Italy pushes crackdown on migrants reaching its shores

The Senate will this week take up legislation to discourage migrant arrivals including proposals to eliminate or shorten a period of special protection for those unlikely to get refugee status

The Italian coast guard ship Peluso enters the Sicilian harbor of Catania, Italy, on April 17, 2023, with some 300 migrants saved from the sea.
The Italian coast guard ship Peluso enters the Sicilian harbor of Catania, Italy, on April 17, 2023, with some 300 migrants saved from the sea.Associated Press/LaPresse (APN)

Italy’s right-wing government pressed ahead with plans to crack down on migrants as they arrived by the hundreds on Monday at a Sicilian port after a coast guard rescue. Dozens more were taken on board a charity boat from an unseaworthy vessel operated by smugglers, while others came ashore unaided.

This week, the Senate is due to take up proposed legislation put forward by the government of far-right Premier Giorgia Meloni that aims to make it harder for migrants to gain temporary permission to stay in Italy.

Coalition ally Matteo Salvini, who leads the anti-migrant League party, wants the country to eliminate a status known as “special protection” for many of the tens of thousands of migrants who have come ashore in Italy for years now aboard smugglers’ boats launched from Libya, Tunisia, Turkey and other places.

That status allows migrants who are unlikely to win refugee status to stay in Italy for two years, pending renewal. During this time, they can work legally and rent housing.

Salvini claims the possibility of “special protection” acts as a “pull factor,’’ in encouraging migrants to leave their homelands in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Many of the migrants are fleeing poverty or a lack of decent jobs in sub-Saharan Africa, northern Africa, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt.

While Meloni has said she’d like to see that status eliminated, lawmakers from another coalition party, Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative Forza Italia, have indicated they could push for the time to be slashed from two years to six months.

“It’s not so much a question of numbers, but of (sending) a signal of severity that we want to give,’’ Maurizio Gasparri, a prominent Forza Italia senator was quoted as saying in Corriere della Sera on Monday.

The number of migrants arriving this spring has risen relentlessly.

A Italian coast guard boat with about 200 migrants aboard pulled into the harbor of Catania, Sicily early Monday. They were among some 600 migrants rescued by the coast guard during the weekend in Malta’s search-and-rescue sector of the Mediterranean.

For years, humanitarian groups have lamented that Maltese authorities often ignore distress calls from foundering migrant vessels.

But on Monday, two humanitarian organizations, Alarm Phone, which monitors migrant boats in distress in the Mediterranean, and Emergency, which operates a rescue vessel, tweeted that Malta had instructed cargo ships to come to the aid of a couple of boats, and that the rescued passengers would disembark later in the archipelago nation.

On Sunday, Alarm Phone indicated there were a total of about 60 migrants on the two distressed boats.

The others arrived in Catania late Sunday night aboard a vessel operated by Frontex, the European Union’s border protection agency.

Also on Sunday, an Italian naval vessel brought about 300 rescued migrants to another Sicilian port, Augusta, Italian media said.

Stepping ashore on the tiny island of Lampedusa were scores of other migrants who arrived unaided. Among them were several spotted walking on a beach by residents of the tiny tourist and fishing isle.

Separately, Emergency said its rescue ship, Life Support, on Saturday had plucked to safety 55 migrants from a smugglers’ boat. It lamented that Italy had assigned a port on Italy’s northwestern coast to bring the passengers, lengthening the time until the migrants could step on land as well as the days the charity vessel would need to return to the area of the sea plied by migrant smugglers.

Assigning disembarkation points far away is part of the Meloni government’s strategy. Salvini rails that charity boats essentially serve as “taxi services” for smuggling operations and encourage more people to attempt the dangerous crossing of the central Mediterranean.

By Sunday night, the center which shelters migrants on Lampedusa held nearly 800 people, nearly double its supposed capacity. The migrants are accommodated there before being transferred elsewhere in Italy while their claims for asylum are processed.

Meloni’s government last week declared a six-month national state of emergency to help cope with the influx of migrants, mainly by shortening the time need to fund or erect new housing or repatriation centers for those losing asylum bids.

By Monday, roughly 33,000 migrants had arrived in the year to date, compared to about 8,500 the same period in each of the last two years.

On Sunday, a longtime interior ministry official, Valerio Valenti, who heads an immigration office, was tapped to be the commissioner leading the emergency response. The governors of four left-led regions immediately refused to back the appointment, indicating they wouldn’t work with whatever his plans would be to open new housing or repatriation centers.

How their pushback would affect Valenti’s efficiency wasn’t immediately clear.

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