Italy sees unexpected reduction in Mediterranean migration flows (Politico)

Italy sees unexpected reduction in Mediterranean migration flows

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Italian officials have been bracing for an increase this year on the record 180,000 arrivals recorded in 2016, but that estimate has not borne out | Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP via Getty Images

Italy sees unexpected reduction in Mediterranean migration flows

Latest figures show sharp reduction in those crossing from Libya to Europe.

By

8/3/17, 6:45 PM CET

The number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach Italian shores dropped significantly in July, according to new figures.

Data from the Italian interior ministry shows that about 11,100 migrants made the dangerous crossing in July compared to more than double that amount in the same month in 2016 (just over 23,500).

Indications of a change in migration patterns continued in the first days of August. Statistics released by the ministry Thursday indicate that between January and the first two days of August about 95,200 people crossed from Libya to Italy, compared to 98,500 over the same period last year — a 3.42 percent drop.

“It’s too early to say that we have won the battle,” warned a top migration official at the interior ministry. “But it’s a very encouraging sign and at sea right now we have only about 400 migrants to rescue, which is a reasonable number. It means this trend could last,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The new numbers contrast significantly with earlier data.

“Never before had detections been so high in the Central Mediterranean,” wrote Frontex, the EU’s border agency, in its risk analysis for 2017, adding that the route saw an 18 percent increase in migration flows in 2016.

In June, Interior Minister Marco Minniti sounded the alarm over migration, prompting the European Commission to draw up an “action plan” for the Central Mediterranean route. Some Italian officials also accused NGOs that conduct search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean of colluding with smugglers, while Rome drew up a new code of conduct for civil society organizations operating at sea. Only a few NGOs have accepted the rules and on Wednesday Italian authorities seized a ship operated by German NGO Jugend Rettet on suspicion that the vessel was being used “for activities facilitating illegal immigration.”

Italian officials had been bracing for an increase this year, following a record 180,000 arrivals in 2016.

But the Italian interior ministry’s surprising new figures are not the only indication that fewer migrants are opting to make the dangerous journey to Europe.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) wrote that July’s figures highlighted “a trend” it “has observed of slower traffic to Italy during mid-summer, and fewer deaths (approximately half of those recorded in July 2015 and 2016).”

The reasons behind the summer decline remain disputed.

“Since the start of the year there is a decrease of people crossing into Libya from Niger,” said Eugenio Ambrosi, EU director at the IOM. That’s the result of several factors, he said, from better information for those planning to migrate to deals with Niger on fighting people-smuggling.

“The impression is that the stock of those who want to leave Libya is running out,” he said, adding that only 20 percent of the migrants who reach Libya try to cross into Europe.

Despite Libya’s political turmoil, the country — which has the largest oil reserves in Africa — still attracts workers from other countries: for example, more than half a million Egyptians work in Libya.

The EU has also pushed for greater efforts to facilitate voluntary returns from Libya, a figure that stands at over 6,000 so far this year compared to 2,700 in the whole of 2016. European institutions have also disbursed millions of euros in funding for African countries.

In Rome, officials identify cooperation with the Libyan coast guard as one of the main reasons why there are fewer arrivals. In recent weeks, the coast guard turned back 10,000 people.

Officials also point to a recent border protection agreement with local tribal heads in Fezzan, a desert region in southeastern Libya that served as a transit area for 160,000 people last year.

The Italians and the EU are not the only ones trying to work with the Libyans. French President Emmanuel Macron stepped up his involvement over the past week by brokering a fragile peace deal between Libya’s warring factions.

And Rome is preparing for more proactive involvement in the area: on Wednesday, the Italian parliament approved plans for a new military mission in the Mediterranean, including in Libyan waters. But in an interview with an Italian daily on Thursday, Egypt-backed Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar threatened to bomb Italian vessels, a warning Italian officials dismissed as “propaganda.”

Rome’s arrangements with African leaders have drawn criticism from human rights groups.

“After years of saving lives at sea, Italy is preparing to help Libyan forces who are known to detain people in conditions that expose them to a real risk of torture, sexual violence and forced labor,” Judith Sunderland, associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

The U.N. has also often raised concerns about conditions at detention camps for migrants. Ambrosi of the IOM said the challenge was to avoid “the paradox of rescuing people at sea to then let them die on the land.”

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August 3, 2017 at 10:59AM