Hundreds of thousands migrants ready to cross the Mediterranean. Only a local matter?

Herman van Rompuy, Jean Asselborn, Luxembourgish Minister for Foreign and European Affairs; Minister for Immigration and Asylum, and José Manuel Barroso (from right to left)

Herman van Rompuy, Jean Asselborn, Luxembourgish Minister for Foreign and European Affairs; Minister for Immigration and Asylum, and José Manuel Barroso (from right to left) (EC Audiovisual Services)

Every year, with the advent of spring temperatures get high and the conditions of the sea improve. This is not just good news for the European citizens, hungry for some mild climate after months of snow and rain, but actually what thousands and thousands of immigrants are waiting for to sail towards Europe, leaving the African coast behind. This is actually the start of a cyclical humanitarian emergency for the whole Mediterranean area.

Already this year the alarm bell rang for the Union. Last week the Italian Government warned that at least 800,000 migrants are about to depart the North African coast for Europe. Italy’s reception system is already at the point of collapse, as officials said in Rome. “We no longer have a place to take them, and locals are overwhelmed by the constant arrival of foreigners”, border police Chief Giovanni Pinto told a joint meeting of the foreign and defence committees in the Senate. According to Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, more than 20,500 migrants have already landed on Italy’s coasts to date this year.

This shows an enormous increase over the 2,500 reported during the same period in 2013. Recent appraisals reveal that the record level of 2011, when more than 62,000 people reached the Italian coasts, could be reached easily this year. As published by Italy’s Interior Ministers officials and reported by ANSA – the leading wire service in Italy – almost 1,200 asylum seekers landed in Sicily last Friday. Another 300+ North African asylum seekers were rescued south of Sicily and taken to the port of Messina on Thursday. Also earlier this Friday the Navy rescued 358 migrants in the Sicilian Channel between Italy and Africa. On top of that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported that a total amount of 1,100 people were saved by the Italian Navy’s vessels over last Easter’s long weekend. The asylum seekers said they came from Mali, Ghana, Niger, Sudan, Syria and the Palestinian Territories.

Italy, with its southernmost province just 80 miles from Libya, is historically the gateway for thousands of clandestine migrants, and the situation got way worse since the political context in many Northern African countries became fragile after the Arab Spring. “We aren’t dealing with a government that can establish treaties”, said Pinto, referring to Libya in particular. “We have no interlocutors. There’s no prime minister…there are no ministers”, he declared, as reported by ANSA recently. Pinto also praised the efforts of the Mare Nostrum program, which “has given excellent results”, he said.

The Mare Nostrum sea patrol and rescue mission was launched in October 2013, right after the Lampedusa disaster, to prevent deaths at sea and other humanitarian tragedies. On that October 3rd 2013, a boat carrying migrants from Libya to Italy sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa and the confirmed death toll after searching the boat was 359, although the total number of dead was later reported as “more than 360”. A second shipwreck occurred the same month, on October 11, causing 34 confirmed casualties. Opponents of Mare Nostrum have argued the program only encourages migrants to risk their lives and cross the Mediterranean, often in overcrowded and decaying boats.

Italy is officially appealing for international help. During a cabinet meeting on the “Mare Nostrum” sea patrol earlier last week Premier Matteo Renzi vowed to request more commitment from the European Union. The Interior Minister Angelino Alfano stated to the national daily business newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore that “Europe should know that Italy is a welcoming country, but we cannot accommodate everyone”. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said that Italy must have more financial help.

If the overall situation in Italy looks complex – to put it mildly – also around Spanish borders things are alarming. “We have a migratory wave of thousands and thousands of people who want to reach Spain and the EU illegally,” Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz warned last March. He stated that 40,000 sub-Saharan Africans were already in Morocco waiting to cross into Melilla and Ceuta, Spain’s North African enclave territory. He also warned that “40,000 more [migrants] are at the border between Mauritania and Morocco”. The enclaves have long been seen by migrants as a way to reach the “promise land” Europe without having to attempt a treacherous Mediterranean crossing. On the same day, March 6th, Spain’s Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz, also said the mass influx of immigrants was not just Spain’s problem, but Europe’s, and he called for more EU cooperation.

What is certain is that many of the migrants which enter the European Continent via its southernmost borders every year see Italy and Spain only as a passage to reach the northern countries, like France, Germany or the UK. So this is one of the biggest challenges for all the nations of the Eurozone.

Every year, with the advent of spring, when the conditions of the sea improve, Europe has a chance to demonstrate that the Union exists, and that it’s able to speak with one voice.

Follow @carlomotta on Twitter

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