On Nov. 28, helpers with the Irish navy, two aid organizations and the Italian relief forces rescued some 1,400 migrants from the open sea and brought them to Italy. It was a day like many others, but it also set a new record: More refugees reached Italy’s shores last year than in the crisis year of 2014. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that a total of 171,000 migrants took the risky route in 2016.
Those may only be abstract numbers to some, but behind them lie the fates of thousands. More than 5,000 refugees died or went missing last year in the Mediterranean Sea. In 2015, almost 3,800 people drowned on their way to Europe. But the struggle is not over for migrants who make it to Italy alive. The country is increasingly overstretched — not only by the high number of refugees, but also by economic and political problems. As such, the fate of African refugees might soon become a bigger issue for other European Union countries, including Germany.
So far, migrants from Africa have played a minor role in the debate over asylum-seekers in Germany. Syrians have made up the biggest group of refugees, whereas immigrants from African crisis countries have been in the minority.
In Italy, however, the situation is altogether different: Most of the migrants who land on the Mediterranean islands of Lampedusa and Sicily are from Africa. And although this may seem surprising, the increase in the number of refugees arriving by boat is not, for the most part, the result of the closure of the Balkan route or the controversial refugee deal struck between the EU and Turkey.
Numerous conflicts have fueled flight from Africa, but hunger and poverty also play a considerable role. Many make the crossing on the dangerous sea route in the hope of forging a better future and are willing to risk everything, even their own lives.
The numbers of the last two years suggest that migration from Africa will not decrease any time soon. The European Union and the German government are undertaking efforts to fight the causes of flight, but the payoff from these initiatives is more likely to be seen in the long-term than in the short-term.
Most of the refugees who reach Italy are fleeing the dictatorship in Eritrea and terrorism-plagued Nigeria. And with each month, significantly fewer Syrians are making their way to Europe via Africa.
The constant influx of refugees is taking its toll on the entire country. Italian authorities are overwhelmed; volunteers and aid workers are reaching their limits. Parts of the Mediterranean Sea not covered by operations conducted by Frontex, the EU border authority, are monitored by volunteers who search for refugee boats in distress. Many aid organizations are fearing an increase in the number of casualties in the coming months.
One of the main problems is that nearly all the volunteer rescue vessels must return to the shipyards in winter to be serviced, says Michael Buschheuer, director of the rescue initiative Sea Eye. This means that fewer boats are available for rescue missions.
In recent years, this posed less of a problem, given that fewer refugees attempted to cross the sea in the cold and stormy winter months. But the situation is different this year, says Axel Steier of the organization Mission Lifeline. In a development that has alarmed many, the number of migrant boats remains high. “If you drive out there now, you’re doomed to die,” says Steier.
Italy has been left largely on its own in dealing with the influx of African migrants. Despite a warning from former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, other EU countries have shown little willingness to cooperate. Shortly before his resignation, he said his country “would not get through another year like this.”
Comparably few refugees cross the borders into neighboring France, Austria or Switzerland — largely due to the strict measures taken by Italian authorities. In southern Italian registration centers, the police force refugees to have their fingerprints taken. In the north, border police patrol the frontiers.
A majority of migrants stranded in Italy would prefer to continue their journey northward — at least that’s what the numbers suggest. Tens of thousands of people arrived in southern Italy in 2016, but only around half applied for asylum. Even when considering that it usually takes months before an application can be filed, the numbers still show a clear trend: Many refugees do not want asylum in Italy.
What does this mean for Europe? If the political and economic problems in Italy continue to deteriorate, African refugees could soon become a more pressing matter at the European level. The populist parties in particular — Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord — may have an interest in trying to get as many refugees as possible to leave Italy.
If the populists gain in clout, they could also revive Italy’s former practice: Instead of registering new arrivals and letting them apply for asylum, the authorities might instead hand them expulsion orders. Migrants would then be required to leave the country within two weeks. So far, the Italian government has refrained from this practice — in no small part because the EU offered it money in return, along with the promise of redistributing refugees among its member states.
A European solution is becoming more urgent, especially given that the heavy strain placed on the Italian authorities has long been obvious. Although relatively few refugees have illegally entered Switzerland so far, the numbers have risen recently. And media reports suggest that half the asylum-seekers who came to Switzerland via Italy in fact want to reach Germany.
There are no official statistics or reliable estimates, but the German government has nonetheless recognized that the influx of African asylum-seekers through Italy and Switzerland could soon rise. To prevent this from happening, the Interior Ministry has drafted a plan that, if approved, would see migrant boats sent back to North Africa directly after their rescue at sea.
Of course, it’s questionable this would somehow solve the problem. In a federal election year, though, the German government doesn’t appear to want to risk a new wave of refugees — this time coming over the Brenner Pass.