- The debate over asylum seekers will continue during the next quarter, as summer in Europe leads to even larger numbers of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean.
- The European Union will introduce cosmetic measures on the issue, but comprehensive reform is unlikely.
- The constant arrival of migrants will strengthen nationalist parties across the Continent and, over time, increase pressure to limit the Schengen Treaty.
The Italian government is pushing its EU partners to reach a political solution to the immigration crisis in the Mediterranean. On June 16, the European Union's interior ministers discussed ways to address the immigration crisis but did not decide on any concrete measures. The meeting took place two days after Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said Rome was considering a "plan B" to address the situation, should the European Union fail to come up with a comprehensive plan to deal with the asylum seekers reaching Italian shores. Renzi did not elaborate on his plan, but he said that it would hurt Europe.
Although the immigration debate continues to heat up in Italy, the European Union is unlikely to introduce substantial changes to its asylum policies and will probably opt for cosmetic reforms instead. This will keep pressure on the Schengen Treaty, which eliminated border controls between most EU member states. The treaty is not likely to be canceled any time soon, but with no end in sight for the immigration crisis, calls to end the treaty will get louder.
Because of its position at the heart of the Mediterranean, Italy is a key entry point for asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East crossing the sea, mostly from Libya. Since 2013, Italy and other EU members have been holding rescue operations at sea, but because of the so-called Dublin regulations (according to which the country of first entry is responsible for the asylum application of migrants), most of the men, women and children rescued are supposed to remain in Italy. According to Renzi, more than 57,000 migrants have been rescued at sea and taken to Italy so far this year, up from 54,000 at the same time last year.
The Italian government is pressuring the rest of the European Union to introduce three broad measures. The first is the introduction of a fairer system to distribute migrants. Rome feels that the Dublin system makes Italy particularly vulnerable and wants the European Union to come up with a new mechanism to distribute asylum seekers throughout Europe.
In May, the European Commission presented plans to distribute asylum seekers currently in Italy and Greece among the rest of the bloc. The main idea was to introduce migrant quotas for each EU member based on the member country's size, population and economic conditions. However, several Central and Eastern European EU members rejected the idea. More important, large countries such as Germany and France said that the European Commission should take into consideration the efforts Berlin and Paris are already making to receive asylum seekers. Since then, the European Union has said it would study new alternatives to address the issue.
Italy also proposes the creation of refugee processing camps in Libya. This would mean that the application for asylum would begin in the North African country instead of in Italy. Since many migrants would prefer to go to wealthier countries such as France and Germany instead of Italy, Rome believes that starting the application process in Libya would reduce the number of applications for asylum in Italy, taking the financial and human burden elsewhere. But this idea is not viable — Libya has no central government and the efforts to cobble one together are not promising. More important, immigrants want to leave Africa, so setting up camps to process asylum requests would not prevent them from trying to cross the Mediterranean.
Finally, Italy wants the European Union to negotiate repatriation agreements with African countries. This is also problematic for several reasons. In many cases, it is difficult to establish the nationality of asylum seekers, so deciding where they should be repatriated can be complicated. Even if there were repatriation agreements with certain countries, enforcement would be problematic. In Italy, for example, only one in five expulsion orders are actually enforced because of bureaucracy and a lack of resources. Moreover, international law prohibits the expulsion of asylum seekers from countries considered to be dangerous. In other cases, local judges could stop the deportations.
Threatening the Schengen Treaty
As Renzi's government threatens the European Union, the situation of asylum seekers has become a hot political issue in Italy. Day after day, Italian television stations show images of rescue operations in the Mediterranean, as well as footage from asylum seekers living in poor conditions in train stations in cities such as Rome and Milan. Opposition parties, including the anti-immigration Northern League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, are faulting Renzi for failing to find a solution to the issue, while the governor of Italy's wealthy Lombardy region has said he would oppose plans to redistribute asylum seekers across the country.
The situation is also generating tension between Italy and its neighbors. On June 14-15, French police prevented asylum seekers from crossing the Italy-France border near the town of Ventimiglia. Italian police evacuated most of the asylum seekers from Ventimiglia on June 16, but Rome criticized Paris for its lack of cooperation on the issue. Austrian authorities continuously criticize Italy for its lack of enforcement of the Dublin system, and Austrian police frequently inspect trains looking for asylum seekers arriving from Italy.
The Schengen Agreement eliminated border controls between most EU member states, but the immigration crisis is threatening its survival. Italy's neighbors are accusing Rome of not doing enough to prevent asylum seekers from leaving the country. There is some truth to these accusations. For years, Italian authorities have turned a blind eye to some immigrants, deciding not to take their fingerprints so they could apply for asylum elsewhere in the Continent. Italy's neighbors criticized but generally tolerated this practice.
However, the current combination of an uptick in the number of asylum seekers and worsening economic conditions in Europe has made immigration a sensitive issue for the entire Continent and thus has made Italy's neighbors less tolerant of Rome's behavior. Italy is not the only country facing these issues, though. French and British authorities often clash over migrants trying to cross the English Channel through the French port of Calais.
On June 15, Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper reported that Renzi's "plan B" to deal with immigration would include issuing temporary residence permits for asylum seekers, which would make it legal for them to leave Italy. The newspaper also said that Rome would not allow EU vessels participating in rescue operations in the Mediterranean to take the refugees to Italy. The idea of issuing residence permits for migrants is not entirely new; Rome did something similar, though on a smaller scale, in 2011. France and Germany heavily criticized the move.
However, Rome is unlikely to take drastic action regarding migrants because it would bolster some EU members' argument that Italy should be suspended from the Schengen Treaty. Although the immigration crisis is creating political problems in Italy, Europe's porous borders offer some relief. Expulsion from Schengen would mean that Italy would still receive immigrants but would not be able to send them northward.
Little Room for Comprehensive Reform
Although the issue is certainly controversial, the European Union will continue delaying a comprehensive reform of its immigration system. Instead of mandatory quotas, Brussels will probably come up with some kind of gradual process, setting long-term targets for the number of migrants member states should host.
The European Union is also likely to continue throwing money at the problem, such as giving Italy more financial assistance for sheltering asylum seekers and promising more resources for rescue operations at sea. The Italian government, meanwhile, will continue to allow (and in some cases, encourage) asylum seekers to leave the country. Italy's neighbors will criticize Rome, but they will tolerate the situation because they are not interested in a comprehensive reform of asylum rules.
Moreover, Brussels will continue to struggle to find support for military action. In May, the European Commission proposed the launch of a European naval mission against human smugglers. Some parts of the plan should be relatively easy to implement, especially those involving the detection and monitoring of migration networks through information gathering and patrolling in international waters. Implementing other aspects of the proposal would be considerably more complicated because they involve capturing and destroying vessels used by smugglers in Libyan waters, which would require authorization from the United Nations. Libya and Russia have criticized the plan, which means its ratification at the U.N. Security Council probably will be difficult. Even if it were implemented, the plan is unlikely to prevent or diminish human trafficking across the Mediterranean.
The migration crisis in Europe has not reached a point where drastic measures are required, and most member states are willing to endure the status quo or introduce cosmetic measures to avoid reforms that could force them to accept a larger number of asylum seekers. Over time, however, this lack of real reform will hurt the Schengen Agreement. As Europe's economic and political crisis lingers, nationalist parties across Europe are campaigning on a platform that promises fewer immigrants and reduced welfare benefits for foreigners. With the migrant crisis unresolved, pressure to limit the free movement of people within Europe or to reintroduce border controls will only grow.