Italy fights back against migrants and the aid groups helping them

Refugees and migrants disembark a Spanish coast guard vessel at the port of Palermo, Sicily, Italy. (Credit: UNICEF/UN019999/Gilbertson VII Photo)

Frustration with the constant flow of migrants and refugees is boiling over in Italy leading to accusations against aid groups and the construction of new detention centers.

More than 40,000 migrants and refugees crossed the Mediterranean Sean to Italy so far this year – making up more than 80 percent of all crossings. The rate of arrivals this year is 40 percent higher than the record high 181,000 people who arrived in Italy in 2016.

The rising numbers are the result of a deal between the European Union and Turkey that virtually shut down the route to Greece. Migrants and refugees shifted their path to Italy via Libya. Deaths along the route peaked last year and are on pace to be higher in 2017. Two wrecks over the weekend left more than 220 people missing or dead.

“There is an urgent need to address the root causes which lead people to move, as well as to offer credible alternatives to these dangerous crossings for people in need of international protection, including accessible and safe ways to reach Europe such as family reunification, relocation and resettlement,” U.N. Refugee Agency spokeswoman Cécile Pouilly told the press.

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The country announced this week that it would speed up the process of deportations and build centers containing 1,600 beds, after prior attempts to build and maintain centers failed. A center outside of Rome was shut down in 2015 following protests by migrants who sewed their mouths shut to demand release. The reopening of the center and construction of new ones is going forward, despite past failures and concerns from some politicians.

It is a part of a broader effort to return migrants as quickly as possible. More than 6,000 migrants were sent back, mostly to North African countries, in the first quarter of 2017, the Italian interior minister said. But the country can only do so much. Officials must identify each person who arrives to determine whether they are a migrant or an asylum seeker. They then either work with other European countries to resettle refugees or negotiate with host countries to take in migrants.

Meanwhile, there is an ongoing dispute regarding the effort by humanitarian groups to rescue and protect people crossing the Mediterranean. An Italian prosecutor announced he had evidence proving that rescue groups were in contact with the smugglers taking people across by boat. Carmelo Zuccaro accused the groups of directing smugglers away from authorities, in an interview with the Italian news site La Stampa.

“We have evidence that there are direct contacts between certain NGOs and people traffickers in Libya,” Zuccaro told La Stampa, according to the BBC.

Groups like the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) patrol the Mediterranean and respond to distress calls in order reduce the number of people dying while making the crossing. MOAS denied making contact with smugglers based in Libya at a recent Italian parliamentary hearing. It said that it will continue conducting search-and-rescue missions until the problem is resolved and people are no longer risking their lives at sea.

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“We recognize that maritime search and rescue is not a solution to the complexities and challenges presented by the mass migratory phenomenon,” MOAS Director Regina Catambone said at the hearing. “MOAS has consistently advocated for alternative, safe and durable solutions to be found and it is time for European and national leaders to step up and provide those alternatives.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.