Italian government increases detention after thousands of people arrive to Lampedusa. Commission 10-point plan with focus on prevention and return sparks critique by civil society. In light of Lampedusa arrivals, Germany ends suspension of relocation from Italy.

According to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) the Central Mediterranean route accounts for half of the 232,350 “irregular border crossings” to the EU in the first eight months of 2023. The main departure points are Tunisia and Libya – both defined by abuse of migrants and the latter ravaged by recent floods – and the main point of entry is Italy. Reportedly, more than 6,000 people including a large number of children and pregnant women arrived in Lampedusa within 24 hours on 12 September and the island had seen 10,000 arrivals this month by 18 September. The overcrowding of the Lampedusa hotspot has sparked tension and despair. In a joint statement published mid-September more than 80 NGOs wrote: “The hotspot, a triage center where those who just arrived are kept away from the local population and pre-identified before being transferred to the mainland, with its 389 places, has no capacity whatsoever to welcome with dignity the people arriving on the island on a daily basis. Since Tuesday, the center’s staff have been completely overwhelmed by the presence of 6,000 people. The Red Cross and staff from other organizations have been prevented from entering the facility for “safety reasons”. By 19 September, more than 1,500 people remained in the hotspot awaiting transfers to mainland Sicily where tented camps had been set up at the port.

The right-wing prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, called the situation “unsustainable” and her deputy, Matteo Salvini notorious for his anti-migrant populism, took it a step further defining the arrivals as an “act of war”. The government, entering office on promises to curb arrivals, responded by increasing the length of the time limit of detention from the current three to 18 months and approving new detention centres to detain people arriving without a visa. “We will have all the necessary time not just to do the necessary checks but also to proceed with the repatriation for those without the right to international protection,” Meloni said, adding that the battle against immigration is “an epochal battle for Italy and Europe”. The Italian PM has warned that arrivals are a threat to the “future of Europe” and emphasized the need for EU support, stating: “If anyone thinks that this crisis we are facing could be just resolved within Italian borders, it would be a very big mistake, because this problem involves everyone and needs to be tackled by everyone,” adding “I continue to say that we will never resolve it by talking only about redistribution [of migrants] – the only way to resolve it is to stop departures”. Meloni, who has introduced controversial measures targeting civilian rescue operators has reportedly floated ideas of an EU-led naval blockade preventing departures from Tunisia but such an initiative would be limited in its reach by International Law of the Sea. However, a European Commission spokesperson told media on 18 September: “We have expressed the support to explore these possibilities”. While the spokesperson offered no details but the statement came at the rebound of a recent statement by European Commission president, von der Leyen, stating: “I support exploring options to expand existing naval missions in the Mediterranean or to work on new ones”.

In a press statement released on 17 September, Ursula von der Leyen – visiting Lampedusa alongside Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson – stated: “we will decide who comes to the European Union and under what circumstances, and not the smugglers and traffickers”. On the same day, Von der Leyen outlined a “10-Point Plan for Lampedusa”. The plan includes increasing “support” by the European Union Asylum Agency (EUAA) and Frontex, and mentions humanitarian admissions as well as “support” for transfers to other member states through the voluntary solidarity mechanism but its main focus is on prevention and return. Such measures include improving “cooperation and facilitate readmission” with countries of origin in West Africa, supporting voluntary return from countries of transit, preventing departures through “operational partnerships on anti-smuggling with countries of origin and transit”, stepping up border surveillance at sea and aerial surveillance, taking “action against the supply chains and logistics of smugglers, ensuring the disabling of recuperated boats and dinghies”, the use of the “safe country of origin concept, rejecting applications as manifestly unfounded” as well as “awareness and communication campaigns to disincentivise the Mediterranean crossings” and Implementing “the EU-Tunisia Memorandum of Understanding (MoU)”.

Civil society has denounced the plan. “Reinforcing controls at sea to the detriment of the obligation to rescue, increasing the pace of expulsions and stepping up the process of outsourcing borders… all old recipes that the European Union has been implementing for decades and which have proved their failure, only aggravating the crisis of solidarity and the situation of people on the move”, says a joint statement signed by 80 organisations including many rescue operators.

Ahead of Pope Francis’s trip to Marseille for a conference on the Mediterranean region where migration will be a key issue, Italian Bishop Mariano Crociata has denounced recent anti-migrant moves by France and Germany. In reference to French deployments at the border with Italy and Germany’s suspension of relocation from the country amid increased arrivals, the prelate stated: “The current challenges in managing the flow of migrations must not obfuscate the necessary fraternity in the face of migrants in vulnerable situations, nor weaken the bonds of solidarity among member states of the EU”. Imogen Sudbery, a director for Europe at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) – one of the organisations signing a recent joint statement on priorities to expand relocation to Europe, regrets that the majority of member states have yet to resettle a single refugee in 2023, stating: “So far this year, we’ve seen them resettle just over 5,000 people,” adding: “It’s a very, very disheartening situation and really a huge wasted opportunity,” noting the ability of member states to host millions of Ukrainians. Meanwhile, German Interior Minister, Nancy Faeser, clarified that in light of the recent increase in arrivals in Italy that their position on relocation has changed, stating: “The reason we have suspended the procedure …. is that Italy has shown no willingness whatsoever to take back people under the Dublin procedure. Now it’s of course clear that we will meet our obligation of solidarity”. Ahead of a meeting in Rome on 18 September to “help Italy hold its border” French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, stated: “There can be no message given to people who come to our shores that they will be welcomed whatever happens”. According to the minister, France is not preparing to receive people voluntarily from Lampedusa as outlined in Von der Leyen’s 10-point plan but Darmanin added without explaining the connection to the topic: “[But] if there are asylum seekers who are eligible for asylum, who are persecuted for political reasons, they are obviously refugees. And in that case, France […], as it has always done, can welcome [those] people”.

Meanwhile, the cycle of death and distress at sea continues across the Mediterranean. On 17 September, 11 people lost their lives in the Alboran Sea while attempting to reach Spain from Algeria. Malta continues its non-response tactics leaving 76 people adrift on 15 September. The group was later rescued by Italy, the NGO hotline Alarm Phone reported. The hotline further communicated losing contact with 24 people in distress on 17 September and the following day with 52 people in distress in international waters off Libya. On 20 September, Alarm Phone urged the rescue of 85 people in distress off Lampedusa with water entering their vessel. Meanwhile, Louise Michel conducted several rescue operations saving 19 people including a child and a baby on 20 September and another 16 people on the same day. The organisation confirmed on 21 September, that all 35 survivors had disembarked in Pozzallo.

More than 2,000 people have died or gone missing on the central Mediterranean route alone in 2023 as of 16 September.

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