Italy to pass tougher measures to deter migration as EU scrambles to send support

Brussels has promised to speed up a deal with Tunisia but no money has been disbursed so far

Migrants arrive on an Italian Coast Guard vessel after being rescued at sea, on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, Italy, September 18, 2023.  REUTERS / Yara Nardi
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The Italian government announced that it will pass tougher migration measures on Monday as the European Union scrambles to find a united response to a recent surge in arrivals on the small island of Lampedusa.

In a bid to regain the initiative, the cabinet will approve the creation of more detention centres in isolated areas and lengthen the time migrants awaiting repatriation can be detained to up to 18 months from three at present, Reuters reported.

More than 127,000 migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year, as indicated by government data, almost double the figure for the same period of 2022.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who won office last year vowing to curb illegal immigration, visited Lampedusa on Sunday with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and asked Brussels to do more to help.

Ms Von der Leyen responded by promising a 10-point EU action plan to relieve the pressure.

But the emergency plan, which promises a reinforcement of measures already in place that have failed to make much impact in the past, leaves many questions unanswered.

It promises to support the transfer of people out of Lampedusa to other countries in the 27-member bloc on a voluntary basis, yet some countries have refused to apply such a mechanism.

Migration remains a deeply divisive topic in the bloc. A migration and asylum pact has been under discussion for the past four years and officials hope to finalise it by next year.

Negotiations remain tense. EU leaders in June voted by qualified majority to render compulsory the sharing of asylum seekers, with Poland and Hungary voting against the proposals. Bulgaria, Malta, Lithuania and Slovakia abstained.

Further discussions are expected at a home affairs council in Brussels later this month, but few countries seem eager to welcome the migrants who are currently in Lampedusa.

Questioned by French TV on Monday, France's Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who was scheduled to travel later to Rome to discuss migration, said that France would not host them.

"It would be an error of judgment to consider that migrants, because they arrive in Europe, must immediately be distributed throughout all European countries," he told Europe 1-CNews.

Repatriation agreements

Ms von der Leyen wants to increase negotiations with some of the countries of origin of migrants to intensify their rate of return. They include Cote d'Ivoire, Senegal and Burkina Faso.

She announced on Sunday that she would send the Commission's vice-president Margaritas Schinas "to negotiate" but did not specify which country he would visit.

Rome only has repatriation agreements with some of the countries whose migrants come ashore in Italy, and even when there is a bilateral deal in place, it can take months to send people home.

Highlighting the difficulties, data produced by the OpenPolis think tank shows that only 20 per cent of those targeted by a repatriation order left the country between 2014 and 2020.

The final point of Ms von der Leyen's 10-point plan is to accelerate the implementation of a Memorandum of Understanding signed this summer with Tunisia.

The agreement includes €105 million in aid to combat irregular immigration and €150 million in budgetary aid, at a time when Tunisia is strangled by debt and talks with the IMF for a bailout have soured.

As part of the €105 million package, the EU is looking at reinforcing coastal surveillance systems and is currently refitting 17 Tunisian coastguard vessels to make them fully seaworthy, which entails engine repairs, a representative said on Monday. It remains unclear when these new projects will be operational.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni attend a press conference in Lampedusa, Italy. Reuters

So far, Tunisia has not received any of the promised budgetary aid. "It will be adopted this year once all procedures have been followed" said Commission spokeswoman Ana Pisonero.

Ms Meloni on Sunday called on Brussels to stop considering an IMF deal as mandatory for the EU's aid to be disbursed.

"We need to show that Europe is offering a contribution but that in return Europe is asking to take on a responsibility", she said.

Updated: September 18, 2023, 2:26 PM