Illegal Immigrants Ante Portas: Italy Declares a State of Emergency

By Viktor Marsai on April 17, 2023

The Italian government introduced a new measure last week to cope with illegal mass migration. A six-month national state of emergency was announced to cope with the rapidly increasing number of illegal migrants arriving via the Mediterranean to the country. The aim of the measure was to give further leeway to agencies dealing with migrants “to carry out with urgency extraordinary measures to reduce congestion”. In addition, the state of emergency is set to support “new structures, suitable both for sheltering as well as the processing and repatriation of migrants who don’t have the requisites to stay”.

The decision of Rome came as no surprise. Italy has been the epicenter of the European migration crisis since 2013. As a major frontline state on the Central Mediterranean Route, Italy saw more than 880,200 migrants arrive on its shores since 2014.

That said, the increase in illegal crossings via the Mediterranean the past few years was beyond the expected. While in 2019 Italy recorded just 11,470 irregular border crossings (IBCs) by sea, numbers rose to 34,150 in 2020, 67,450 in 2021 and 102,529 in 2022. That is a 794 percent increase in just three years. Numbers kept climbing in 2023; in the first three months of 2023, IBCs reached 26,800, compared to 6,400 during the same period in 2022, a 317 percent increase. If trends do not change, a new record could be reached this year, exceeding the 2016 one where more than 181,000 IBCs were registered

It should also be noted that Italy is not only struggling on the Mediterranean front, but on its land borders as well. The Trieste region, which lies on the Western Balkan irregular migration route, experienced a five-fold increase in illegal arrivals during the last three months of 2022 compared to the same period the previous year. This comes as no surprise since the Western Balkan Route saw overall a 136 percent increase of IBCs in 2022. Forty-five percent of all IBCs in Europe that year – over 145,600 entries – occurred via this region.

Croatia and Slovenia are also witnessing a flood of irregular migrants. Since October 2022, the Croatian city of Rijeka, near the Slovenian and Italian borders, has been experiencing 200 daily arrivals. Taking into account the small population of the city (around 110,000), we can see how the number of irregular migrants is putting a huge burden on its social services, even if most migrants later move towards to Italy. To address the situation, the three countries (Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy) set up a gatekeeper agreement in late March. Slovenia and Italy agreed to send joint police patrols to their neighbor to facilitate controls of illegal immigrants in Croatia, while the Croatian authorities agreed to focus on the border area. The key for all three countries is to prevent the re-introduction of border control within the Schengen zone, which would significantly disadvantage the life of commuting workers and tourists between the three countries.

At this stage, it is difficult to predict how this state of emergency set up by Italy is to contribute to the solution of the current migrant crisis. The aim is to achieve quicker immigration procedures and deportations. But the Achilles' heel of the measure is whether third countries will accept back their citizens. Italy has been using the carrot and stick policy. One example is with Tunisia; Italy pushed for an aid package – and the possible breakout from international isolation of the government of Kais Saied – to help Tunis to improve its economic situation. In return, the North African country was supposed to stop illegal migrants. But it is still questionable how effective this policy will be.

In addition, the state of emergency does nothing to prevent people from embarking in Libya. According to the Italian minister of defense, Guido Crosetto, Russia and the Wagner Group are weaponizing illegal immigration from Libya to undermine the stability of Italy, which is a supporter of Ukraine in its war against Moscow’s aggression. Similar remarks were made by Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, who said during a visit to Israel that it was worrying how many migrants came from areas "controlled by the Wagner group". Italy has very limited influence in the Eastern part of Libya which is under the control of Halifa Hafter, who is the biggest ally of Russia in the country, and the mercenaries.

Nevertheless, it does not mean that Rome cannot gain from this measure. In 2023, around 58 percent of all sea arrivals to Italy were from Tunisia, followed by 38 percent from Libya, which in the past had been the main country of departure. It means that an enhanced cooperation with Tunis – including deportation back to North Africa – could significantly reduce the number of people who leave the southern shores of the Mediterranean, both through the increased activity of the Tunisian coast guard (which, just in 2022, prevented 38,400 people from crossing to Italy) and the effects of deterrence that encourage people to think twice before crossing in view of the heavy financial costs of illegal crossing – thousands of dollars – and the possibility of their being sent back.

I will be revisiting the subject in the coming months to examine whether Italy’s plan has worked, and how extraordinary measures and international cooperation have influenced the flow of illegal immigration to Italy.