Migration on agenda as Italy PM visits Ethiopia, Eritrea

FILE PHOTO: Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte arrives for the informal meeting of European Union leaders ahead of the EU summit, in Salzburg, Austria, September 19, 2018
FILE PHOTO: Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte arrives for the informal meeting of European Union leaders ahead of the EU summit, in Salzburg, Austria, September 19, 2018 REUTERS/Lisi Niesner/File Photo

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte kicked off a two-day visit to Ethiopia Thursday, where he was expected to throw his weight behind the July peace deal signed with Eritrea, his next port of call. Conte, who heads a coalition with the far-right League, is also expected to raise the question of migration.


"It's an important visit to increase the relationship between Ethiopia and Italy, and our country and all African countries in general," Nicola Latorre, a former Italian senator told RFI.

Particularly when it comes to managing migrant flows from Ethiopia to Italy.

The problem is "our stance on immigration has hardened with new interior minister Matteo Salvini," says Latorre.

"He no longer wants to share the migrant burden and the Five Star movement is divided. This contest is not positive."

The number of Ethiopian migrants to Italy may have fallen from 170,000 in 2014 to less than 120,000 last year, according to migration specialists, but the issue still dominates Italian politics.

The refugee crisis peaked this Summer in Rome, with thousands of Ethiopian migrants being evicted from squatting in the city's abandoned buildings.

Conte, who is currently riding on a wave of popular support, needs to be seen to be taking firm action on immigration by his far-right coalition.

Peace an illusion

"I am sure the Prime minister tries to deal with Ethiopian and Eritrean governments through bilateral agreements to send back migrants because now the excuse is the peace deal is signed," reckons Eritrean priest Mussie Zerai.

The Ethiopian and Eritrean leaders signed a “joint declaration of peace and friendship” on 9 July, normalizing ties between the longtime foes who waged war against each other between 1998 and 2000.

But for Zerai, who has lived in Italy for years and become a reference point for thousands of migrants in distress, peace remains volatile. "We've seen in Ethiopia, there are still ethnic clashes, even some kind of discrimination. In Eritrea, it doesn't change nothing, the policy is still the same."

Italy's relationship with its two former colonies have been either non-existent or tense for decades. Former President Sergio Mattarella visited Addis Ababa in 2016, with the focus there being on allowing Africans to stay in Italy to solve their problems. Now the new government wants to help Africans to stay at home by fostering development.

"They have a very strong development commitment towards Ethiopia, that the government [of Ahmed Abiy] finds very important," explains local reporter Samuel Getachew.

The visit will see Conte offer investment, knowhow, and business and cultural synergy.

Yet this strategy of keeping Africans in Africa has aroused some suspicion.

"Given the fact that Ethiopia has implemented a new system, which is if you're an African, you can come to Ethiopia with a visa, to keep Africans in Africa, many of us don't think it's an idea that stems from the perspective of an African President or Prime Minister. It's an idea that has been proposed for a very long time by European leaders," Getachew told RFI.

Propaganda the problem

Since the Libyan conflict of 2011, Italy has borne the brunt of the migrant crisis, receiving large numbers of migrants.

"The Northern migratory route, which splits up into the Western, Central and Eastern Mediterranean routes, is not as active as it was in the past," explains Maureen Achieng, Chief of Mission to Ethiopia and Representative to the African Union, "but the obvious exception of the Central Mediterranean route (i.e. through Libya) remains active," she told RFI.

For senator Latorre, the problem is propaganda, saying the Italian public are being primed for the upcoming EU elections.

"For Salvini, the problem is not to manage migration, it's to have influence in the European elections. The real problem is the propaganda."

Priest Zerai agrees. "Those who try to save the lives in the Mediterranean Sea, all the NGOS are targeted by these political movements, or even these political movements they try to use the justice against these NGOs, or activists", he says in reference to the arrest earlier this month of a pro-refugee mayor.

"But they don't find nothing. He [Salvini] only organises the propaganda to criminalize all these movements, all these NGOs for his own political advantage."

Father Zerai too has been accused of facilitating illegal immigration, accusations he denies.

What observers will be looking out for in Conte's trip, is the type of deals that he signs with Prime Minister Abiy and the amount in development aid too that Addis is likely to receive. The higher the figure, the bigger the suspicion will be that Italy is trying to buy Ethiopia's cooperation in exchange for keeping a tight lid on immigration from its shores.

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