• World
  • Italy

Italy Is Pleading With Europe to Help Deal with a Record Influx of Refugees

6 minute read

Val Camonica is a sleepy valley in northern Italy home to medieval villages, Roman sites and, now, a hundred refugees from Africa.

The new arrivals are being hosted in old cottages scattered in 30 villages, as part of a national program aimed at integrating refugees. They’ve been given new homes and jobs by local authorities; they are learning Italian, running hotels and restaurants and bringing tourists on guided tours of the region. Too bad Val Camonica is an exception. Between 2014 and 2016 the program involved only one eighth of Italian towns, accommodating barely 25,000 of the 156,000 refugees currently in camps across Italy.

But programs like this will be needed more than ever as Italy’s migrant crisis has worsened this year. Since the beginning of June, 15,000 migrants reached Italian shores. Roughly 85,000 have landed so far this year, according to the U.N, a 19% increase from this point last year, and versus only 9,395 total arrivals in Greece. Italian officials fear the final toll of incoming migrants will be higher than last year’s total of 181,436.

After the closure of the Balkan route last summer thanks to an agreement between the E.U. and Turkey, the bulk of migrant flows, mainly from Sub-Saharan Africa, has shifted to Italy — and the country is struggling to cope. Amid non-stop arrivals and overflowing migrant camps, Italy is pleading with its European neighbors to help.

The Italian government has requested that more economic migrants be repatriated, more refugees be relocated across Europe, and more financial resources and stronger border agreements between Libya and Niger to limit outflows. Most pressingly it has also asked for a revision of a relief scheme led by Frontex, the E.U’s Border and Coast Guard Agency, which makes Italy the headquarters of all sea operations, and consequently a magnet for all rescued refugee boats.

Italy wants other European southern countries (mainly Spain, France, Malta and Greece) to be forced to open their ports to incoming migrants saved at sea by their boats and NGOs, instead of picking them up and dropping them off in Italian harbors as is currently happening. “The Mediterranean crisis must be regionalised, meaning Europe can’t go on using just Italian ports. NGOs relief operations, and relevant costs, should be a burden on the shoulders of the nations involved in the rescues,” Undersecretary of State for E.U. Affairs Sandro Gozi told TIME.

A recent deal with Germany and France to support patrols by the Libyan coastguard, boost refugee relocation across Europe and regulate international NGOs who operate rescue ships in the Mediterranean initially lifted Italy’s hopes that peer countries were waking from their slumber.

But Italy’s expectations were not met at the E.U. Interior Ministries summit in Tallinn last week focused on immigration. All Rome got was the official green light to define a new code of conduct and rules for NGOs to be forwarded to the European Commission for approval.

The NGOs are the subject of huge scrutiny in Italy. Several probes are underway in the country over possible links between NGOs and human smugglers — though NGOs including Save The Children and Medicins Sans Frontiers have denied allegations of collusion with smugglers, stressing that their rescue operations respected sea codes of conduct and were being carried-out in cooperation with the Italian coast guard.

Frontex told TIME it will meet on Tuesday to discuss Rome’s request to revise the relief scheme, but Germany and France have so far declined to help Italy by opening their ports to migrants. Austria, meanwhile, has threatened to deploy its army at the border with Italy. The G20 summit in Hamburg over the weekend produced no results for Italy: World leaders stressed that each nation has the right to protect its own sovereignty and borders

In past weeks Rome warned it could shut its ports to non-Italian NGOs. It’s the only weapon it has if other members turn a deaf ear to its repeated calls for help. But it’s not easy, nor doable at the moment under Frontex rules. But if Rome were to find a way to close access it would lead to chaos, forcing other southern nations to open their ports to incoming refugees.

The European Commission has unveiled plans to relocate of thousands of refugees to Greece to ease pressure on Italy and to set-up a coordination centre in Libya, but unless other member states open up their ports or agree to higher migrant quotas then little can be done.

The Italians want Brussels to be tougher on member states who are taking a smaller share of the burden. “We insist that the European Commission moves along the path of sanctioning and cutting E.U. funds to all member states that fail to cooperate in the quota relocation scheme or take in just a tiny, ridiculous stake of refugees”, said Gozi.

The crisis has also impacted politics internally, as parties of every stripe react to the increase in migrants. In particular, populists and far-right groups are capitalizing on the increase to push an anti-immigration platform. “We’re witnessing what we have always predicted: a biblical invasion of African migrants, of whom just 5% are real asylum-seekers fleeing from wars while the rest are economic migrants who must be pushed back”, Nicola Molteni, a party deputy from the far-right Northern League, told TIME. His figure is inaccurate, but not by much — according to Italy government data, economic migrants make up 85% of the intake this year.

But more mainstream politicians are also taking a hard line on migration. In a Facebook post, Matteo Renzi, former premier and Democrat runner at next year’s elections, called for a “closed, set number of migrants” and to boost partnerships with asylum-seekers’ origin countries. Italian officials are holding summits with Tunisian and Libyan authorities and businessmen in a bid to strengthen political-economic ties.

Authorities in Italy are calling in vain for more cooperation from mayors and local bodies to host migrants by taking part in the refugee integration scheme. As Italy considers itself dealing with the influx of migrants from across the Mediterranean single-handedly, it’s hard to see more projects like Val Camonica getting off the ground.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com