In a European Union engrossed in debating financial regulations, arguing over repayments of debt and far detached from the real world, the refugee crisis materialised as an apparently unpredictable and unexpected emergency. However, what might have been a sudden and undesired issue for bureaucratic Europe, had already been experienced for several years by a country that repeatedly urged for a common European strategy to tackle immigration: Italy.
Since the beginning of the millennium, countless people escaping from wars and economic depression have faced extreme journeys to reach Italy’s shores, seen as a safe haven to start over a new life in prosperous and welcoming Europe. Yet, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), over 22,000 migrants died in the Mediterranean between 2000 and 2014, making the route from Libya to Lampedusa the deadliest migrant route in the world. Such figures, however, cannot be blamed only on loathsome human traffickers, but should equally be attributed to the lack of a cohesive European response to support Italy in search and rescue operations.
Due to its geographical location, with the island of Lampedusa being closer to Africa than to the Italian shores, throughout the years Italy witnessed a growing number of migrants arriving to its coast. With the outbreak of the Libyan civil war, the arrivals rapidly intensified and so did the casualties, escalating to horrific tragedies such as the Lampedusa shipwreck of October 2013. In that occasion, a boat carrying migrants from Libya to Italy sank off the island with more than 360 deaths reported.
The collective efforts of European countries to jointly face the migrant crisis, combined with the Italian decision to help without resentment, lay the bases for a new Europe.
The gravity of the event led the Italian government to establish “Operation Mare Nostrum”, a large-scale naval operation that involved search and rescue, with migrants brought aboard naval assault ships. The Italian government, which at the time was experiencing one of the harshest recessions in the history of the country, sought financial aid from the EU to fund the mission, yet only negative responses with poor justifications were received. Specifically, the UK government cited fears that the operation was acting as "an unintended 'pull factor', encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing”.
Just a few months after the tragedy, the German government protested against Italy claiming that the money handed to refugees—each asylum seeker was given 500 euros to afford first necessity goods—was being spent in train tickets to reach Germany. Thus, the Bavarian federal minister of the interior demanded that Italy would take back all the migrants that had reached Germany. The Italian government without objections agreed to do so.
In 2014, a year after its launch, Italy ended “Operation Mare Nostrum”, citing costs too large for one EU state alone to manage. In response to Rome and NGOs’ demands to keep monitoring the Mediterranean, the European Union introduced “Operation Triton”. Nevertheless, rather than replicating the Italian mission, which carried out proactive search and rescue across 27,000 square miles of sea, Triton focused on border surveillance and operated only within 30 miles of the Italian coast with a budget of less than a third than that of its predecessor.
This chronological excursus brings us to summer 2015, when the arrivals at Lampedusa became unbearable for Italy. Despite being sadly used to tragedies, the enormous amount of deaths—more than 2,000 people had drowned since the beginning of the year—became an intolerable burden for the Italian government. In such a contest of misery and mortality, the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi once again called for European common measures to tackle immigration.
In an article for The Guardian, Mr Renzi stated: “Today’s problem isn’t about Italy facing this emergency alone. An EU-wide response is needed by Europe far more than it is needed by Italy. It’s Europe that needs to demonstrate the values it believes in and stands for”.
Recent news is that the EU has forced through a deal to impose refugee quotas, sharing 120,000 people between most of its member states. After years of complaints, demands and threats the Italian government finally sees its wishes come true. Ironically, after the deal was passed, Germany—the same country that in 2013 forced Rome to take back its migrants—asked for Italy’s help in monitoring the border between the two countries. Once again, the Italian government without objections agreed to do so by implementing frontier security checks.
The collective efforts of European countries to jointly face the migrant crisis, combined with the Italian decision to help without resentment, lay the bases for a new Europe. A new Europe based not on bond spreads and stability pacts, but rather on values of civility and peace. A Europe in which Italy can for once be a positive example. TMM