Italy considers closing its ports to boats carrying migrants

Government reportedly seeking EU approval of drastic changes to asylum procedures after surge in refugee arrivals.

The Italian government is considering blocking boats carrying migrants from landing at its ports after nearly 11,000 refugees arrived on its shores in five days.

It has been reported that the government has given its ambassador to the EU, Maurizio Massari, a mandate to raise the issue formally with the European commission to seek permission for a drastic revision of EU asylum procedures. One idea being discussed is denying docking privileges to boats not carrying Italian flags that seek to land in Italian ports, mainly in Sicily or Calabria.

Italy is the main point of arrival for mostly African migrants to European shores this year, and more boats are sent out almost daily. All of those rescued off the coast of Libya are brought to Italy, often by private charities.

Meanwhile, Italy’s neighbours have closed their borders to try to keep migrants from moving north, as they did in the past, and some EU partners such as Poland and Hungary have refused to host some asylum-seekers to ease the burden on Italy and Greece, another frontline country.

The surge in the number of refugees reaching Italy prompted the interior minister, Marco Minniti, to turn back on a flight to Washington to address the crisis. An intense debate has raged in Italy about whether NGOs waiting to rescue people off Libyan coastal waters were acting as an incentive for people-smugglers.

The centre-right fared well in local government elections at the weekend, putting pressure on the left-leaning coalition government ahead of elections next year.

Mattia Toaldo, an expert on Libya at the European Council on Foreign Relations described the move to block boats from docking in Italy as “a panic measure”.

“I would very much be surprised if it is legal,” he said. “The law requires the rescue of people in distress on the high seas, and this self-blockade of Italian ports would leave migrants floating in the Mediterranean, including those in most NGO rescue ships.

“It is most likely designed to force Europe to take some kind of other action. It also shows that the ideas tried so far have failed. It was first proposed that the Libyan coastguard take more action to push the boats back. It was then suggested the tribes in southern Libya act as detention guards, and then it was proposed to take action in Niger. Nothing has worked.”

The dramatic rise in numbers, prompted by good weather and a well-organised trafficking route, will attract greater scrutiny for German chancellor Angela Merkel’s plans for a long-term solution to the migration crisis. Efforts to strengthen the Libyan coastguard by providing extra boats and training appears to have had little impact.

The EU’s 28 leaders agreed last week that Italy and Greece should get more help to manage arrivals. The bloc’s executive European commission will give more emergency funding to Italy and wants EU states to put up more money to assist African countries, an EU official said, hoping that better conditions at home will keep people from leaving.

In the four days between 24 and 27 June, 8,863 migrants arrived in Italy, including more than 5,000 on Monday alone, according to the International Office for Migration. A further 2,000 people were reported to have arrived on Tuesday.

The June surge comes after the arrival of 60,228 migrants in Italy by sea in the first five months of 2017, with 1,562 reported to have died in the Mediterranean. The number of migrants from Libya this year is on course to exceed the 200,000 recorded last year.

There were 22,993 arrivals in May. Since the beginning of 2016, only July and October last year have seen higher numbers of arrivals by sea. Nigerian is the first declared nationality of around 15% of those arriving in 2017, followed by Bangladeshi (12%), Guinean (10%) and Ivorian (9%).

Renato Brunetta of the Forza Italia party, has pressed Minniti to block ships with migrants heading to Italy and ask the EU to allow them to be diverted to other Mediterranean ports.

Merkel fears that long-term demographic trends mean 100 million Africans could be driven to Europe by climate change and poverty, an eventuality for which European governments are unprepared.

Her guiding idea is to stem migration by combating poverty in Africa. Her specific initiative is to team up African nations committed to economic reforms with private investors who would then bring jobs and businesses. Under the G20 compacts plan, an initial seven African nations would pledge reforms to attract more private sector investment.