Italy Gears Up for Hundreds of Thousands of New Migrants as Other European Routes Close


On Wednesday, an Italian Coast Guard vessel rescued 774 migrants in the Strait of Sicily between Italy and North Africa, one of a seemingly endless series of new waves of migrants moving north as the weather becomes more temperate.

So far this year, the Italian interior ministry has documented 16,075 migrants crossing to its shores, compared to just over 10,000 during the same period in 2015. The Italian coastguard reported that it had rescued 1,482 migrants off the Libyan coast last weekend, and another 1,500 migrants and refugees were received in Italy on Tuesday as rescue ships carried out 11 operations in the Mediterranean.

The deal between Turkey and the European Union (EU) to send migrants back to Turkey came into effect on March 20, effectively closing the so-called “Balkan route” north from Greece into Europe. Since then, traffickers have been scrambling to devise new routes to bring prospective migrants into the continent, primarily through Italy.

As the EU’s migrant relocation program has flopped and borders have been closed along migrant routes, Italy may be now forced to hold on to the majority of people landing on its shores.

European officials have predicted that Libya will become the new route of choice for both African and Middle Eastern migrants, and expect some 500,000 to 800,000 migrants to arrive in Europe from Libya this year.

With the new EU-Turkey agreement, only 1,000 migrants arrived in Greece from Turkey in all of last week, as compared with daily arrivals of 2,000 in previous weeks. This drop does not signal a tapering of demand, but rather a strategic regrouping as traffickers redesign their travel itineraries.

In 2014, the largest group of migrants arriving in Italy were Syrians, while in 2015 this flow decreased, since Syrians preferred the Greek route into Europe, according to Flavio Di Giacomo, the spokesman in Italy for the International Organization for Migrants (IOM). With the closing of the Balkan route, Syrians will once again have to gain entry through Italy.

Meanwhile, the number of sub-Saharan Africans who arrived to Italy by sea in 2015 more than doubled compared to 2014. The most represented country of origin was Eritrea, with 39,162 Eritreans entering Italy last year, Di Giacomo said.

So far this year, 13,829 migrants have arrived into Italy from Libya, as compared with 10,075 for the same period in 2015.

Italy has struggled to expand its capacity to receive and process migrants. In March 2014, it was hosting 29,000 asylum seekers; by 2015 the number had increased to 67,000, and this March the number has risen to 106,000. This number is sure to increase dramatically in the next several months.

According to reports, human smugglers have already reworked their routes, and are now charging up to €5,000 to take migrants in larger vessels from southern Turkey, around the bottom of Greece and on to Italy.

The larger vessels will reportedly carry up to 300 passengers, though they will be ordered to hide below decks until they reach international waters. The new trips are scheduled to begin the first week of April.

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