Italy at crisis point as Mediterranean migrant numbers surge nine-fold

Migrant flows in the Mediterranean
Migrant flows in the Mediterranean
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Italy’s government is under huge pressure to staunch the arrivals of migrants from the coast of North Africa as the country recorded a nine-fold increase in the number of asylum seekers reaching its shores since 2019.

Latest figures show the migration landscape shifting, with many more attempts to reach Spain and Italy than Greece, which has adopted hardline policies.

On Friday, Greece’s migration minister said the government had adopted the measures so “we don’t send the wrong message of incentivising people to come”. Italy’s Right-wing politicians are pushing the government of Maria Draghi to follow suit.

It came as at least four people died, including a woman believed to be pregnant and an eight-year-old boy, and another four were missing after a migrant boat overturned off Lanzarote in the Canary Islands.

The vessel was carrying 49 people when it hit a rocky area just off the island's northern shores, with rescuers pulling 41 people to safety, emergency services said.

So far this year, more than 18,000 migrants and refugees have landed in Italy after crossing the Mediterranean from Libya and Tunisia.That compares to 5,700 in the same period last year and just 2,100 in the corresponding period in 2019.

So many migrants are reaching Italian soil that the country “risks becoming a sieve,” said Matteo Salvini, the leader of the hard-Right League party, who has repeatedly criticised the prime minister despite being a member of his coalition.

He called for “immediate intervention” to tackle the exodus from North Africa, which has resulted in 77,000 migrants being accommodated in Italian reception centres.

Like its predecessors, the coalition government led by Mr Draghi is frustrated that the rest of the EU is offering little solidarity in terms of accepting migrants and refugees for resettlement.

There has been a sharp rise in the number of migrant boats reaching Sicily and the tiny island of Lampedusa in recent weeks. The arrival of 1,000 migrants on Lampedusa in the past week has overwhelmed the island’s reception centre.

Migrants on a search-and-rescue boat arriving on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa. - REUTERS
Migrants on a search-and-rescue boat arriving on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa. - REUTERS

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an economic crisis across much of Africa, which is propelling people towards Europe, experts say. And the ongoing instability in Libya provides a fertile ground for people traffickers, criminal gangs and militias to act with impunity.

Mr Salvini will bang the drum over the migrant issue when he holds a rally in Rome on Saturday for supporters of the League.

Although migrant arrivals are causing alarm, they are lower than during the peak of the 2010s. In 2014, 170,000 asylum seekers arrived in Italy by sea, followed by 154,000 in 2015 and 181,000 in 2016.

“The numbers this year are not high (in comparison),” Flavio Di Giacomo from the International Organisation for Migration, the UN’s migration agency, told The Telegraph.

Greek police patrol a new 5-metre steel fence installed along the Evros River by the border with Turkey - Byron Smith /Getty Images Europe
Greek police patrol a new 5-metre steel fence installed along the Evros River by the border with Turkey - Byron Smith /Getty Images Europe

In contrast to Italy, Greece has seen a dramatic decline in the number of asylum seekers trying to enter its territory by land and sea from Turkey.

Those who do reach Greece’s islands in the Aegean are detained in squalid camps made up of tents and metal containers, where they often languish for years until their asylum applications are considered.

Greece has toughened its border control – the Greek coast guard has been repeatedly accused of pushing migrant boats back towards the Turkish coast, in violation of international law.

Recently it was reported that the Greek police on the land border were experimenting with the use of controversial sound cannons – acoustic devices which fire bursts of deafening noise over the frontier to harass and deter migrants.

Notis Mitarachi, the Greek migration minister, told Reuters: “Our policy is strict but fair.”

Like Italy, Spain is under pressure, with more than 11,000 migrants arriving by sea so far this year. So far this year more than 5,700 migrants have made the dangerous crossing from Africa to the Canaries archipelago, over twice as many as in the same period in 2020, which itself saw an eightfold increase from 2019.

A record 850 died on the route last year, according to the United Nations migration agency, which suggested Covid-19 had prompted many workers in struggling industries like fishing or agriculture to migrate.