The influx of migrants into Europe continues to increase. More than 70,000 people left Tunisia for Italy this year, and another 32,000 from Libya. The devastating natural disasters of the past few days in Northern Africa could cause the numbers to rise even further in the long term. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that more than 2,000 people have gone missing on the central Mediterranean route since the beginning of the year. The Tunisian security forces say they have stopped a good 35,000 migrants. At the same time, attacks on refugee boats are increasing. Money and phones are confiscated from migrants. The engines are then removed from the boats to be sold to traffickers, leaving the people to their fate.
Despite these additional risks on the already dangerous crossing, Italy is registering more and more migrant arrivals, especially on the island of Lampedusa, the southernmost outpost in the Mediterranean. According to the Interior Ministry, there have been around 108,000 since the beginning of the year. In the same period last year there were around 53,000, in 2021 around 37,000.
First, Europe’s top politicians were in Tunis to work with the increasingly authoritarian Tunisian president on a deal that would curb illegal migration to Europe. There is no other country in North Africa that the EU has recently put as much effort into as Tunisia. The driving force behind these efforts was and is the Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who ran with the election promise to significantly reduce irregular migration. But the partnership agreement that the EU leadership signed with President Kaïs Saïed on July 16 has so far had no effect. The pact should serve as a model for other states in the region.
105 million euros for more border protection were just as unconvincing for Tunis as financial aid amounting to 150 million. And also not about the possible 900 million loan that the country should receive if Saïed agrees to the IMF reform program. The authoritarian president has found new partners who place fewer conditions. Saudi Arabia is granting a low-interest loan of $400 million and $100 million in direct budget support. In addition, financial aid is to come from the Saudi Development Fund. Unlike Brussels, Riyadh does not require Tunis to reach an agreement with the IMF beforehand.
In the five weeks after the EU’s agreement with Tunisia, 38 percent more migrants from the North African country came to Italy than in the five weeks before, according to the think tank ISPI.
Now the municipality in Lampedusa, where most refugees end up, says the camp is “absolutely no longer able to accommodate any more refugees.” On one day alone, 63 refugee boats with around 1,900 people reached the island within 24 hours. The initial reception center was overcrowded ten times its intended capacity with almost 4,000 people – including around 250 unaccompanied children. Italian authorities are transferring hundreds of migrants every day by scheduled ferry and military aircraft to Sicily and the mainland, where they are distributed to secondary reception centers.
The municipalities in Italy have reached their limit: “The matter has been derailed, we are on the verge of collapse,” warns the Social Democratic mayor of Prato near Florence. He is responsible for migration at the association of cities and municipalities. “Whoever we ask, from the north to the south, all municipalities report extreme difficulties in accommodating the migrants assigned to us by the government in Rome.” In some places, people would have to be accommodated in gymnasiums or tents. The situation of unaccompanied minors is described as an “emergency within an emergency,” the number of which has risen to more than 20,000 this year.
So it’s that time again: Europe is once again debating for a few days about the refugees who are leaving their homeland and looking for a new life in Europe, even though there has been reason enough to talk about it every day for months. It is a great tragedy, a great failure, a great disgrace not only for Italy, but also for Europe.
In Europe, many governments are currently leaning their way. Of course, it is the Italians who have to face the situation first, they are the closest. The rule in the EU is that the member states are responsible for securing the external borders within their jurisdiction and therefore also for dealing with migrants who come to their territory. But the onslaught from the south, which has many reasons from civil war to climate change, is so epochal that Europe has to help. Serious, comprehensive, fast. But there is just a bit of talking, mostly in Brussels conference rooms. In order to show a little activism, EU politicians, as Meloni, Rutte and von der Leyen did in the early summer, travel to not always trustworthy heads of state in the MENA region, whom they hope they can easily meet for a few euros for building a wall on their coasts and external borders. So they try to reassure the public at home or to signal that they are not the ones responsible for the rising numbers. Such a policy of looking the other way will no longer work for a long time. It is time for Europe to rethink: in politics and society!
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