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Coping with the Influx of Economic Migrants

As the official number of migrants travelling from North Africa to Italy and Malta has spiked again after a relatively calm period in 2016, an urgent political response has been requested to assist Italy and Malta in stemming the flow of economic migrants from North Africa. While the situation for refugees fleeing persecution and seeking asylum is altogether different from that of economic migrants, who are seeking a better life in Europe, the distinction between the two often escapes the public. The number of economic migrants that have arrived in Italy is 85,000 so far in 2017 and over 2,000 people have lost their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean. The relocation of economic migrants has fallen far below the agreed figures of 160,000.

In response to this, the European Commission released its latest action plan on 4 July 2017 to support Italy and reduce migratory pressure along the Central Mediterranean Route. This Action Plan will be discussed at the first informal meeting of the Ministers of Justice and Home and Affairs on 6 and 7 July in Estonia.


Search and Rescue – the Push and Pull Factors

Reducing migratory pressure in the Mediterranean region and increasing solidarity amongst the Member States are two of the core actions recommended by the European Commission.

Other practical recommendations include: Better coordination of Search and Rescue (SAR) activities as a matter of priority in the Mediterranean and the creation of a Code of Conduct for NGOs involved in Search and Rescue in the Mediterranean.

NGOs are now the largest provider of Search and Rescue missions around the Libyan territorial waters and have come under considerable criticism in Italy for being a pull factor for economic migrants to Europe. The debate about the role of these NGO rescue ships has sparked a divisive debate in Italian politics and increased tensions both within Italy and between Italy and the EU.

Data from the Italian Coast Guard indicate that NGOs rescued a total of 46,795 migrants in 2016, many more than EU border control and anti-smuggling missions, Triton and EUNAVFOR Med. The Action Plan urges the European Border and Coast Guard to examine the Italian Government’s request to take rescued migrants to the ports of other Member States, in an attempt to share the burden of responsibility.


Stemming Migration Flows at the Source – All Eyes on Libya

Libya is seen as a key factor in solving the problem. The focus of the Action Plan therefore, is on reducing the pressure on Libya and disrupting smuggling rings and human trafficking. The Action Plan follows on from the Malta Declaration in January 2017 and makes a number of concrete recommendations in this regard to enhance the capabilities and capacities of Libya to control its borders.

  • It requests Italy and Libya to continue work on establishing a Libyan Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centre (MRCC), which would allow the Libyan government to play a significant role in Search and Rescue operations in their own territorial waters
  • It recommends a significant enhancement of the ongoing training of the Libyan Coast Guard
  • It calls on Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria to join the Seahorse Mediterranean Network against the trafficking of human beings and to establish their own MRCCs.
  • It commits the EU to stepping up its engagement with Mali and Niger to prevent migratory flows towards Libya and to “significantly and rapidly strengthen border controls at the external borders of Libya”.
  • Assisted Voluntary Returns from Libya and Niger to countries of origin in a joint-initiative between the EU and the International Organization for Migration in Geneva is the final part of the mosaic of recommendations.


Italy and Migration Policy

The relocation programme for migrants, the necessity for Member States to deliver on existing commitmentsand the reform of the Dublin Regulation are the three essential steps which can reduce the enormous pressure on Italy and help to sustainably manage the migration crisis, according to the Action Plan.

The implementation of the Minnitti Law in Italy, which is near completion, will allow for a much more effective asylum and return system in Italy. The Minnitti Law, called after the Italian Interior Minister, would substantially increase the capacities of the “hotspots”, allowing for 100% identification, registration and fingerprinting of migrants. The EU proposes to step up funding for migration management in Italy and provide an additional EUR 35 million to aid in the implementation of the Minnitti Law.

Marco Minitti met with the Interior Minister of France, Gerard Collomb and with the Interior Minister of Germany, Thomas De Maiziere and EU Migration Commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, in Paris, in advance of the G20 meeting in Hamburg on 7/8 July to call for immediate and practical responses to the crisis and solidarity for Italy.  He will continue his efforts to try and resolve this situation at the informal meeting of Justice and Interior Ministers in Talinn.



The Action Plan has come at a critical time of the year, when migration along the Central Mediterranean Route is traditionally at its highest due to calmer seas and sunnier weather conditions. The urgency for action is reflected in Italy’s recent threat to close its ports to ships not bearing the Italian flag, as the burden is deemed unbearable for Italians. In turn, Austria’s threat to close its border to Italy for migrants, partly out of fear of a right-wing back lash in elections later in the year, has further heightened the temperature of the debate.

Although the Action Plan does not include many new actions points it has developed many points from the Valetta Declaration and the Bratislava Summit. However, the issue is also a political one. First Vice President Frans Timmermans, commented that: “the levels with which Italy is faced now means that everybody needs to do their part in this across Europe”, aiming much of his frustration at Member States, which are not fully implementing commitments which were made. So, discussions at the EU informal meeting in Talinn are likely to be quite robust, with Italy seeking not just solidarity, in principle, but concrete commitments from its partners in the EU, in practice.

Eoin O’Keefe




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