Zakaria Abdelkafi/AFP via Getty Images
ROME – The Italian government approved new measures to crack down on migration on Monday after the southern island of Lampedusa was again overwhelmed by a wave of arrivals departing from Tunisia and the migration issue returned to center stage in Europe with talk of a naval blockade .
The measures approved by the government focused on migrants who do not qualify for asylum and are scheduled to be repatriated to their home countries. The government extended the time such persons can be detained in the EU to a maximum of 18 months. It also plans to increase the number of detention centers to hold them, as capacity has always been insufficient and many of those scheduled to be returned home end up going further north.
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni announced the “extraordinary measures” after Lampedusa, which is closer to Tunisia in North Africa than mainland Italy, was overwhelmed by nearly 7,000 migrants in one day last week, more than the island’s resident population. Italy has slowly unloaded them by ferry to Sicily and other ports, but the arrivals have once again raised tensions on the island and in political corridors, especially ahead of next year’s European Parliament elections.
Amid the domestic and EU political jockeying, Meloni’s revived campaign is calling for a naval blockade of North Africa to prevent people smugglers from sending their smuggling boats into the Mediterranean. Meloni was present in Tunis in June when the president of the European Commission signed an agreement with the Tunisian government promising financial aid in return for help preventing departures.
A similar agreement was signed years ago with Libya, but human rights groups have claimed it as a violation of international maritime law and insist that Libya is not a safe haven and that migrants intercepted by the Libyan coastguard are returned to detention centers where there is abuse. widespread.
Meloni visited Lampedusa on Sunday with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who took a hard line, cheered by Meloni’s supporters.
“We will decide who comes to the EU and under what circumstances. Not the smugglers,” Von der Leyen said as she laid out a 10-point plan that included a pledge of support to prevent the departure of smugglers’ boats by establishing “operational anti-trafficking partnerships’ with countries of origin and transit.
The plan envisages a possible “working arrangement between Tunisia and Frontex”, the EU’s border force with air and sea assets currently assisting search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, and a coordinating task force within Europol.
The Commission has not ruled out the possibility that a naval blockade is under consideration. “We have expressed support for exploring these options” raised by Italy, Commission spokeswoman Anitta Hipper said Monday.
Under the agreement that von der Leyen signed with Tunisia, the EU promised to provide funds for equipment, training and technical support “to further improve the management of Tunisia’s borders.” For example, the funds are helping to pay for the renovation of 17 vessels belonging to the Tunisian authorities.
The latest influx challenges unity in the EU, its member states and also in Meloni’s far-right-led government, especially with European elections ahead. Some member states have protested the way von der Leyen pushed through the Tunisia plan, complaining that they have not been properly heard.
But even in Italy it is controversial. Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, head of the populist, right-wing League, has challenged the effectiveness of Meloni’s EU-Tunisia deal and hosted far-right French leader Marine Le Pen at an annual League meeting in northern Italy on Sunday. Just a few days earlier, Le Pen’s niece and far-right politician Marion Marechal was in Lampedusa and blasted the French government’s response to the migration issue.
Emmanuel Macron’s French government has shifted to the right on migration and security issues, and on Monday his interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, was on his way to Rome for meetings. Darmanin said before he left that France would help Italy maintain its border to prevent people from arriving, but was not prepared to accept migrants who have arrived in Lampedusa in recent days.
”Things are getting very difficult in Lampedusa. That is why we should help our Italian friends. But a message should not be given to people who come to our soil that they are welcome in our countries no matter what,” he said on France’s Europe-1 radio.
”Our will is fully to welcome those who should be welcomed, but we should absolutely send back those who have no reason to be in Europe, he said, citing people arriving from the Ivory Coast or Guinea or The Gambia, saying there is nothing obvious. political reason to grant them asylum.