Italy threatens to shut ports amid wave of migrant arrivals

Published 29.06.2017 23:28
Updated 29.06.2017 23:33
Migrants and refugees on a rubber boat off the Libyan coast in the Mediterranean Sea.
Migrants and refugees on a rubber boat off the Libyan coast in the Mediterranean Sea.

Bearing the brunt of Europe's migration crisis, Italy urged European countries for help in taking in African migrants and threatened the possibility of closing its ports to humanitarian rescue ships to pressure EU partners

As the EU suffers from the lack of common response to the ongoing migration crisis, Italy threatened to close its ports to aid groups rescuing migrants off Libya's coast as it struggles to cope with the highest rate of rescues this year, officials said.

Rome's EU ambassador, Maurizio Massari, met EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and told him that "the situation we are facing is serious and Europe cannot turn its back", an Italian government source said.

"The idea of blocking humanitarian ships flying foreign flags from returning to Italian ports has been discussed," another Italian government source told Reuters.

That may force EU partners to take them instead because many of the charities that operate rescue ships are based in other EU countries, including Malta and Germany, the source said.

"Italy has reached saturation point," he said, adding that Rome had planned for 200,000 beds for asylum-seekers and those were almost all taken.

The European Union's foreign minister stated that the bloc supports Italy's stance that it can no longer handle the flood of migrants alone, and she insists other EU countries share the burden.

Federica Mogherini told reporters in Brussels yesterday that the EU is willing to boost financial support to Italy. On Wednesday, Rome threatened to close its ports to aid groups ferrying in thousands of rescued migrants. Mogherini said EU interior ministers will discuss the crisis next week. Mogherini said: "We need more internal solidarity in our Union, and this is in the member states' hands." Some EU Eastern European nations have refused to take migrants from Italy.

Italy has brought in over half a million boat migrants since 2014, and a record 181,000 came last year. This year arrivals are up about 14 percent on the same period last year to 75,000.

Italy is the main point of arrival for mostly African migrants to European shores this year, and more boats are sent out almost daily. All of those rescued off the coast of Libya are brought to Italy, often by private charities.

Meanwhile, Italy's neighbors have closed their borders to try to keep migrants from moving north as they did in the past, and some EU partners such as Poland and Hungary have refused to host some asylum-seekers to ease the burden on Italy and Greece, another frontline country.

The peak of the migrant crisis in Europe has passed but many of those who came are here to stay and governments must focus on helping them integrate, the OECD said yesterday.

In the first six months of this year, about 72,000 migrants landed on Europe's shores, around 12 times fewer than in the second half of 2015 when the crisis peaked, the Paris-based body said in its annual report on international migration. But many of those who came, fleeing war or persecution, "are likely to stay for some time, at least until their home countries are safe again", said Stefano Scarpetta, OECD Director for Employment, Labor and Social Affairs, in the report.

The countries who took in migrants "should focus on helping refugees who are likely to stay in the host country settle and integrate in the labor market and society," he said. "This calls for a rethinking of both domestic policies and international cooperation," Scarpetta added.

Despite numbers coming to Europe tailing off, in 2016, around five million people still migrated to OECD countries, mainly fleeing war in three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Turkey alone is currently providing temporary protection for three million Syrians.

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