Nearly a thousand migrants rescued in the perilous Strait of Sicily have arrived into southern Italy Friday, among whom are hundreds of Syrians, Iraqis and Egyptians, which signals the adoption of a new migratory route from the Middle East into Europe.
When Macedonia secured its borders with Greece and Turkey agreed to take back illegal migrants in March of this year, the so-called Balkan route from Turkey into Europe was effectively shut down. AAt this point, human smugglers immediately began redesigning their itineraries to traffic migrants into Europe, with many opting for the longer overland route though Egypt and then across the Mediterranean Sea into Italy.
Up to now, the majority of migrants arriving in Italy have been fleeing war, persecution and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, and the influx of so many from the Middle East indicates an important demographic shift for the Italian authorities.
“For the first time in at least a year Syrian and Iraqi refugees are arriving from Egypt,” said Carlotta Sami, senior regional officer from the UN’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR). “The sea and the risks cannot stop those who have at their backs only death and destruction.” The migrants are being taken to several ports in Sicily as well as the southern Italian region of Calabria.
Friday’s various rescue operations, involving the Italian Coastguard and a Finnish naval vessel, brought in some 330 Syrians into Italy—more in one day than during the previous five months put together. The shift suggests a sharp change in tactic as the European Union and Turkey have sealed off access through Greece and the Balkans.
“This is something new,” said Flavio di Giacomo, spokesman for the International Organization of Migration (IOM), who noted that of the 31,000 people who have reached Italy this year, only 26 were Syrians, while the overwhelming majority were from Africa.
During the course of 2015, more than a million migrants entered Europe, mostly through Italy and Greece as their point of entry. In February, countries along the Balkans route began closing down their borders, and in March the European Union signed a controversial deal with Turkey by which all illegal migrants arriving on the Greek islands would be sent back to Turkey.
Since the EU-Turkey agreement took effect in early April, the numbers arriving in Greece have dropped sharply, stoking fears in Italy that migrants would begin taking the longer route through Egypt and from there into southern Italy.
On Friday, this fear began to become a reality.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter Follow @tdwilliamsrome