In June, a rescue vessel carrying 629 migrants intended to dock in Italy. The Italian government simply would not let them in.

The incident spurred a diplomatic standoff, as hundreds of vulnerable migrants waited in limbo at sea and Italy’s newly elected populist government doubled down on its decision to close its ports. Malta also refused to accept the ship. Eventually, Spain’s newly elected socialist government offered the migrants an open door, and the ship rerouted there.

“It is our obligation to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe,” Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said when he agreed to welcome the ship.

Since coming to power last year, the Italian government has made one thing clear: It doesn’t want migrants coming there. The country is receiving far fewer immigrants since its call to restrict migrants from entering. Given that, plus changing smuggling routes and renewed efforts by the Libyan coast guard to intercept migrant vessels, many are no longer taking their chances on the Central Mediterranean.

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In 2018, the number of migrants who reached Italy dropped to around a fifth of what it was the previous year.

“The welcome mat has been taken away to a certain extent,” said Leonard Doyle, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration.

In Spain, it’s a different story. The number of migrant arrivals, by land and sea, to the country doubled last year compared with that of 2017, according to IOM data.

In general, migration to Europe continues to drop. In 2016, more than 390,000 migrants arrived in Europe. Last year, around 142,000 made it to Europe by land and sea, while at least 2,242 migrants died or went missing crossing the Mediterranean in 2018. The IOM’s priority is to ensure that “migrants are being rescued at sea … [and] vulnerable migrants are being cared for,” Doyle said.

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Even as Italy’s government cracks down on migration, some of the country’s mayors are refusing to implement the demands of right-wing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. Late last year, the Italian government approved a measure known as the “Salvini decree,” which ensures that migrants seeking asylum based on humanitarian grounds will no longer be considered refugees. In 2018, more than 20,000 people were offered humanitarian asylum in Italy, Reuters reported. Some mayors insist they will allow asylum seekers to remain in their cities.

“Anyone who helps clandestine migrants hates Italians,” Salvini tweeted in response. “They will answer for their actions before the law and the history books. I will not back down.”

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