Mediterranean Migraine Italy's Growing Refugee Problem

The large number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Africa to Italy continues unabated, with more coming now than in previous years. Many want to continue their journey to Germany. With Italian authorities badly overstrained, could this become Berlin's next problem?

Rescued refugees off the coast of Libya

Rescued refugees off the coast of Libya

By Luigi Albonico, , Vladimir Otasevic, Charlotte Teunis and Katharina Wecker

On Nov. 28, helpers with the Irish navy, two aid organizations and the Italian relief forces rescued some 1,400 migrants from the open sea and brought them to Italy. It was a day like many others, but it also set a new record: More refugees reached Italy's shores last year than in the crisis year of 2014. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that a total of 171,000 migrants took the risky route in 2016.

Those may only be abstract numbers to some, but behind them lie the fates of thousands. More than 5,000 refugees died or went missing last year in the Mediterranean Sea. In 2015, almost 3,800 people drowned on their way to Europe. But the struggle is not over for migrants who make it to Italy alive. The country is increasingly overstretched -- not only by the high number of refugees, but also by economic and political problems. As such, the fate of African refugees might soon become a bigger issue for other European Union countries, including Germany.

So far, migrants from Africa have played a minor role in the debate over asylum-seekers in Germany. Syrians have made up the biggest group of refugees, whereas immigrants from African crisis countries have been in the minority.

In Italy, however, the situation is altogether different: Most of the migrants who land on the Mediterranean islands of Lampedusa and Sicily are from Africa. And although this may seem surprising, the increase in the number of refugees arriving by boat is not, for the most part, the result of the closure of the Balkan route or the controversial refugee deal struck between the EU and Turkey.

Numerous conflicts have fueled flight from Africa, but hunger and poverty also play a considerable role. Many make the crossing on the dangerous sea route in the hope of forging a better future and are willing to risk everything, even their own lives.

The numbers of the last two years suggest that migration from Africa will not decrease any time soon. The European Union and the German government are undertaking efforts to fight the causes of flight, but the payoff from these initiatives is more likely to be seen in the long-term than in the short-term.

Most of the refugees who reach Italy are fleeing the dictatorship in Eritrea and terrorism-plagued Nigeria. And with each month, significantly fewer Syrians are making their way to Europe via Africa.

The constant influx of refugees is taking its toll on the entire country. Italian authorities are overwhelmed; volunteers and aid workers are reaching their limits. Parts of the Mediterranean Sea not covered by operations conducted by Frontex, the EU border authority, are monitored by volunteers who search for refugee boats in distress. Many aid organizations are fearing an increase in the number of casualties in the coming months.

One of the main problems is that nearly all the volunteer rescue vessels must return to the shipyards in winter to be serviced, says Michael Buschheuer, director of the rescue initiative Sea Eye. This means that fewer boats are available for rescue missions.

In recent years, this posed less of a problem, given that fewer refugees attempted to cross the sea in the cold and stormy winter months. But the situation is different this year, says Axel Steier of the organization Mission Lifeline. In a development that has alarmed many, the number of migrant boats remains high. "If you drive out there now, you're doomed to die," says Steier.

'Not Another Year Like This'

Italy has been left largely on its own in dealing with the influx of African migrants. Despite a warning from former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, other EU countries have shown little willingness to cooperate. Shortly before his resignation, he said his country "would not get through another year like this."

Comparably few refugees cross the borders into neighboring France, Austria or Switzerland -- largely due to the strict measures taken by Italian authorities. In southern Italian registration centers, the police force refugees to have their fingerprints taken. In the north, border police patrol the frontiers.

A majority of migrants stranded in Italy would prefer to continue their journey northward -- at least that's what the numbers suggest. Tens of thousands of people arrived in southern Italy in 2016, but only around half applied for asylum. Even when considering that it usually takes months before an application can be filed, the numbers still show a clear trend: Many refugees do not want asylum in Italy.

What does this mean for Europe? If the political and economic problems in Italy continue to deteriorate, African refugees could soon become a more pressing matter at the European level. The populist parties in particular -- Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini's Lega Nord -- may have an interest in trying to get as many refugees as possible to leave Italy.

If the populists gain in clout, they could also revive Italy's former practice: Instead of registering new arrivals and letting them apply for asylum, the authorities might instead hand them expulsion orders. Migrants would then be required to leave the country within two weeks. So far, the Italian government has refrained from this practice -- in no small part because the EU offered it money in return, along with the promise of redistributing refugees among its member states.

A European solution is becoming more urgent, especially given that the heavy strain placed on the Italian authorities has long been obvious. Although relatively few refugees have illegally entered Switzerland so far, the numbers have risen recently. And media reports suggest that half the asylum-seekers who came to Switzerland via Italy in fact want to reach Germany.

There are no official statistics or reliable estimates, but the German government has nonetheless recognized that the influx of African asylum-seekers through Italy and Switzerland could soon rise. To prevent this from happening, the Interior Ministry has drafted a plan that, if approved, would see migrant boats sent back to North Africa directly after their rescue at sea.

Of course, it's questionable this would somehow solve the problem. In a federal election year, though, the German government doesn't appear to want to risk a new wave of refugees -- this time coming over the Brenner Pass.

The article was written as part of a European Youth Press data journalism workshop by that took place recently in Berlin .

Research and fact-checking: Almut Cieschinger, Mara Küpper, Claudia Niesen, Mirjam Schlossarek


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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nsmith 01/24/2017
1. Enough is Enough ...
There really comes a time when the answer has to be "NO" -- and Germany is fast approaching that time. After taking in nearly 1 million refugees and migrants from Syria and other countries in 2015, is Germany really ready for another invasion from another part of the world? This isn't about being inhuman and indifferent to human suffering. This is about keeping the balance. Isn't the fact that everyday citizens, once part of the "Willkommenskultur", who are now speaking out against this constant flow, enough of a sign that it's time to take steps to decrease this influx? You know if you don't, they'll keep on coming -- Is Germany willing to risk more right-wing populist neo-Nazi activity as a result of this? Because if the government does nothing about, these others certainly will.
magnaseal14 01/24/2017
2. refugees
Sir , The stupidity of Mrs Merkel opening flood gates like that is unbelievable. Europe , regardless of the glowing reports of the EU by your reporters , has very high unemployment among young people . One thing none of you seem to understand is that the old labour intensive industries have gone. Technology employs fewer and fewer people and this trend will become even worse with the advent of artificial intelligence leaving an ever growing number of people reliant of the service sector which is in itself highly dependent on the hard economy. In the meantime birth rates among the people least educated and able to afford them escalates. Europe cannot absorb the third World . Social unrest is just beginning due to this problem . Many of these immigrants do not and are incapable of integration. They want to keep their own ;cultures ' in a new place . The Schengen idea was a disaster as long as the EU had no way to protect its external borders. Finally , the abject servitude of EU leaders to the US . Their inability to stand up for their own citizens . Their acceptance of the terrible wars started in Iraq and Lybia with absolutely no understanding of the political/cultural differences in those countries is mostly to blame for the catastrophic situation we have today . I believe it was Cicero who said " politicians are excreted , not made" . Nothing changed. Until there is a mechanism to hold politicians accountable for their actions - Bush / Blair etc:- the World will remain a very unstable place.
jacques 01/26/2017
3. Misleading article
This is a misleading article about the situation in Italy. I live in Liguria not far from the French border, and I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that the reason migrants are not entering France has nothing to do with efforts by the Italian government. Every train that leaves the Ventimiglia station is checked at the first stop in France by French police who remove migrants without proper papers and immediately return them to Italy. Likewise the roads are patrolled by French police looking for migrants. The Italian police make little effort to stop the migrants. The Swiss and Austrians also prevent migrants without documentation from entering their countries. Again, as with the situation with the French and the Italians, the Italian government effort to stop outbound migration to Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia is feeble. For many years the Italians played the Grand Humanitarian game of pretending to offer great care to migrants entering illegally through Sicily, as long as they left Italy fairly quickly. Now that this game is over, the Italians are in a panic. They know that can't continue to receive this number of migrants, and they know that neighboring countries won't let the enter, so the migrants are bottled up in Italy. Having large numbers of unemployed Africans hanging around in the streets is not politically viable for the mainstream parties. The only viable solution is to begin deportations, something the action-averse Italians hate to do. 2017 promises to be an interesting year.
petertx 01/26/2017
4. As usual, you avoid the root cause
You claim the influx is because people are fleeing "poverty" and "dictatorship". This explains nothing. There has always been poverty and dictatorship in Africa, so why should the influx have increased? The countries they are leaving have had unsustainably huge increases in population. The unsupportable excess is heading for Europe and they are doing so not because of poverty but because of wealth. They are sufficiently wealthy to pay the people smugglers.
bowlweevils 01/28/2017
5. turning back the boats and paying off the Turks (and Italy)
to prevent poor refugees from violent lands entering Germany is just fine, but building a wall to prevent poor refugees from violent lands entering the US is a problem? i don't support Trump. i live in Boston, Massachusetts and think that the EU should consider replacing the old England that is departing with the New England i live in. Please. but where's the difference? is it the boats? many people seeking entry to the US are from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, and many of them take boats (with far less risk of death) from those nations to Veracruz, Mexico. and these people have no desire to remain in Mexico. if we sent the US Navy into the Gulf of Mexico to stop boats full of refugees heading to Mexico from the seaports of Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize would that be ok within the judgment of the morality monitors of Europe? is it the pay-off to a corrupt government complicit in permitting the flow of refugees through their nation to get to their preferred destination? both nations tend to turn a blind eye to migrant-smuggling by criminal organizations. they also do so for far worse activities, like enabling mass murderers to profit from sales of illegal goods, whether cocaine, heroin, or oil from forbidden territories. Los Zetas and MS-13 have de facto control over large areas of Central America like ISIS does of Syria and Iraq. Like ISIS, los Zetas and MS-13 don't limit their activities to the Americas, but have links to criminal networks in Africa and Europe (you Europeans seem to love cocaine more than us Americans). so if the US paid Mexico like the EU is paying Turkey to us its military to actively prevent illegal transportation of humans by criminal organizations, but not so much the other stuff, that would be ok? again, not a Trump supporter, but instead a member of the detested coastal educated professional elite who lives in a city that is both dominated by them and produces them for export around the world. but i'm having trouble figuring out what activities that keep comfortable wealthy white people from being made uncomfortable by the presence of poor non-white people are morally sound and which aren't.
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