“Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni says the migration pressure on Italy is “unprecedented.” Several of Meloni’s ministers recently suggested, citing unspecified intelligence, that the Russian-backed Wagner Group mercenaries based in Libya were intentionally driving migrants to cross by sea, in an attempt to destabilize Europe. “Hybrid warfare,” Italian Defense Minister Guido Crosetto said.”

Source: Washington Post

Migration to Italy is soaring. And it’s still the off-season.

By Chico Harlan and Stefano Pitrelli

March 28, 2023 at 7:30 a.m. EDT

ROME — In the volume of migrant boats crossing the Mediterranean, Italy sees a daunting trend taking shape.

People are reaching the country by sea at a pace unmatched by any other winter and early spring on record. Six times in March alone, more than 1,000 people have landed ashore in a single day — a total that used to account for a month’s worth of arrivals. At the same time, Italy has launched complex rescue missions, responded to deadly shipwrecks and seen its reception centers for asylum seekers fill to the brink.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni says the migration pressure on Italy is “unprecedented.”

And this is supposed to be the slow season.

If this year fits the pattern of others — with crossings rising during the warmer months — Italian officials worry about a situation that will spiral out of control, rivaling or even eclipsing the migration apex of 2015 and 2016, when an exodus from warring Syria and Afghanistan spurred political upheaval in Europe and a populist backlash against Middle Eastern and African asylum seekers.

Fortress Europe can’t stop immigration numbers from rising

“We’re worried about an explosion” of crossings in the summer, said one senior government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe what he said was a sensitive situation.

The situation isn’t an exact match for seven or eight years ago. That was a period of relative free-for-all migration, with huge flows into Italy and especially Greece. Since then, Europe has invested billions in clamping down, building fences, beefing up coast guards and offering financial incentives to transit countries to tighten the doors. Those efforts have resulted in a continent that is harder, but not impossible, to reach. Migrants are still finding paths.

And right now, those paths lead predominantly to Italy, a country that hasn’t gone as far as other front-line nations, Greece and Spain, in using brute force to deter arrivals.

So far this year, Italy has seen 26,800 people arriving by boat, four times the pace of 2022, and 1.5 times the record mark of 2016, when 181,000 people reached the country’s shores. So far this year, about 80 percent of people crossing the Mediterranean have headed toward Italy, with Greece and Spain seeing far lower shares.

Critics of Europe’s migration strategy say it’s wrong to frame the uptick as an emergency, noting that last year, the continent accommodated some 5 million Ukrainians — a figure that dwarfs any flows from Africa and the Middle East. Some but not all people crossing the Mediterranean are fleeing conflict or persecution. Last year, Italy saw arrivals chiefly from Egypt, Tunisia and Bangladesh, countries whose citizens do not generally qualify for international protection.

Italy makes for an unlikely preferred migrant destination, given that, for several years, it had been a crucible of Western European anti-migration sentiment. In 2018, the far right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, authored a close-the-ports crackdown that spurred legal challenges but bolstered his personal, get-tough brand. Meloni was in the opposition at the time, speaking regularly about dangers of “invasion.”

But even with Meloni in power, the public sentiment has softened. The shift was crystallized after a deadly shipwreck last month along Italy’s Calabrian coast. Bodies, including of children, washed ashore. Many were Afghans escaping after the Taliban takeover, and their personal stories made headlines in Italy for weeks. Italy’s much-respected president, Sergio Mattarella, stood vigil in a sports hall lined with coffins, saying the disaster had “moved” the country.

Meloni seems to have registered the change. She has so far avoided explicitly anti-migrant talking points and instead tried to bargain with Europe for more support. An overwhelmed Italy, she has argued pointedly, will have a harder time stopping migrants from leaving Italy and heading north to other parts of Europe.

“We can’t accept the idea that Italy should be fated to become Europe’s refugee camp,” Meloni said, noting that Italian authorities since October have saved more than 36,000 people at sea.

“We have been left alone to do this work,” she said.

Dozens dead after migrant boat breaks apart near Italian coast

Several of Meloni’s ministers recently suggested, citing unspecified intelligence, that the Russian-backed Wagner Group mercenaries based in Libya were intentionally driving migrants to cross by sea, in an attempt to destabilize Europe. “Hybrid warfare,” Italian Defense Minister Guido Crosetto said.

Italy’s foreign minister said in one interview that the Wagner Group, which is controlled by Vladimir Putin’s ally Yevgeniy Prigozhin, was in “contact with trafficking gangs and militia interested in migrant smuggling.”

Italy’s Defense Ministry declined to share evidence showing the Wagner Group’s involvement. Prigozhin said that Wagner has “no idea what’s going on with the migrant crisis,” and that Italy’s defense minister should face his own problems instead of “looking around.”

Migration and security experts, while not privy to Italy’s intelligence, say that Wagner is surely not the primary cause of the surge. Though mercenaries do operate in Libya — a major jumping-off point for migrants — their troops are primarily headquartered at bases far from the shore.

“Wagner has indeed become this new boogeyman,” said Wolfram Lacher, a researcher on Libya at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

France accepts migrant rescue ship rejected by Italy as tensions flare

There’s another reason to discount the Wagner explanation: The spike of crossings is being fed, primarily, by a country where Wagner does not operate. While most boats used to depart from Libya, the slight majority now take off from neighboring Tunisia, a result of the country’s deteriorating political situation.

Watchdogs say Tunisia, once the lone democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring, has taken an authoritarian turn, coinciding with an economic shock, food shortages and inflation. The president, Kais Saied, has vilified migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, saying they plan to erase Tunisia’s identity. Migrant workers — especially those from Guinea and Ivory Coast — have started to flee. Same with ordinary Tunisians.

To stem the tide, Rome has advocated for a much-discussed International Monetary Fund loan that would help prop up Tunisia’s economy. In a recent call with Saied, Meloni “indicated Italy’s willingness to continue supporting Tunisia financially, also together with the European Union,” according to a readout of the call.

Migration experts say most of Europe’s strategies to stem migration over the past decade either haven’t worked or have short-term results. They say even measures that looked tough and effective at the time — like Salvini’s close-the-port campaign — probably had the luck of coinciding with more meaningful factors. At the time, Libya was at war, and even traffickers were enlisted in the fight, meaning few boats were taking off.

In its narrow maritime corridor with Turkey, Greece has succeeded so far in reducing migration using a tactic, decried by rights groups, in which authorities intercept migrant vessels and return them to international waters. Even if Italy wanted to employ such a tactic, it would be pushing boats back into the open seas, with a high chance for tragedy.

Meloni’s government, since coming to power, has worked to impede the rescue vessels operated by humanitarian groups, imposing obstacles that raise their operating costs — such as assigning them Italian ports that are far from where the rescues occur. But such vessels account for only about 15 percent of migration arrivals, limiting the effectiveness of such measures to stem the tide.

Meloni has also said that Italy will work to create pathways for people to come to the country legally. But that is a longer-term measure, given the diplomacy and logistics involved. Italy has also instated harsher penalties for traffickers.

“As long as you don’t tackle the reasons a person is willing to climb into a boat, not knowing if they’ll make it alive, deterrence measures will not work,” said Hanne Beirens, director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe. “Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions to this.”