August 15, 2017 at 5:30 PM
BRUSSELS — Italy's top law enforcement official said Tuesday that his nation's aggressive approach to halting migration across the Mediterranean was making progress, amid a steep drop in the number of migrants arriving on Italy's shores in the past month.
The sharp drop in the number of asylum seekers entering Italy comes as migrant advocates warn of rising dangers for those who remain in Libya or who set out into the Mediterranean for the perilous voyage. There are fewer ships rescuing migrants after several aid organizations suspended their operations in recent days, following a declaration by the Libyan coast guard that it plans to expand its patrol zone beyond national waters. The coast guard, trained by the Italians, has pursued a newly muscular approach in recent weeks.
If the traffic holds steady, migration pressures on Europe could significantly ease after years of mounting strain. The flow has emboldened anti-migrant nationalists across the continent and challenged societies as they try to integrate the new arrivals. But a calmer Europe probably means worse conditions for the asylum seekers in Libya, a war-torn society where migrants have been subjected to torture, slavery and imprisonment, critics say.
"Governing migrant flow is very hard, but not impossible," Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti told reporters in Rome. "We are still in the tunnel, and the tunnel is very long, but I am starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I don't know if I'm too optimistic."
Last year, more than 11,000 migrants arrived in the first two weeks of August. This year, just 2,000 did. July figures were also down by more than half compared with a year ago. Numbers this year are down 4.2 percent overall, the result of a sudden and steep shift in the middle of July. Before that shift, arrivals were running about 20 percent higher than in 2016.
"It is clear that at this point in the Central Mediterranean, there is no emergency," Minniti said.
Analysts attribute the drop to both the increased activity of the Libyan coast guard and a stretch of bad weather in the Mediterranean starting in mid-July.
Italy's stepped-up approach to the migrant flow came after a June ballot-box blow to the governing center-left party in local elections, when a wave of anti-migrant mayors and local councilors were swept into office around the country. Italian leaders have imposed strict rules on rescue ships that the operators say will hamper their ability to help distressed migrants. And they have also pushed the Libyan government to do more to patrol its frontiers. The pressure from the Italians has been accompanied by promises of aid to Libya and a vow to help improve conditions in migrant camps inside the chaotic country.
But critics say that Italian leaders are pursuing short-term electoral gain at the cost of migrants' lives.
"We wanted to rescue lives, and now we are public enemies," said Michael Buschheuer, the leader of the Sea-Eye rescue group, a German organization that purchased an old East German fishing vessel to help migrants in distress in the Mediterranean. On Sunday, he suspended rescue operations after an announcement by the Libyan coast guard that it planned to expand its search-and-rescue zone beyond its internationally recognized territorial waters.
"For us it's too dangerous; we can't calculate the risk," he said. He said he blamed the Italian government for pressuring the Libyans.
A Libyan coast guard official did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Minniti, who has worked extensively with Libyan authorities, said Tuesday that any expansion of the Libyan-controlled search-and-rescue zone was unlikely to go into effect immediately.
Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children also suspended their rescue operations after the Libyan decision. The aid groups are concerned that the Libyan coast guard might menace their ships. The coast guard has boarded and impounded rescue vessels in past years, and it has also fired warning shots at rescuers.
Italian authorities have also seized the vessel of one such nongovernmental organization, saying the group was working directly with traffickers, a charge it denies.
Aid organization leaders say that any blow to their rescue efforts immediately imperils migrants. So far this year, 97,293 have arrived in Italy. For all of 2016, more than 181,000 made the journey.
"The prognosis is pretty poor, really, because people are going to be leaving, and there will be fewer rescuers there to actually perform these rescues," said Rob MacGillivray, the head of operations for the Save the Children rescue operation in the Mediterranean.
Italian authorities have sometimes criticized the aid organizations, saying that the groups, which operate immediately outside Libya's national waters, have become key enablers for the people-smugglers who operate the migrant boats. Most migrants now set out in rubber dinghies that stand no chance of managing the Mediterranean's rough seas. And most are now rescued close to Libya by the aid groups or by merchant vessels in the area.
The aid groups point to the 2,408 people who have died in the Mediterranean this year, and they say that desperate migrants would be trying to make it to Europe regardless of whether the rescue ships were there to rescue them.
"We're seeing in this flow of migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean the fact that there are people who are desperate enough to attempt the crossing," said Barbara Molinario, a Rome-based spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency.
"Despite all the efforts by the Italian coast guard and all the other actors involved in rescue in the Mediterranean, it's simply not enough," she said. "So we find it really, really concerning."
Pitrelli reported from Rome.