Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano recently called attention to the effects resulting from the thousands of desperate migrants crossing the central Mediterranean in unseaworthy vessels from Libya and streaming into Italian ports.
These voyagers come mostly from some of the poorest and most corrupt countries of sub-Saharan Africa. They pay thousands of dollars to smugglers who have established a migratory route through several countries, complete with safe houses and collection points for payments migrants must make along their journey. Mr Alfano has labeled these illicit operators as “travel agents of death.”
Given the extremely poor conditions and overcrowding of some of the fishing boats and rubber dinghies crossing the Mediterranean, many people drown at sea and never make it to the new Promised Land. But most are rescued and brought safely to an Italian destination. In the first six months of 2017 over 85,000 arrived into southern Italian ports, an increase of 19 percent over a year ago. In 2016 alone Italy received an influx of 181,405. At the beginning of this year there were over 5 million foreign citizens residing in Italy.
A record number — 5,000 migrants — are believed to have perished during a Mediterranean journey in 2016. Italy also receives the cadavers recouped at sea and must try to identify and bury them. Over 2,000 dead bodies arrived in between January and June of this year.
A single day’s account illustrates the severity of the problem.
Italian headlines on Sunday, July 16, told of the previous day’s arrivals: 1,562 migrants disembarked at two ports alone. All had been rescued at sea. There were 923 migrants who arrived via a German military vessel in the port of Corigliano Calabro (in the region of Calabria). Among them were 595 men, 121 women, 14 of them pregnant, and over 200 minors. All came from sub-Saharan Africa. The British ship “Echo” unloaded 639 persons in the port of Bari (in Puglia, on the lower Adriatic coast), with 473 men, 147 women and the rest children and infants.
Given the extraordinarily large number of desperate people crossing the Mediterranean under perilous conditions, global attention has focused on saving lives.
The Italian Coast Guard is stretched to its limits. A few other European Union countries have joined in the operations. A few private charity organizations, believed to be about 15, have decided to pitch in, without notifying the Italian Government. They conduct search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean, pick up hordes of people jammed into unseaworthy and nearly sinking dinghies, and bring these people by the hundreds and thousands into Italian ports.
Among these “charities” is a suspicious organization known as MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) a Malta-registered non-profit foundation run by a 30-something American millionaire businessman who has taken it upon himself to aid (or challenge) the Italian Coast Guard.
While MOAS may be saving lives, the question does arise whether it is assisting criminal elements who engage in human trafficking, dump their charges at sea and add to the reception and resettlement burden that the debt-laden Italian government must bear. Traffickers in Libya know that rescue boats operate in international waters not far from the Libyan coast. They respond by filling their boats with dangerously more people and sending them off with less fuel and food.
Small coastal towns and villages in Sicily, Calabria and Puglia have been overwhelmed as they need numerous personnel to identify, register and settle these people. As migrants arrive on Italian shores they are processed by the Italian authorities, the Italian Red Cross, Caritas, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Frontex, and others.
The migrants are shifted from temporary retention centers upon arrival to various reception centers as well as hotels and other residential properties expropriated for housing the migrants as they are gradually integrated into Italian society or migrate to a European country which seems more prosperous than Italy.
Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano was born in Sicily where most migrants land. His hometown is Agrigento, a small city on a hilltop overlooking the Mediterranean which is famous for its Valley of the Temples — architectural treasures from earlier migrations. He recently offered praise and gratitude to all the rescuers and to the numerous Italian towns and cities that have received the influx of migrants. They are witnessing a humanitarian tragedy and their welcoming arms are overstretched.
The problem of unaccompanied minors
Italy’s migration woes are compounded by the arrival of unaccompanied minors who either were sent by their families or who lost their parents somewhere along their journey. In 2016 about 25,000 unaccompanied minors landed.
What mother or father would deliberately place a young son or daughter into the hands of paid smugglers to send them on a perilous journey in the hope of a better future? This has created another dimension to the tragedy.
About 75 Italian charitable foundations have come together to provide for many of these young migrants. Their initiative, “Never Alone”, is aimed at assisting older teenagers (from 17 to 19) to transition from refugee centers to insertion into Italian mainstream society.
Some young migrants escape and are swallowed up by criminal elements and are inducted into a life of crime in the drug or sex trades.
A European problem to share?
As a member of the European Union, Italy has appealed to other members for assistance in relocating the migrants but collaboration has been either reluctant or spurned. Austria has let it be known it is ready to close the Brenner Pass to stop migrant inflows and it has increased a military presence at the Italian border. Liberal Sweden has made headlines concerning its inability to integrate foreigners, mostly North African Muslims, into an open society with a difficult language. Hungary long ago refused to take in its share of migrants as allocated by the European Union.
Spain has put an end to accepting migrants into its ports. The government sent military ships to patrol the African Atlantic coastline to intercept any vessel headed for Spanish ports, including the Canary Islands. It took on board the migrants and sailed them back to African ports. While this relieved the problem for Spain, these actions not only manifested a lack of European solidarity but enhanced the illicit land route through Africa up to Libya.
The Ministers of Internal Affairs of Italy, France and Germany recently met to try to coordinate the resettlement of migrants. After meeting with his counterparts, the Italian Minister of Internal Affairs, Marco Minniti, devised a sort of code of conduct for the 15 or so NGOs operating in the Mediterranean and will meet them to discuss this. Non-compliance with the guidelines could mean denial of port entry for their vessels.
Another encouraging note has come from European Union which on July 18 said it would limit the number of inflatable boats it sells to Libya since these often fall into the hands of smugglers. One wonders why it took so long to make this decision. The EU also has been training the Libyan coast guard to intercept criminal elements but the number of arrivals in Italy put into question any success.
The criminal element
Criminal elements dominate the Mediterranean migrant business. Frontex, the European Union’s border control and coast guard entity, has documented the criminal route from sub-Saharan Africa to Italian shores.
People smuggling in Africa is a major criminal operation that collects billions of euros every year from desperate people. Most depart from Libya and attempt to cross the Central Mediterranean, which is the currently the main entry point for migrants into the EU.
Information collected by Frontex paints a picture of an increasingly sophisticated illicit “business” spanning numerous countries that increasingly puts profit ahead of the lives of its “customers”. It involves many groups and militiamen who control different parts of the migratory routes across Africa. Data collected by Frontex about these routes have proven valuable in helping national authorities and Europol in their investigations of these criminal networks and has led to arrests of suspected smugglers.
The number of migrants who arrive in Europe via this route is steadily increasing. Most migrants try to reach Europe from Libya, which is the main departure country towards Europe with a well-established presence of smuggling networks.
The main migratory routes for people crossing the Central Mediterranean are the route from West Africa and another from the Horn of Africa.
The story does not end once migrants land in Italy. As they are dispersed throughout the country, other smugglers are found within the various migrant communities who assist their comrades in border crossings out of Italy.
The real solution?
A former Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, came out with a sensible – though difficult – solution to the Mediterranean migrant tragedy. According to Mr Renzi, Europe should help these people “in their country of origin.” The migrants streaming into Italy come mostly from desperately poor African countries, rife with corruption and warring factions; lacking basic access to water, electricity and transport infrastructure; and without honest institutions.
These countries need all manner of investment much of which would have to come from abroad. But foreign investors will come only if they see a viable opportunity. The question then becomes: can these countries ever create an enabling environment to attract investment that would create employment and stem the outflow of people?
A constant exodus does not create economic development in the countries the migrants left behind. Those who succeed in finding employment in a new land will send back remittances to their families but will only alleviate family poverty.
Enter the United Nations…!
The UN has taken note of the vast scale of global migratory movements, including the Mediterranean transit route, and has been holding periodic discussions in preparation for a “Global Pact on Migration” to be concluded for General Assembly approval by the fall of 2018. The Compact aims for “safe, orderly and regular migration” but, like many UN documents, is likely to be long on vague aspirations and short on specifics, strategies and solutions.
In all of these deliberations, UN bureaucrats and delegates refuse to use the terms “illegal migration” or “illegal migrant”, preferring to call people “undocumented migrants”. This may be politically correct but could be inaccurate given that many migrants may have, for instance, a baptismal certificate.
Moreover, the UN uses “migrants” as a word to cover bona fide emigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, further adding to confusion.
By refusing to employ the term “illegal” the UN ignores the criminal element that has been trafficking people for profit, a trade reportedly more lucrative than drugs which has been thoroughly documented by organizations like Frontex.
In the meantime, Italy continues to be at the receiving end of the criminally-based influx of migrants as the UN once again fails to stem a massive international catastrophe engineered by the “travel agents of death.”
Vincenzina Santoro represents the American Family Association of New York at the United Nations.