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Italy Sees Signs of Migrant Tide Turning

Posted by hkarner - 11. August 2017

Date: 10-08-2017
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Steep decline in seaborne arrivals since July spurs hopes that smuggling crackdown is paying off

Migrants, miles from the Libyan coast, waited to be rescued last week.

A sharp drop in the number of seaborne migrants arriving in Italy in the past month is raising hopes that the country—and Europe—may have turned the corner in its four-year migration crisis.

Since the start of July, the number of migrants seeking to reach Italy from Libya has dropped by 60%, a remarkable shift in a year that seemed set to break records for seaborne arrivals of migrants. Through the end of June, Italy counted nearly 84,000 arrivals, 17% higher than the same period in 2016, putting it on track to surpass last year’s 180,000 arrivals.

In July, 11,000 migrants arrived, less than half the number in July 2016, while so far in August, just under 1,587 arrived. In August 2016, 21,300 people arrived from Libya.The drop—coming when good weather normally brings a peak in the Libya-to-Italy crossings—is creating optimism among Italian officials that a concerted push by Rome to tackle the problem is bearing fruit. Those efforts range from positioning a navy ship just inside Libyan waters to supporting the voluntary repatriation of migrants to training and supplying Libya’s coast guard in its efforts to fight traffickers and conduct rescue operations.

Libyan authorities say this show of force may have convinced Libyan tribal leaders, who control swaths of the country, to cut off support for people smugglers. At the same time, Rome has promised millions in aid to the tribes, hoping the development funds will further encourage them to suppress the rich smuggling business.

“We are finally beginning to see a turnaround in the trend,” said Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti earlier this week. “We are starting to feel the migration flows can be controlled. We are seeing light at the end of the tunnel.”

Italian officials, though, caution that the drop in arrivals could easily reverse, given the instability of Libya. Moreover, the number of people trying an alternative route to Europe by crossing into Spain more than doubled in the first half of the year to 6,500 from a year earlier. And political groups and human-rights organizations have raised serious concerns about the condition of prison-like centers where migrants rescued by the Libyan Coast Guard are detained.

“It is too early to call a victory,” said Marco Morcone, head of immigration at the Italian interior ministry in an interview. “But we are seeing the fruit of a number of policies we have put into place.”

Greece, another country hard hit by the influx of migrants, also is seeing its migration problem ease. Between the start of 2015 and spring 2016, nearly one million migrants arrived in Greece. An European Union agreement last year with Turkey to take back migrants from Greece then succeeded in cutting off the arrivals, but left about 60,000 migrants stranded in Greece because border controls in the Balkans prevented them from traveling to Northern Europe.

Today, about 70 migrants arrive in the country a day, but the total number living in Greece has receded to about 40,000. Some have found ways to sneak over the border and travel north, while 17,000 others have participated in an EU program to relocate them to other member states.

The change comes just two years after a huge surge in migrants reaching Europe caused deep political and social turmoil in the continent, helping to spur the rise of populist parties and exposing bitter divisions among member states.

Attitudes toward immigrants soon hardened in Europe, compounded by revelations that terrorists were able to hide among the migrant flows. In response, countries, particularly in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, have erected borders to keep migrants out and have forcibly repatriated those who remain illegally.

Efforts to slow the migrant flow from Libya have been complicated by the lawless state the country fell into after the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

In response, Italy, which has seen 600,000 African and Middle Eastern migrants arrive since the start of 2014, has used a series of a carrots and sticks to try to stem the flow—actions they believe are having an effect. It has given Niger—a key country on the routes smugglers use to ferry African migrants to Libya—about €50 million ($59 million), in part to police its border and disrupt the migrant traffic.

Italy also has given €18 million to the International Organization for Migration to support voluntary repatriations of migrants willing to return home from Libya. The IOM has repatriated 6,000 people from Libya so far this year—more than all of 2015 and 2016—and expects to return up to 9,000 more during the rest of 2017, according to Joel Millman, IOM’s spokesman.

Meanwhile, Italy—a former colonial power in Libya and the only Western country with an embassy there—has raised diplomatic and military pressure this year in an attempt to stop the smugglers.

With support from the European Union, Italy in June delivered about 10 boats of migrants to the Libyan Coast Guard and has trained coast-guard crews, with the goal of empowering Libya to fight traffickers and conduct search-and-rescue operations on its own.

Rome also sent two military ships to sit within Libyan waters and give its coast guard logistical support and intervene should smugglers threaten the Libyan crews. As a result, the Libyan Coast Guard has rescued about 12,000 migrants so far, bringing them back to Libyan shores, according to the IOM. The number of people who died trying to make the crossing from Libya this year through Aug. 6 dropped to nearly 2,400, compared with 3,151 during the same period in 2016.

As a result of Italian aid efforts, according to Libyan coast guard and military officials in some of Libya’s main smuggling areas, tribes also have stopped providing cover for family members involved in the smuggling trade. In some cases, tribes are even working with authorities to stop the smugglers.

“International pressure played a strong role in convincing local tribes to pressure smugglers,” says Taher Ghurbali, the head of the military council in Subrata, a town roughly 50 miles west of Tripoli that has been the main launching point for migrant vessels. Subrata took over from Zuwara as the main base for smuggling when international pressure on the latter convinced elders there to rein in the trade.

According to Mr. Ghurbali, the tribes may have pushed some smugglers to quit the business. And without concern of upsetting powerful tribes that have strong influence over most official structures in the lawless state, Libyan authorities are able to crack down on the smuggling business more effectively.

Tribal pressure is “unlikely to be an answer to the epidemic,” added Mr. Ghurbali, but “it is a start.”

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