Italy’s bluff to close its ports to migrant boats heightens tensions in the Mediterranean

Italy’s bluff to close its ports to migrant boats heightens tensions in the Mediterranean

Simon McMahon, Research Fellow, Coventry University

Tensions in European politics around the arrival of migrants across the Mediterranean Sea escalated in late June as the Italian government suggested that it could prohibit NGO ships which had rescued people at sea from docking in its ports.

Italy’s ambassador to the EU told the EU’s migration commissioner that the situation in the country was “at the limit” and “unsustainable”. Italy’s prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, also implored other European countries to stop looking the other way because the situation was “no longer sustainable”.

This is a risky move. Prohibiting rescued migrants from arriving in ports is unlikely to be possible in practice and could go against international law. In the meantime, the political rhetoric is poisoning the way search and rescue at sea is seen in Italy and giving credence to the anti-migrant views of an emboldened far-right. What happens next will be a major test of Europe’s capacity to come up with better ways of responding to migration across the Mediterranean.

Legal difficulties

According to the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, states and ships have an obligation to go to the assistance of nearby vessels in distress. Following rescue operations there is also an obligation that rescued people are taken to safety, regardless of their nationality, status or the circumstances in which they are found. In the Mediterranean this means migrant boats in distress should not be left to sink, nor should they be sent back to Libya, where most of them are now coming from.

In practice, stand offs between migrant boats and the Italian authorities have already happened before. In 1991, the Vlora, a freighter full of people fleeing Albania, was initially blocked from entering the port of Bari but landed anyway with conditions on board rapidly deteriorating. In 2004, the Cap Anamur, a German aid ship, rescued 37 people from a dinghy between Libya and Italy but was stopped from entering Italian ports. After a two-week standoff they were allowed to land when the deteriorating physical and psychological well-being of everyone on board was said to be putting the ship and crew in danger.

These historical stand offs suggest that the current tensions are a bluff – ships are eventually allowed to land. Italy is using the threat to press their European neighbours for increased support.

So far, however, an expression of “strong solidarity” on July 3 from the French and German interior ministers has offered little in terms of positive, concrete developments. A code of conduct for NGOs will now be drafted by Italy, despite the fact that Mediterranean search and rescue organisations already have one. The Libyan coastguard will be given increased training and financial support but they’ve proved to be unpredictable partners, shooting at migrants and rescue boats.

Efforts will also be made to improve facilities for migrants in Libya but this is likely to be a slow process as the country remains mired in political chaos and insecurity, with migrants held in crowded, unsanitary and often violent detention centres. In any case, Libyan coastguards and other authorities are also reported to have links with migrant smuggling.

Italy may also demand that ports of other countries within Europe or nearer to Libya accept rescue boat disembarkations. A stepping up of refugee relocation out of Italy would be welcome too. In September 2015 it was said that 39,600 relocations would take place from Italy within two years. So far, only 20% of that figure has been achieved and some EU member states have refused to take anyone in at all.

Blaming NGOs

The threat to close Italy’s ports also heralds a worrying escalation of anti-NGO rhetoric within the country. For a while now, rescue operations have been presented by critics as a “pull factor” which makes the dangerous journey across the sea appear less risky to migrants. At the end of 2016, the FT reported that Frontx, the EU’s border management agency, had circulated confidential reports claiming that NGOs in the Mediterranean worked in collusion with smugglers. A few months later, a prosecutor in Italy publicly claimed that he had evidence of it.

Political debate fed off these rumours with increased criticism of search and rescue. In April, Luigi di Maio from the Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement), deplored what he called a “taxi service” being run by NGOs for illegal migrants. Matteo Salvini of the Lega Nord party which has long held an anti-immigrant stance, followed up by stating that Italian secret services had a file recording relationships between smugglers and NGOs. The president of Italy’s parliamentary committee for control of the secret services later denied this.

Despite making public statements about smuggler-NGO collusion, the prosecutor looking into the allegations at the time had also not yet opened a criminal investigation. He later said that he did not have enough proof.

But xenophobic far-right groups were emboldened. In May, an organisation known as Generazione Identitaria physically blocked an NGO ship from leaving port to carry out operations. It has since started crowdfunding to take its own missions at sea to prevent rescues taking place.

Critics have been vocal, and if their claims are justified then it is right that investigations are carried out. But so far, evidence has not been presented. A recent research project found that claims of collusion were based on “biased analysis and spurious causality links”. This is supported by research my colleagues and I did for the MEDMIG project in 2015, when we found that migration across the Mediterranean towards Italy was driven more by a need to get out of Libya than by the prospect of being rescued. Many of the people we spoke with knew that they could die at sea, but still considered that to be better than staying where they were.

The threat to close ports shows the governing Partito Democratico to be taking a harder line in its rhetoric on migration. It follows disappointing local elections in late June, and a more vocal anti-migrant stance from the Movimento 5 Stelle’s mayor of Rome.

The ConversationBut the government is also undermining humanitarian work at sea without finding an effective replacement. As noted by Aurelie Ponthieu, a humanitarian specialist on displacement at Medecins Sans Frontieres, search and rescue at sea is not perfect and cannot go on indefinitely. But for now, Europe’s proposals lack a clear, decent long-term alternative to letting people drown.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Rome mayor’s anti-migrant stance signals shift further to right for Italy’s Five Star Movement

Rome mayor’s anti-migrant stance signals shift further to right for Italy’s Five Star Movement

Nando Sigona, Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director of the Institute for Research into Superdiversity, University of Birmingham

The mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, believes the Italian capital is facing a new migrant emergency. “We can’t afford new arrivals,” she argued in a letter sent to Italy’s Ministry of Interior on June 15. “Rome’s reception capacity is on its knees,” she continued, adding that new arrivals would have “devastating social costs”. According to the Italian interior minister, Marco Minniti, new arrivals in Rome are in line with agreed quotas.

This was not Raggi’s view only six months ago, when she spoke in early December at an event hosted by the Roman Catholic Church to showcase positive responses to refugees in European cities. Raggi, who is from Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) or Five Star Movement, praised the role that cities such as Rome and Barcelona have in welcoming refugees and celebrated the contributions newcomers bring to society. In a post on her Facebook page at the time she added:

We as mayors and our cities face the effects of large immigration inflows. It is our duty to guarantee dignity, shelter and human warmth to newcomers. Negative attitudes and closure offend our human dignity.

So what has happened in the last six months? There are two main explanations for why Raggi’s view has changed. The first has to do with Italian party politics; the second is related to the situation for migrants and refugees in Italy and how it has evolved in the last few years.

Political positioning

Italian commentators noted that Raggi’s letter coincided with the M5S underperforming in the first round of municipal elections in early June. Ahead of the second round on June 25, Raggi’s anti-migrant rhetoric successfully diverted media attention away from her party’s poor electoral result.

The letter to the ministry is seen as part of a strategic alignment of the M5S towards more traditional right-wing politics. Other signals of this shift include migrants with insecure legal status being forcibly evicted from squats, tougher anti-begging measures introduced in Rome and a call by Beppe Grillo for Roma camps to be closed down.

With a potential general election looming in Italy, there are talks of a possible alliance between the far-right Northern League and the M5S against former prime minister Matteo Renzi’s ruling Democratic Party. This hypothesis seems validated by an alleged secret meeting in early June between Matteo Salvini, the Northern League figurehead, and Davide Casaleggio, a senior strategist of the M5S.

When Raggi was elected as mayor of Rome, she was hailed by her M5S colleagues as living proof that Grillo’s anti-establishment party was ready to move from the opposition into government at the national level. But the initial excitement soon vanished and she has gone from one political crisis to the next. Grillo and his party were ready to distance themselves from her on a few separate occasions, but political opportunism intervened. However, her decisions are now closely monitored by the national party machine, which is why her public statement against migrants in Rome is seen as being sanctioned by the party.

Destitution among refugees and migrants

The second explanation for Raggi’s letter is the situation facing refugees and migrants in Rome. While it may be true that the numbers are in line with agreed reception plans, on the ground the presence of refugees and migrants has become more visible in the last year, particularly in train stations and public spaces.

Destitution and homelessness are on the increase as Italy struggles to provide medium- and long-term support to help newcomers integrate in Italian society. In the early years of the so-called Mediterranean migrant crisis, the country imagined itself as a transit hub for refugees and migrants on their way to central and northern Europe.

In 2014, for example, while 170,000 people arrived by sea in Italy, only 66,000 asylum applications were lodged. Over 100,000 people – mostly Syrians, Eritreans and Sudanese – travelled through Italy using Milan and Rome as temporary bases. As Simon McMahon and I have shown in our research on Europe’s responses to Mediterranean sea arrivals, during 2015, efforts were made to track the mobility of newcomers via fingerprinting and to channel more people through the Italian asylum system.

The establishment of EU Hot Spots, which screened arrivals, in four Italian ports played an important role in this process. More asylum applications were followed by higher rejection rates and an increasing number of people left destitute on the street, unable either to leave Italy or to regularise their position.

Increased visibility has had an impact on public attitudes regarding the “refugee crisis” which have become more negative in recent years. Repeated media and political attacks on NGOs running search and rescue operations at sea have further contributed to a renewed sense of uncontrolled migration in Italy.

Raggi’s solutions of capping arrivals and evicting squats is short-sighted as it doesn’t address the causes of growing destitution among refugees and migrants in Rome. These lie in myopic EU policies that have created buffer zones, particularly since 2015, at the southern borders of Europe where migrants and refugees are stacked for months, unable to rejoin their families and friends and unable to integrate in Italian society and the job market.

The ConversationSo, while Raggi’s anti-migrant stance is related to what her citizens see and perceive on the ground, it is rooted in political opportunism that ignores the real causes of the problem.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

NGOs under attack for saving too many lives in the Mediterranean

NGOs under attack for saving too many lives in the Mediterranean

Nando Sigona, Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director of the Institute for Research into Superdiversity, University of Birmingham

European politicians and media have accused non-governmental organisations (NGOs) carrying out search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean of undermining their efforts to stem the flow of migration from Libya. Recent accusations by the EU’s border agency Frontex mark a new low in the trend of criminalising those helping migrants and refugees in Europe.

Until recently, negative media coverage and police investigations for so-called “crimes of solidarity” were directed mostly at small NGOs and volunteers. Now a main target of Frontex’s ire is the Nobel Peace Prize winner Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which is accused with other NGOs of colluding with human smugglers and ultimately being responsible for more migrants dying at sea.

Speaking in late February, the Frontex director, Fabrice Leggeri, said the presence of NGO vessels in the proximity of Libyan waters “leads traffickers to force even more migrants on to unseaworthy boats with insufficient water and fuel than in previous years”. MSF labelled the charges “extremely serious and damaging” and said its humanitarian action was not “the cause but a response” to the crisis.

Leggeri’s comments are not an isolated case and a number of European politicians have put forward similar statements. But their main intent is to divert attention away from their own inactivity and escape responsibility for the growth in irregular crossings and deaths across the central Mediterranean route from Libya to Europe.

The current focus on search and rescue operations at sea carried out by NGOs signals a more general shift in the political and public mood in Europe. Despite superficial public displays of outrage and condemnation for Donald Trump’s anti-immigration and anti-refugee stances in the US, similar initiatives and a similar rhetoric have gradually become part of the political mainstream in several European member states.

The rush to secure the EU’s southern borders is now firmly at the top of politicians’ agenda. Humanitarian concerns and sympathy for Mediterranean migrants escaping war, persecutions and poverty by boat that peaked at the end of 2015 with the death of Kurdish child Alan Kurdi have since receded.

In a series of court cases, governments have made examples of volunteers and activists, spreading the message that the tide has turned against refugees and their advocates. These include the trials of French farmer Cédric Herrou and Spanish lifeguards in Lesvos.

The EU-Turkey deal: one year on

But the transition from “refugees welcome” to “refugees unwelcome” in Europe has not happened overnight. Three essential steps have had an impact.

First came the implementation of a deal between the EU and Turkey that effectively sealed the Aegean route that was used mostly by Syrians, Afghanis and Iraqis. Around 90% of arrivals in Greece in 2015 came from these countries.

Since the introduction of the deal in March 2016 – in which arrivals by sea were meant to be sent back to Turkey in return for others being allowed to travel to Europe from registered refugee camps – arrivals went from thousands a day to a few dozen. By keeping out Syrians and other citizens of “refugee-producing countries” from the EU, to use UNHCR jargon, the main focus of European human sympathy vanished, allowing more anti-immigration and securitarian views to prevail in debates about Mediterranean boat migration.

A year on, the EU-Turkey deal has produced mixed outcomes. While European politicians praised the deal as it succeeded in its main goal of stemming sea crossings, NGOs have pointed out the “massive mental health toll on refugees and migrants” stranded in Turkey.

Its future is uncertain – caught as it is in the diplomatic row between Turkey and the EU over Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s attempts to mobilise Turkish diasporas in support of a constitutional referendum that will hand him more powers.

Closing the Aegean route helped EU leaders to shift public attention from the causes that force people to flee their homes to the irregularity of their journeys. It also enabled some to portray boat arrivals from Libya as undeserving “economic migrants”, despite the fact many are escaping violence, persecution and human rights violations, as my research group’s work has shown.

Independent monitors

The second step has been that the humanitarian vocabulary, particularly the goal of reducing deaths at sea, has been co-opted by immigration and border officials. This meant, for example, that the closure of the Aegean route which had allowed Syrians to reach safety in the EU was justified as a measure put in place by the EU to save Syrians from drowning. In spite of the fact that the Aegean route from Turkey to Greece was actually quicker, more affordable and by far safer than the route most people are taking from Libya.

Third, the total or partial exclusion of humanitarian groups from the sea consolidates Frontex’s power to report what’s going on in the Mediterranean, and serves its appropriation of the humanitarian narrative. What’s needed are independent and well-respected voices and organisations, such as MSF, to highlight what is happening. This includes raising concerns about the ways Libyan coastguards are performing a role as the EU’s surrogate border enforcers, and the diminished commitment to search and rescue missions by the EU.

The ConversationThe criminalisation of volunteers, activists and NGOs serves to deter European civic society from getting involved, and to ultimately weaken and divide the last bastion against the EU’s tough line on refugees and migrants that now prevails. It is this tough line that is also producing the systematic closure of legal routes out of Syria, trapping Syrians in border camps and protracted legal and existential limbo, and making the crossings from Libya into Italy more dangerous and deadly.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.