Italy declares a state of emergency to address surge of illicit migration

 April 13, 2023

The United States is clearly facing a migration crisis at its southern border, but the nation is certainly not alone in that regard.

The government of Italy just declared a six-month national state of emergency in response to a substantial rise in migrant arrivals on its southern shores, the Associated Press reported.

That emergency declaration was approved on Tuesday by Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni and her Cabinet and will include a forthcoming appointment of a special commissioner and initial appropriations of €5 million.

Italian resources overwhelmed by migrant surge

According to the Associated Press, the Italian government has documented the arrival or at-sea rescue of more than 31,000 migrants since the start of the year, a total that is nearly quadruple the average of around 8,000 migrants over the same time span in prior years.

The vast majority of those migrants set sail for Italy across the Mediterranean Sea in small fishing boats or other smuggler's vessels that are barely seaworthy, typically from Libya and Tunisia in North Africa but also from Turkey in the Middle East, and most predominately this year include people originating from African nations like Tunisia, Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Egypt, as well as Central and Southeast Asian nations like Pakistan and Bangladesh, to name a few.

The surge in arrivals, to say nothing of Italian Coast Guard rescue efforts for overcrowded boats floundering in high seas, have reportedly overwhelmed what were already thinly-stretched resources at migrant processing and shelter facilities, particularly one on the small southern Italian island of Lampedusa, which recently held as many as 3,000 migrants in a facility designed to hold only around 350-400, per the AP.

Italy responded by chartering empty commercial ferry vessels to transfer hundreds of those migrants to the Italian mainland or the island of Sicily, but the facility nonetheless remains overcrowded. Lorena Tortorici, the director of the migrant center, told an Italian news outlet, "There are many women with small children, plus there are unaccompanied minors," and added, "We are in an emergency situation. The staff are trying to do what they can."

Emergency powers, new regulations, and a call for help

Euronews reported that the declared state of emergency in response to the "sharp rise" in migration will allow Italy to temporarily bypass certain parliamentary procedures and govern by decree in terms of funding appropriations and implementing new regulations.

The emergency powers and initial funding will allow Premier Meloni's government to construct "new structures, suitable both for sheltering as well as the processing and repatriation of migrants who don’t have the requisites to stay."

It will also allow Meloni's administration to act quickly on new migrant-related policies it has considered, such as an expedited process for removals and the modification or complete abolishment of a unique "special protection" status for purportedly at-risk migrants that don't qualify for asylum or as refugees but also can't be expelled back to their nation of origin due to threats to their safety.

The goal in all of this, per Meloni's government, is to sufficiently curtail migrant access to Italy in such a way as to discourage more migrants from making the dangerous and at times deadly journey across the rough Mediterranean Sea.

Meanwhile, the Italian government is also calling for assistance from other members of the European Union, according to Euronews, as Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said in a statement, "Europe needs to wake up and intervene: for years it has been talking without ever moving a finger, and now it’s the time to show that there’s a community, a Union, and solidarity doesn’t fall just on Italy, Spain, Greece, or Malta."

Tragic shipwreck in February

One of the big drivers behind this move is the fatal sinking in February of a migrant-packed boat off the coast of Italy's southern region of Calabria, in which nearly 100 migrants drowned.

Roberto Occhiuto, the governor of Calabria, said in a statement to Reuters of the emergency declaration, "It is right that the interior ministry and the institutions should have special powers to tackle and manage a complex phenomenon which is putting a strain on some southern regions."

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