised its voice with Brussels: it threatened to refuse docking in its ports to non-Italian flagged ships that carry out migrant rescued off the Libyan coast. A few hours earlier, France had decided to bring 200 migrants who had crossed the Ventimiglia border back to Italy.

The issues

Beyond the discussions with the European Union, there are two elements that should be taken into consideration. The first concerns the Italian reception system. Despite the December agreement with the Association of Municipalities (ANCI) which fixed the ceiling of migrants to welcome at 200,000 (probably something that will have to be reviewed) and despite the €150 million earmarked for 2018, to distribute to mayors on the basis of the number of migrants welcomed, at the moment just 2,800 out of 8,000 municipalities have handled reception.

There is also a problem with the hotspots, the post-disembarkation centers wanted by the EU (Lampedusa, Pozzallo, Taranto and Trapani), where migrants, once they arrive in the ports, are assisted and go through the identification procedures. In its 2017 report on international migration published last week, the OECD underlined that at the end of 2016, only “29% of the people who arrived via sea went through the four Italian hotspots.”

Finally, there is a problem of relocating the migrants: between September 2015 and December 2016 – the OECD underlined – more than 25,000 people reached Italy by sea who had the conditions to be relocated in other European countries. Of these, 2,700 asylum seekers, equal to 6.7% of the objective to reach by September (39,600 people), have been relocated from Italy to other European countries. A very low number therefore

The shortsightedness (wanted?) by the EU Council

The second element to consider – more than the new funds of the Commission, that in any case help – is that it is the European Council which is influencing the race for a greater sharing of the reception of migrants on the part of the 28. In these recent months, the Council did not prove to be particularly sensitive. The numbers have been known for a while: according to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 180,000 irregular migrants reached the Italian coasts in 2016 (above all from Nigeria, Eritrea and Guinea), an increase of 18% compared to the year before. Now that the summer and nice weather are here, the landings could grow even further.