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Migrants

Fears grow in Italy of post-Covid migrant emergency over summer

Hundreds of migrants are living aboard cruise vessels in the sea off Malta, many of them for weeks now. Rescued from human traffickers in unseaworthy boats, the migrants, along with the Maltese government, are waiting for European Union countries to offer to take them, 2 June 2020.
Hundreds of migrants are living aboard cruise vessels in the sea off Malta, many of them for weeks now. Rescued from human traffickers in unseaworthy boats, the migrants, along with the Maltese government, are waiting for European Union countries to offer to take them, 2 June 2020. © AP - Rene Rossignaud

Concerns have surfaced in Italy that thousands of migrants will again begin to arrive on Italian shores, with coronavirus lockdown measures eased and NGO vessels recently resuming their patrols in the Mediterranean.

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According to Italian newspaper reports quoting intelligence sources, more than 20,000 migrants are ready to depart from Libya.

NGO rescue boats had stopped operating in the Mediterranean during the Covid-19 lockdown and Italy closed all of its ports, declaring them unsafe and saying it could not guarantee the safety of migrants. This brought a stop to migrant arrivals in the last few months.

The coronavirus emergency has, for now, blown over in Italy, and the weather has improved as the summer approaches. This has led migrants to resume their crossings and there are fears the number of arrivals from North Africa will increase dramatically.

Recent arrivals have brought migrants to Italian beaches on rubber dinghies and fishing vessels. So far this year more than 6,000 have arrived, according to the Italian Interior Ministry, compared to under 2,000 in 2019.

Right moment for crossing

Intelligence sources say that during the months of lockdown militias and traffickers have been holding the migrants and waiting for the right moment to find them a way to make the crossing to Italy.

This week another tragedy occurred when a ship packed with migrants and bound for Italy sank off the Tunisian coast after leaving from Sfax. Dozens of people, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa drowned. Tunisia has launched an investigation.

Charity boats operated by the German NGO Sea Watch and the Italian NGO Mediterranean Saving Humans are already back at work patrolling the Mediterranean and ready to provide assistance if they find migrants in need at sea.

Migrant relocation mechanism

With increasing fears of new imminent arrivals – and a new immigration emergency – the Italian authorities are stepping up efforts to discuss bilateral efforts to find ways to stop or limit departures with countries like Libya and Tunisia.

Italy has already assured Libya that it will provide ships and other equipment promised to Tripoli to help it patrol its coastline.

Italy and four other European nations, Spain, Greece, Malta and Cyprus, wrote a letter to the European Commission this week calling for a new approach in the EU’s management of repatriations and more collaboration on the distributions of asylum seekers.

Italy’s Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese would like to see the introduction of a compulsory, automatic relocation mechanism involving the distribution of migrants rescued at sea between all EU member states – and at the same time a common expulsion policy for all those who are not eligible to stay in Europe.

But far-right leaders like Matteo Salvini of the League party and Giorgia Meloni of the Brothers of Italy party hold out little hope that the EU will listen to these requests.

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