Italy Could Be in Midst of Strongest Migrant Influx Since 2016

Italy is on track to receive the biggest influx of migrants since 2016 this year amid a surge of arrivals that will likely keep dominating the agenda of Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing government.

(Bloomberg) — Italy is on track to receive the biggest influx of migrants since 2016 this year amid a surge of arrivals that will likely keep dominating the agenda of Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing government.

With unseasonably mild weather in the Mediterranean driving thousands to attempt to reach the country by boat, arrivals in 2023 by sea through Sept. 30 amounted to 133,220, according to UNHCR data released on Monday. 

That’s in line with the nine-month totals in 2015 and 2016 — when the annual tally then exceeded 150,000 and 180,000 people, respectively — and about 5,000 fewer than in 2014, which saw a yearly number of 170,100 sea arrivals.  

Italy’s geography means that its tiny island of Lampedusa — situated between Tunisia and Sicily — has for years been a catchall for boats trying to cross the Mediterranean in hopes of starting a new life in Europe. 

Meloni’s government has signaled increasing alarm at the accumulation of people arriving so far in 2023, and wants the European Union to take a bigger role in sharing the burden. That’s a topic that will feature heavily in a summit of leaders later this week. 

“We are facing unprecedented migration pressure linked to instability of large areas of Africa and Middle East,” Meloni said in a Facebook post on Monday. “The Italian government is working daily to push back against illegal migration. We are doing it at any level, also coordinating with other EU member states and working with African countries to halt the departures and fight human traffickers.” 

While the current trend of arrivals is markedly increasing, it was cumulatively higher and persisting in the years through 2016. More than half a million people landed in the three years through 2016. The total for 2021-2023 currently looks likely to be lower, at around 350,000.

Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini’s League and the other coalition parties have long tapped voter angst at periodic surges of migration to build support, and he has recently criticized Meloni’s response to the crisis. 

Meloni’s cabinet recently approved new measures to crack down on illegal migrants, extending the time they can be detained to the EU maximum of 18 months and planning on setting up new detention centers in scarcely populated areas. 

Demographic Challenge

Italy still needs more people to replenish an aging and declining workforce. With birth rates among the lowest in the world, immigration is the only quick fix that will in turn help pay for a burgeoning welfare bill for the elderly.

The latest influx, mainly from Tunisia, is causing strain with the EU, which signed a deal with the Tunisian government in June to offer aid in exchange for help stopping departures. Another source of tension has been a German-funded program supporting ships that rescue migrants.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently traveled to Lampedusa to pledge support for Meloni and lay out a 10-point plan of action. That included help to manage the flow and transfer of migrants, as well as countering smugglers by bolstering air and sea surveillance.

Under provisions adopted by a majority of EU nations in June, each member state can choose whether to host migrants or provide a financial or non-financial contribution instead. The issue will be discussed at an informal EU summit at the end of this week in Granada, Spain, and possibly later this month when leaders meet in Brussels. 

Poland and Hungary have been particularly critical of the EU plan to relocate migrants, with Warsaw arguing that it has already hosted large numbers of war refugees from Ukraine. 

–With assistance from Chiara Albanese.

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