Italy threat­ens to bar res­cue ships

If EU doesn’t help, will send mi­grants else­where, of­fi­cials say

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NEWS - MICHAEL BIRNBAUM AND STE­FANO PITRELLI

BRUS­SELS — More than 12,000 mi­grants have been res­cued in the blue seas of the Mediter­ranean in the past four days, a spike that has some over­whelmed Ital­ian of­fi­cials threat­en­ing to par­tially bar their ports to res­cue ships.

The dras­tic step would in the­ory force ships bear­ing peo­ple flee­ing war and eco­nomic de­pri­va­tion to find other places to dock, shift­ing some of the bur­den of Europe’s grind­ing mi­gra­tion cri­sis to na­tions such as France and Spain. Both na­tions are on the Mediter­ranean Sea, but they are far more dis­tant from Libya, through which nearly all the mi­grants are pass­ing.

The pro­posal is likely a bar­gain­ing po­si­tion taken ahead of a meet­ing of Euro­pean mi­gra­tion min­is­ters next week to dis­cuss the con­ti­nent’s chal­lenges.

But it is also a re­flec­tion of Italy’s years on the mi­gra­tion front lines with lit­tle help from the rest of Europe. More than 82,000 peo­ple have ar­rived in Italy this year, a 20 per­cent in­crease over the same pe­riod last year, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions refugee agency. Mi­grant flows into Greece from Turkey have mostly dried up, mean­while, a re­sult of a March 2016 deal with Turkey to halt the traf­fic.

“With this fre­quency and th­ese num­bers we can eas­ily tell that soon enough we won’t be able to han­dle it any longer,” said Ni­cola La­torre, the chair­man of the de­fense com­mit­tee of the Ital­ian Se­nate. “We need to act now, and what can im­me­di­ately be done is to al­low ves­sels that are not fly­ing the Ital­ian flag to carry those mi­grants to their re­spec­tive coun­tries.

“We risk reach­ing a point when we won’t be able to autho­rize any land­ing any longer, a dra­matic sit­u­a­tion,” he said.

Un­der cur­rent EU rules, asy­lum seek­ers are sup­posed to ap­ply for pro­tec­tion in the first EU coun­try they en­ter. At the height of the mi­gra­tion cri­sis in late 2015, EU lead­ers set up a quota sys­tem to try to dis­trib­ute some of the mi­grants from the main ar­rival na­tions of Greece and Italy, but it has barely got­ten off the ground.

The in­flux has strained Ital­ian in­fra­struc­ture — and the good­will of Ital­ian vot­ers.

Ital­ian cit­i­zens, once rel­a­tively friendly to mi­grants, re­jected many politi­cians seen as soft on im­mi­gra­tion in lo­cal elec­tions on Sun­day. Anti-im­mi­grant hard-lin­ers were much more suc­cess­ful, putting pres­sure on the coun­try’s rul­ing cen­ter-left Demo­cratic Party to ease the cri­sis.

“The mes­sage is that of a coun­try that is not break­ing the rules, but is com­ing un­der pres­sure and is ask­ing for a con­crete con­tri­bu­tion from its Euro­pean coun­ter­parts,” Ital­ian Prime Min­is­ter Paolo Gen­tiloni said Thurs­day along­side other Euro­pean lead­ers in Ber­lin as they pre­pared for the Group of 20 sum­mit of world pow­ers next week.

“The mi­grant in­flux is not stop­ping. Un­less you help us, the dan­ger is that the pop­ulists will win the next gen­eral elec­tion in Italy,” Gen­tiloni said, ac­cord­ing to Italy’s La Stampa news­pa­per.

Gen­tiloni has spe­cial am­mu­ni­tion in his ef­fort to con­vince other Euro­pean lead­ers to ease pres­sure on Italy — the specter that Eu­roskep­tic pop­ulist par­ties could seize power in a na­tional elec­tion due to be held by spring 2018. The rul­ing party has been slip­ping in opin­ion polls.

Italy and Greece “can­not be left alone in this refugee cri­sis,” Euro­pean Com­mis­sion Pres­i­dent Jean-Claude Juncker told re­porters on Fri­day in Tallinn, where he was meet­ing se­nior of­fi­cials as Es­to­nia takes up the ro­tat­ing six-month pres­i­dency of the Euro­pean Union. Com­mis­sion of­fi­cials have been sym­pa­thetic to Italy’s re­quest that other na­tions ac­cept res­cue boats, al­though it is un­clear whether Italy could ac­tu­ally bar its own ports legally or prac­ti­cally. One al­ter­na­tive pro­posal is that the EU chan­nel more fund­ing to­ward Ital­ian mi­gra­tion ef­forts.

Europe has also been train­ing the Libyan coast guard — an ef­fort made more dif­fi­cult by the chaotic state of Libya’s gov­ern­ment. And Italy signed a deal with Libya to turn back some mi­grants to Libyan camps, a step that has been crit­i­cized by mi­grant ad­vo­cates be­cause of the dan­ger­ous con­di­tions in those largely lawless cen­ters.

Al­though this year’s num­bers are higher than last year’s, they are not un­man­age­able, refugee ad­vo­cates say. But many of the res­cues have clus­tered to­gether, par­tially be­cause of weather on the some­times choppy Mediter­ranean and partly de­pend­ing on the pace that smug­glers can pro­cure boats to pack with mi­grants.

The spikes can pose a chal­lenge for res­cue boats, which are a mot­ley col­lec­tion of Ital­ian coast guard ves­sels, pri­vate ships hired by aid or­ga­ni­za­tions, and a five-ship ef­fort by Fron­tex, the Euro­pean bor­der guard agency.

“It is re­ally a chal­lenge to save all th­ese peo­ple, be­cause they are pushed out at sea all to­gether in a mas­sive way,” said Car­lotta Sami, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency in Rome.

More than 2,000 peo­ple have died so far this year as they tried to cross the Mediter­ranean, ac­cord­ing to U.N. fig­ures.

“We think res­cu­ing hu­man life is para­mount,” said Joel Mill­man, a spokesman for the In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Mi­gra­tion. He said that at mo­ments in re­cent years when there were fewer res­cue ships at sea, “there was no change in the pat­tern of sea ar­rivals.”

AP/MAX FRIGIONE

An Ital­ian para­medic es­corts a mi­grant Fri­day dur­ing the dis­em­bark­ment of 402 mi­grants from a Bri­tish navy ship in the har­bor of Brin­disi, Italy.

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