Italy’s “push-back” pact with Libya to send migrants picked up at sea to detention centres in the north African country instituted last year has produced an extraordinary drop in the number of migrants apprehended irregularly crossing the EU border–whether by land or sea.
Irregular crossings into the EU had been climbing in recent years, with Brussels data from Eurodac, the EU’s biometric common asylum registration system released on Tuesday showing a rise of 62.3 percent in the number of cases between 2007 and 2008.
However, the number dropped by a whopping 50 percent in the last year. At the sqm time, the number of asylum seekers in Europe rose by eight percent in 2009
While not all of the reduction in irregular crossings could be described as a result of Italy’s new policy–significant drops have also been seen in Spain, which also launched a fresh anti-immigrant offensive in the last two years–the largest drop was seen in Italy, with a total of 7,300 cases in 2009 compared to 32,052 the year before. Spanish cases of irregular migration dropped from 7,068 to just 1,994.
Until Rome’s pact with Tripoli, Italy was the frontline EU member state with highest incidents of irregular border entries, a position Greece now holds, responsible for 60 percent of all cases registered by Eurodac.
According to Eurodac rules, which were updated last year allowing for police access to the system’s biometric database, each member state must “promptly” take the finger prints of all “aliens” over the age of 14 that have arrived via an irregular border crossing by land, air or sea and, as the report points out, who is not turned back.
The major change in 2008-09, was that Italy and, to a lesser extent Spain, began turning back thousands before they ever officially arrive.
In the Italian case, most are now shipped back before landing Italy and sent to Libya, while Spain has in the past two years stepped up police cooperation with source nations in Africa, notably Cape Verde, Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Morocco, delivering satellite data via the EU-funded system, Sea Horse, which began operating in 2008 and allows police to track migrant vessels around the Atlantic coast of Africa towards Europe.
The data backs up related statistics from Rome that employ different information sources and time scales. In April this year, Italian interior minister Roberto Maroni, of the anti-immigrant Northern League, hailed the Libya deal.
“The Italian model of fighting illegal immigration has produced exceptional results and we think it should be copied by other European countries,” he told the Ansa news agency.
He said that in the first three months of 2010, there had been a 96 percent drop in arrivals compared to 2009, with 28,000 fewer arrivals.
“It’s an unprecedented and concrete achievement which is the result of Berlusconi’s diplomacy and the agreement he struck with Libya,” he said.
European Commission home affairs spokesman Michele Cercone cautioned that the 50 percent drop should be read carefully as the 2009 Eurodac data does not contain information from six states, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Luxemburg, Portugal, Iceland and Norway, the latter two part of the Eurodac system but not EU members.
However, apart from Portugal, none of the countries lie on the EU’s immigration frontline–the Mediterranean crossing from Africa.
“But it is of course there has been a clear decrease in arrivals to Italy via illegal channels, that’s evident,” said Mr Cercone. “Frontex data [the EU’s border agency] reports a 36 percent decrease in to Italy in 2009.”
The Eurodac system was created to prevent refugees from applying for asylum status in multiple EU member states at the same time and to ensure that they applied in the country where they first landed.
EU law requires that they take the fingerprints of all border-crossers over 14 and send them into a central database managed by the commission. They can then automatically be checked against new asylum applications to weed out duplications and if they have transited through another EU state.
According to the Eurodac annual report, issued on Tuesday, about a quarter of the some 240,000 people who applied for asylum did so in more than one country last year.
The report says that the majority of those who entered the EU in an irregular fashion via Greece and then traveled further headed mainly to Norway, the United Kingdom or Germany Those having entered via Italy and having moved on proceeded mainly to Switzerland, the Netherlands, Norway, or Sweden. Those who entered via Spain and eventually traveled further most often left for France or Switzerland, while those who entered via Hungary traveled on mainly to Austria, Switzerland or Germany.
The UN High Commission for Refugees last year criticised the Eurodac system and the “basic assumption underlying” the prevention of “asylum-shopping”, saying that until refugees can able to enjoy “generally equivalent levels of procedural and substantive protection”, via a largely harmonised asylum system, it is rational for refugees to seek out those locations viewed to be most friendly.
Human rights groups have also criticised Italy’s pact with Libya. Human Rights Watch’s Bill Frelick calls it “a dirty deal to enable Italy to dump migrants and asylum seekers on Libya and evade its obligations.”