As the summer brings better weather conditions in the Mediterranean, the number of migrants trying to reach Europe by sea is once again rising. Last year, an agreement between the European Union and Turkey contributed to a significant reduction in arrivals through Greece. This year, Italy is once again becoming the main entry point for migrants, many of whom are from sub-Saharan African countries and use Libya as a transit state in their attempts to reach Italy. According to the United Nations, almost 100,000 migrants reached Europe by sea during the first six months of 2017, and most of them (around 85,000) arrived there through Italy.
Reacting to the situation, the Italian government threatened to close its ports to foreign ships carrying migrants. The threat primarily targets international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which operate ships in the Mediterranean and ferry migrants to Italy. (NGOs transport around a quarter of migrants arriving on Italian shores.) Rome accused the NGOs of coordinating with human trafficking organizations by collecting the migrants at sea and then transporting them to Italy. While Italy is unlikely to follow through with its threat, it hopes to attract the European Union's attention to the situation in the central Mediterranean. Rome has long demanded greater solidarity from its EU partners to deal with the arrival of migrants.
On July 4, the EU Commission promised to give Rome 35 million euros ($40 million) and to transfer additional staff to the country to help Italian authorities deal with the migrants. The Commission also said it would transfer 46 million euros to Libya, set up a Maritime Rescue and Coordination Center in the country and work with Libyan authorities to strengthen controls at its southern border. The Commission also promised to step up work to sign readmission agreements with the countries of origin. (Unlike the Greek case, where most migrants were asylum seekers from war-torn countries such as Syria, in the Italian case, many of the migrants are economic migrants who do not qualify for asylum.) The problem with these proposals is that the European Union cannot replicate with Libya the agreement it has with Turkey. In recent months, the European Union increased funding and cooperation with Libya, but the country is still governed by rival governments and lacks an efficient central administration. Moreover, the bloc has very limited resources when it comes to fighting the human trafficking organizations that operate in Africa.
On top of its Africa problems, the European Union is also struggling to come up with a coherent response to the arrival of migrants. A plan by the EU Commission to distribute migrants across the Continent is largely ignored by most member states, while attempts to reform the bloc's migration policies have so far failed. The Dublin system, according to which migrants have to apply for asylum in the country where they first enter the European Union, puts most of the weight on the shoulders of the bloc's southern and eastern members. Though attempts to abolish this system have been abandoned, there is currently a debate focused on ways to reform it. In the meantime, countries have chosen to toughen their migration laws and to introduce border controls within the passport-free Schengen area to deter migrants.
In the past, Italian authorities have reacted to migration pressure by letting some of the migrants leave the country without registering. This generated problems with Italy's neighbors including Austria, Switzerland and France. The Austrian government has been particularly vocal of its criticism of Rome. Last year, Vienna threatened to close the Brenner Pass, one of the main mountain passes connecting the two countries. Then on July 4, the Austrian government said it was ready to deploy troops to control the border with Italy. Austria will hold a general election in October, in which the far-right is expected to perform strongly and the moderate parties will increase their anti-immigration rhetoric and amplify their criticism of Italy to compete.
The interior ministers of the EU members will discuss these issues July 6. Though the European Union is likely to approve measures involving the granting of money to Italy and Libya, the rest of the proposals will probably prove harder to enforce. A full-scale redesign of the European Union's migration policies, in the meantime, is likely to remain elusive, considering the member states' conflicting positions on the issue.