Mediterranean Migraine: Italy’s Growing Refugee Problem


The Leaning Tower in Pisa

Source: The Local

By Luigi Albonico, Peter Maxwill, Vladimir Otasevic, Charlotte Teunis and Katharina Wecker

The large number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Africa to Italy continues unabated, with more coming now than in previous years. Many want to continue their journey to Germany. With Italian authorities badly overstrained, could this become Berlin’s next problem?

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.

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Rescued refugees off the coast of Libya

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