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Italy now represents the front lines of Europe’s refugee crisis

The ongoing migrant and refugee crisis in the Mediterranean set two records this year: More than 174,000 people made the dangerous journey by boat to Italy, and 4,700 more died along the way.

Both records stand in stark contrast to overall migrant and refugee arrivals into Europe overall, which have dropped off dramatically year over year. But as of early December, the number of migrants landing on Italian shores was 13 percent higher than the previous year, with the overwhelming majority landing on Sicily and the smaller island of Lampedusa. More startling is that there have been about 1,000 more migrant and refugee deaths on the Mediterranean this year than there were in 2015, the year the previous record was set.


Greece, in comparison, saw a significant drop-off in migrants landing on its shores from Turkey, following a deal between the E.U. and Turkey that stemmed the flow across the Aegean.

The flow of migrants and refugees may have slowed in 2016, but it’s far from over, and Italy, by way of the Mediterranean, has become the central entry point into Europe. The majority of people arriving there come via Libya, but are originally from sub-Saharan African countries. According to the latest UNHCR estimates this year, 36,000 came from Nigeria, 20,000 from Eritrea, and 12,000 from Sudan.

Many factors are at play in the surge of migration from the shores of North Africa to Italy. Political repression in West African countries like Gambia, insurgent violence and famine in countries like Nigeria, and civil war in Sudan, all fuel emigration out of home countries.

But the biggest factor driving people to Italy is the situation in Libya, said Ewa Moncure, a spokesperson for Frontex, the European coast guard and border agency.

“Libya is a fallen state,” Moncure said. “There’s no effective law enforcement in the country and different groups control different parts of the coast and act as they wish. People smugglers are working in this environment.”

People smuggling is “a multibillion-dollar business,” Moncure said, and there are an estimated 1 million people waiting in Libya to get to Europe.

Smugglers have taken advantage of the disarray. “Europol estimated that we are talking about $4 billion to $6 billion made by people smugglers in recent years,” Moncure said.


She believes the prevalence of rubber dinghies, which have replaced the metal and wooden boats used previously, is a major factor in the rising death rate. The dinghies are prone to capsizing in rough seas, and the people smugglers do not give out life jackets. Further endangering their clients, smugglers cram as many people as they can onto boats to increase their profits.

Although Frontex has increasingly found itself carrying out a humanitarian mission, the agency is also tasked with taking steps to secure the European border. This week, Frontex began training Libyan coast guard members, hoping they can better police their own border.

Currently, more than 175,000 migrants are registered in Italy’s asylum system and are living in the country’s 3,000 emergency accommodation centers. No one knows how many are living undocumented outside the system. Those who have their asylum applications rejected are issued with a notice from the Italian police instructing them to leave the country via Rome’s international airport within seven days. Most, of course, disregard the notice and either stay in Italy or try to get to another European country to start a new asylum application.

“The pressure [on Italy] is building,” said Carlotta Sami, the UNHCR spokesperson for Southern Europe. “The northern borders are closed, relocation to other European countries is happening at a snail’s pace, and there are more people arriving all the time.”


Italy’s northern borders with Switzerland, France, and Austria are now closed to migrants without asylum papers, but many still attempt to make their way illegally into northern Europe. Two migrants were found crushed under a freight train traveling between Italy and Austria on Sunday. Three others were hit by a truck and killed a day later on a motorway between Italy and Austria, Sami said.

Smuggling networks have emerged in Italy’s larger northern cities, like Milan, as well.

For those who remain in Italy awaiting an asylum decision, conditions in the country’s 3,000 “emergency accommodation centers” are often extremely poor. The centers are mostly run by small businesses or private individuals, which receive about 35 euros a day per migrant, with much of the funding coming from the EU. The issue, said Sami, is that there’s no centralized government monitoring how the centers are run or how they spend the public’s money. The money is supposed to be spent on food and services for the migrants, but often, Sami said, it’s not.

“In our center, they don’t turn the heaters on, and it becomes very cold at night,” said Mohammed Ceesay, a 17-year-old Gambian who arrived in Sicily in April. He lives in a center for minors in Palermo, Sicily, that houses about 160 others ranging in age from 10 to 17. “We get hot water for only a couple of hours a day. The food isn’t good and many of us don’t eat because we are Muslim and we found pork in it.”

In November, underage migrants at a center in the countryside staged a protest demanding that they be provided with shoes, as many were still wearing the flip-flops they’d had during the journey from Libya.

“We came here to build a future but can’t do anything while we wait,” Ceesay said. “If I get the documents, I will leave Italy for Finland or Holland. I would leave right now if I had documents.”

On Thursday, EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said it had relocated only 5 percent of its goal of 160,000 people from Greece and Italy to other European countries.