EU’s Mediterranean migrant crisis: Just a mess or cynical politics?

A migrant is helped off the coast guard ship
Although the NGO rescue ship Aquarius was barred from Italian ports, coastguard ship Diciotti brought more than 900 migrants to Sicily on Wednesday

How easy it would be to bash out a righteous-sounding blog, slamming Italy’s “far-right, anti-immigration, populist” deputy prime minister for bringing Europe’s migration policy to its knees by cynically closing Italy’s ports to the migrant rescue ship, Aquarius.

But, like most easy-sounding explanations for complex situations, the description above is facile; the truth far more grey than black-and-white.

Firstly, Europe’s migration regulations have long been unfit for purpose.

Think back to the height of the migrant crisis three years ago, when EU countries couldn’t slam the door on their neighbours fast enough in order to avoid the influx of asylum seekers.

And European solidarity hasn’t progressed much since.

The number of migrant arrivals is down on previous years – especially for Greece, now that there is a questionable agreement in place with Turkey to crack down on people smugglers, who largely focused on Syrians trying to escape their bloody conflict.

But mass irregular migration to Europe is far from over.

Italy has continued to receive boatloads of people for years, ever since its neighbour across the Mediterranean, Libya, was thrown into lawlessness following Muammar Gaddafi’s demise in the wake of the British- and French-led Nato military intervention.

Since then hundreds of thousands of people have arrived in Italy, the majority from African countries not at war.

Migrant arrivals graphic, 2018

Under normal circumstances, most would be classed as economic migrants rather than refugees and eligible therefore for deportation, but the asylum process is lengthy and the terrible treatment suffered by migrants at the hands of Libyan gangs en route renders many cases more complex.

Italy has overflowing migrant centres and those who manage to slip away from them have sought refuge in abandoned houses.

Why Italy’s Salvini has changed Europe’s debate

Many migrants don’t want to be in Italy at all.

Their goal is the richer north of Europe but France and Austria have blocked their path by keeping their borders with Italy firmly shut. While elsewhere along the Mediterranean coastline, France, Spain and Malta have purposefully looked the other way.

Chart showing the country of origin for migrants arriving in Italy in a period in 2017 compared to 2018
That, claims Italy’s powerful new interior minister, is how his country has ended up as the “refugee camp of Europe”.

And before you dismiss Matteo Salvini as an alt-right, anti-EU troublemaker and admirer-in-chief of President Donald Trump’s brash and brutal style of politics (all allegations with quite some truth to them) consider this:

It was the centre-left government of normally mild-mannered former Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni that first threatened to close Italy’s ports to migrant rescue vessels not licensed by the Italian authorities.

Mr Gentiloni implored other EU countries to open their doors, to share some of the burden of housing and processing irregular migrant arrivals, integrating migrants with successful asylum claims and arranging the return home of those not eligible to stay in Europe.

No-one listened then. But they’re certainly paying attention now.

European leaders scoring points on migration

Mr Salvini’s social media crowing of “Victory!” as a result may be crass but his popularity at home, the huge success of his “Italians First!” slogan is far from a bolt from the blue.

You saw this week the reaction of many Italian mayors wanting to help the migrants on board the Aquarius despite their government’s antics.

Most Italians don’t want to turn their back on the destitute but their frustration has reached breaking point at being “abandoned by the EU” as they see it, to deal with what is in fact a pan-European problem.

On a visit to Sicily, Matteo Salvini said Italy must increase its deportations of migrants.

On a visit to Sicily, Matteo Salvini said Italy…

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