Europe's pushback against migrants enters new phase — with Libya's help

For more than two years, Italy has been at the forefront of a crisis that has seen hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers arriving on Europe’s shores. But with public mood souring and a possible election looming, the Italian government has moved to take away the welcome mat.

'We still see a need for us to be out there,' aid worker says as more migrants rescued at sea

Ventimiglia, an Italian town close to the border with France, has seen many migrants pass through as they try to move deeper into Europe. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Beneath an imposing highway that links Italy with France, a transient slum stands like a border between hope and despair.

The rocky terrain along the Roya River in the Italian village of Ventimiglia has long acted as a transit stop for asylum seekers trying to cross the border into France.

The turnover of people staying there is usually quick.

But recently, as Italy and Europe have taken new steps to stop the flow of migrants, the crowd has thinned out, and the turnover has slowed. For those stuck there night after night, just a stroll away from their final goal of crossing into France or beyond, the anguish is so unbearable some attempt suicide.

The number of people sheltering beneath the highway has dropped by half compared to the same time last year, says Alessandro Verona, of the Italian NGO INTERSOS. The drop is comparable to what's happening to migrant arrival numbers in Italy overall.

It is a development that has many Italians — and French — cheering. But not Verona.

"I feel deeply, totally and frankly ashamed of the government that is now in charge," he says.

Shifting public opinion

For more than two years, Italy has been at the forefront of a crisis that has seen hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa arriving on Europe's shores.

With the sea route from Turkey to Greece largely shut down last year through a deal with the Turkish government, and with many European countries shutting down their own borders to migrants, Italy was the last open door to Europe.

By Aug. 2, more than 95,000 had landed on Italy's shores since the start of the year, coming from countries such as Eritrea, Sudan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Mali and Syria.

But with just months left before an expected election call and the public mood souring, the Italian government has now moved to take away the welcome mat.

Migrants disembark a boat after they were rescued by the Libyan Coast Guard, at a naval post in the coastal town of Tajoura, east of Tripoli, Libya, May 23, 2017. (Ismail Zitouny/Reuters)

One seemingly effective tactic so far — which deeply troubles Verona and other aid organizations — is the decision to turn to chaotic Libya for help.

With European cash and training, the Libyan Coast Guard — the one operating under the auspices of the UN sanctioned government, anyway — has taken on a bigger role in patrolling and conducting rescues off Libya's coast.

That means thousands of people who had hoped to escape the brutal detention centres in Libya would be rescued only to find themselves returning there, likely trapped again in detention centres where torture, enslavement and rape are commonplace.

Still, daunted by the non-stop arrivals, "the Italian public opinion seems to appreciate the deal," says Fulvio Vassallo, an immigration lawyer and University of Palermo asylum law professor.

"And whomever tries to criticize the deal is seen as a rebel, as a troublemaker, is seen as a dissident, or worst as a friend of the human smugglers."

Italian police used a water cannon in August as they clashed with migrants who had occupied a small square in central Rome. Many in Italy have embraced the government's recent changes around migrants, but others cite major concerns with the policies and how they are being implemented. (Yara Nardi/Reuters)

But the deal is only one part of Italy's strategy for a pushback against the inflow of migrants.

The plan also included cracking down on private rescue ships and NGOs that have been working (in co-operation with the coast guard in Italy) to save lives at sea and then bring those people to shore to claim asylum.

Allegations that the NGOs were in cahoots with the smugglers, followed by demands for the groups to sign a new code of conduct, forced some organizations to give up the Mediterranean entirely — again lowering the number of arrivals.

There is no longer a guarantee that the people NGOs save will be taken to a safe place, says Regina Catrambone, co-founder of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), a Malta-based organization.

Refugees and migrants are seen onboard the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) Phoenix vessel enroute to Italy on June 11, 2017 off Catania, Italy. The organization has deep concerns about new moves by Italian officials to stem the flow of migrants. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

"We don't want to be part of a pushback action," she says. "How can we bring back people to a country that doesn't have stability?"

But while the number of arrivals has dropped dramatically in recent weeks, it isn't clear if Italy's strategy will decrease the influx of migrants in the long-term.

Monday, 410 rescued migrants were brought to shore in the Sicilian port of Palermo by the Calabria, a Spanish navy vessel. Just this past weekend, a flurry of arrivals in Trapani and Catania served as a reminder that the problem is far from solved.

It was also a reminder that Libya isn't a reliable partner.

"Libya is not controlled by one single government. There are different groups or factions controlling different areas," says Carlo Parini, chief of an anti-smuggling task force operating in Siracusa.

The migrants who recently arrived "are telling us they are no longer leaving from Tripoli. They are leaving from other areas.

"The demand of people who want to leave Africa is getting bigger and bigger, and the suppliers are almost forced to find a way out if they want to still make money from the smuggling."

Migrants disembark from the MV Aquarius rescue ship, after being rescued by SOS Mediterranee organization, in the Sicilian harbour of Trapani. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

And they have. So-called ghost boats arrive at the beaches of Sicily, even in the daytime, dropping off mostly Tunisian passengers who then sprint inland and try to meld with the population. Similar spontaneous arrivals have also now appeared on the Spanish coast.

Risks remain, rescues continue

Meanwhile, more European countries are sending back asylum seekers to Italy under EU regulations that insist migrants seek asylum in the first country in which they land. For around 85 per cent of arrivals in the past two years, that country is Italy.

And this past weekend alone, well over 1,000 new asylum seekers stepped foot on Italy's coast.

Hundreds of them came off the Aquarius — operated by SOS Méditerranée but assisted by Mé​decins Sans Frontières, which has refused to sign the new code of conduct.

Among other things, the Italian code insists that rescue boats stay out of Libya's territorial waters and allow police to board if requested to do so.

Just today we brought back 371 people which is without any doubt 371 lives saved.- Marcella Kraay, project co-ordinator for MSF

In a joint report, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said the code of conduct restrictions would "risk endangering thousands of lives by limiting rescue boats from accessing the perilous waters near Libya."

Marcella Kraay, project co-ordinator for MSF who has been working on-board the Aquarius for six months, says they will keep working despite all the changes.

"Just today, we brought back 371 people which is without any doubt 371 lives saved," she said in Trapani on Saturday as asylum seekers from Nigeria, Syria, Morocco and many other countries registered with Red Cross authorities at the port.

"We still see a need for us to be out there."

She said Italy has done a lot by accepting so many asylum seekers and has been let down by the EU.

"If we were to divide the people more fairly across the European Union, there would not be an issue whatsoever."

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