The impending arrival of an anti-establishment, far-right government in Italy heralds even more controversy over how to deal with the flow of migrants as it raises the specter of mass expulsions.
With a coalition of the anti-system Five Star Movement (M5S) and the nationalist League party poised to take power, the prospects for migrants reaching Italy after a hazardous sea-crossing from Libya look even dimmer.
The outgoing center-left government has already all but closed the maritime border following controversial accords signed with the Libyan government as well as local authorities, including armed groups, in an effort to curb the migrant influx. Nearly 700,000 people have landed on Italian shores since 2013.
To stem the tide of human misery, Italy with EU support has also trained and equipped the Libyan coastguard so it can intercept vessels before they reach international waters.
Since the start of this year, Italy's interior ministry has tallied 7,100 arrivals via Libya and 3,500 more via Tunisia, Algeria or Greece. According to the U.N. migration agency (IOM), the Libyans have themselves intercepted 6,500 people seeking to reach the southernmost tip of Europe.
Now the new, populist government has signaled it will push EU partners to shore up the bloc's external frontiers and accept an automatic and more equitable share-out of migrants across the continent. It also wants to speed up asylum procedures and repatriate those rejected and those from countries deemed "safe."
To help fund the process, the government would reallocate some of the budget, 4.2 billion euros ($4.8 billion) in 2017 used in rescues, providing sanitary assistance and running reception centers.
Arrivals of migrants to Italy slowed by some 80 percent from July 2016 to July 2017 after Marco Minniti, a veteran secret services coordinator who became interior minister in December 2016, reached an accord with Tripoli to keep migrants in detention centers on Libyan soil. Human rights groups and the United Nations have blasted most of the centers for their "inhuman" conditions.
The arrivals have fallen also due to a key change in procedure. Whereas previously the Italian coast guard coordinated rescue operations from Rome, operational authority now largely resides with Tripoli.
For the migrants, the difference is critical. Coordination by Rome means they are taken to Italy whereas Tripoli taking charge means they again are left at the mercy of a system stalked by violence and extortion as well as poor conditions. "The arrivals have gone down but not the suffering," says Carlotta Sami, spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
"Crossings are today more dangerous than ever," says IOM Mediterranean region director Federico Soda. His organization has registered 383 dead or disappeared off Libya so far this year, 2.8 percent of known departures, up from 2.2 percent in previous years. Italy's new government hopes to pull from its sleeve another card, one which Minniti has already tried, in vain, to play. That would see Italy simply refuse to take in migrants picked up by European, military or humanitarian rescue vessels.
The populist M5S and the hard right League hope to send home as quickly as possible the bulk of new arrivals by speeding asylum procedures and systematically kicking out those whose claims are rejected, as well as an estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants.
But at the current rate, just 6,514 official expulsions in 2017 amid opposition from countries of origin to take back their nationals, the process could take more than 75 years, Italian media said.