The number of asylum seekers and migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach Italy has surged this year, according to EU officials. More than 56,000 people have made the journey – almost double the total over the same period last year.
The increase prompted Italy’s government to declare a six-month state of emergency in April, in part to address overcrowding at a centre for those who arrive on the Italian island of Lampedusa.
But experienced aid workers say the focus on numbers is distracting from the real issues: dire conditions in North Africa – most recently Tunisia – pushing more people to take dangerous journeys at sea; and an Italian migration reception system near collapse due to years of politicisation and neglect.
“The emergency at the moment is the way these people arrive and how they are welcomed, rather than the numbers,” Emma Conti, an aid worker based in Lampedusa since 2014, told The New Humanitarian.
The route asylum seekers and migrants take from Tunisia – a 190-kilometre crossing to Lampedusa – is extremely dangerous because the boats are not seaworthy, according to Conti. Sometimes, they are only made of sheet metal, welded together by smugglers just prior to departure, and they fall apart after a couple of hours at sea, she added.
“It takes them at least 18 hours to reach Sicily, only to find heavily militarised ports and Frontex [EU border agency] guards at their arrival,” said Conti, who works for the organisation Mediterranean Hope.
Many don’t survive the crossing at all. Over 1,000 people have died or gone missing since the beginning of the year. Adding to that grim total, as many as around 650 people may have died when a boat that departed from Libya capsized off the west coast of Greece en route to Italy last week.
Migration deaths and missing in the central Mediterranean
The fact that rickety boats are spending 18 or more hours at sea – instead of being rescued when they are in distress – is a product of European countries largely withdrawing their coast guards and navies from search and rescue activities in the central Mediterranean in recent years.
During a visit by EU officials – including Italy’s far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni – the EU floated the possibility of giving Tunisia 1 billion euros ($1.07 billion) in funding to help stabilise the country’s economy and stem migration, despite human rights concerns. The EU will also send 100 million euros to Tunisia this year for “border management, but also search and rescue and anti-smuggling and return”, according to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.
After the declaration of the state of emergency, the Italian government named a special commissioner and allocated 5 million euros ($5.5 million) to regions in the south of Italy to establish additional reception centres.
“It wasn’t the best move, but it was the necessary move to face this,” Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesperson of the UN’s migration agency, IOM, told The New Humanitarian. “Hopefully, it’ll speed up Italy’s creaky migrant reception system.”
‘I must embark’
Tunisia, the country most people arriving to Lampudesa are departing from, has become increasingly unsafe this year, according to asylum seekers and migrants The New Humanitarian interviewed during a recent visit.
“I cannot go back; there’s a war in my country. But I cannot stay here either; they hate us for our black skin.”
Saddam, a 28-year-old from Darfur, looks at a dark and rough sea from the port neighbourhood of La Goulette in Tunisia’s capital, Tunis.
“It’ll be a long and scary journey. But I must embark,” he said of his plans to try to reach Italy. “I cannot go back; there’s a war in my country. But I cannot stay here either; they hate us for our black skin.”
Saddam* is one of the thousands of African migrants who’ve faced rising racism and violence in Tunisia, a situation exacerbated by President Kais Saied’s February speech accusing them of criminality, violence, and being part of a conspiracy to change the country’s demographic composition.
Saddam cut off his dreadlocks because Tunisians would single him out for verbal attacks, and once someone tried to pull them.
Adama, 25, and 9 months pregnant, fled violence and the worsening security situation in Sierra Leone. She left with her sister-in-law, who gave birth in Tunisia. Their husbands are currently in Libya.
“We left our country more than a year ago, with the goal of finding a job in Libya and staying,” said Adama. “But then we realised that Libya was also not safe, like Sierra Leone.”
She and her sister-in-law are hoping to be reunited with their husbands in Tunisia’s second city of Sfax – the major departure point for asylum seekers and migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Italy – and then embark on the journey to Lampudesa.
After Saied’s speech, hundreds of African asylum seekers and migrants have camped outside the offices of IOM and UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) in Tunis, asking to be evacuated. The protest camps were violently dispersed by security forces in April. Some – including Saddam — were jailed, but returned to the camp outside the IOM office.
A system in constant transition
Across the Mediterranean – where people escaping the deteriorating situation in Tunisia hope to land – Di Giacomo, from IOM, said Italy missed the opportunity to revamp its reception system when the number of asylum seekers and migrants arriving was lower between 2018 and 2021.
Sea arrivals to Italy via the Mediterranean over the years
The system has been in flux over the years, facing changes depending on the political orientations of a succession of Italian governments. In 2017, there were efforts to expand the number of reception centres under Italy’s former interior minister Marco Minniti.
But in 2018, another former interior minister – the right-wing, staunchly anti-migration Matteo Salvini – stripped humanitarian protections from thousands of asylum seekers and gutted Italy’s reception system.
And so the changes have continued as Italy has cycled through four governments with differing political orientations toward migration since 2018.
“The result is a mechanism in constant transition, which has been deliberately weakened, and makes it unprepared to handle this new arrivals spike,” said Giulia Gringiani, psychologist and social worker at a reception centre in the city of Monza, in northern Italy, where the number of people staying has almost doubled since the beginning of spring.
Instead of investing in the reception system, successive Italian governments have resorted to emergency measures to deal with increases in arrivals. Gringiani said the approach needs to change, so migrant arrivals can be handled with ordinary measures. “Considering the government’s latest decision to declare a state of emergency, that will not happen any time soon,” she added.
Although the current numbers of people arriving should be manageable, the optics of the reception system being overwhelmed serve a political purpose, according to Matteo Villa, a senior migration research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI).
Italy’s far-right government uses them to stoke fears of a wave of migrants landing in the country to convince the public to support draconian policies against refugees, Villa explained.
Sicily trying to cope
These days, Sicily, which is on the front lines of the crisis, is trying to improve its fragile reception infrastructure to comply with the state of emergency.
In April, 700 migrants were transferred to Catania, on Sicily’s east coast, and were temporarily housed in the city’s former agricultural market. Now, the market will be transformed into a first-arrival reception centre managed by the Italian Red Cross, like the one in Lampedusa.
But the emergency declaration is changing the structure of the reception system.
The system is divided into three parts: short-term reception centres, also known as “hotspots” or first receptions, where people are meant to stay only for the first few days after they arrive; longer-term reception centres, or second receptions, where people stay for up to a year as they start integrating into Italian society; and extraordinary reception centres (known as CAS), which are a hybrid of the two.
“The system doesn’t manage to welcome all the newcomers. So the second reception structures have been asked to re-adapt and welcome those recently arrived.”
The CAS now account for around 68% of Italy’s reception centres. The government delegates the task of running them, and the longer-term reception centres, to private companies called cooperativas.
Giuliana Ecora, immigration coordinator of Cooperativa Teams, an organisation that runs two reception centres in eastern Sicily, explains that her facility, which was set up to be a second reception centre, is now being used more like a CAS centre.
“The system doesn’t manage to welcome all the newcomers,” Ecora said. “So the second reception structures have been asked to re-adapt and welcome those recently arrived.”
Ecora said the emergency declaration has caused confusion and challenges because the majority of people working for cooperativas don’t have the training to receive new arrivals. “Those trained in the second reception phase are specialised in integration skills,” she explained.
But people arriving at centres immediately after landing in Lampedusa are often disoriented and traumatised and don’t speak Italian. “Our work mode has changed in the matter of just a few days,” Ecora added.
A perennial problem
On Lampedusa, Conti said she witnessed an average of 23 boat arrivals per day between April and early May, with a peak of some 2,000 arrivals in 24 hours.
A few Tunisians are escaping the country’s economic crisis, but most new arrivals are minors or families from West African countries like Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.
Lampedusa’s short-term reception centre, which was built for a maximum capacity of 380 people, is now hosting up to 4,000. Three people have died in the past six months because healthcare is lacking, according to aid workers.
“Most of these centres were thought of as temporary places, but in the end people get clogged up here for weeks,” Conti explained.
The system is in such disarray that a Dutch court ruled in April that asylum seekers cannot be returned to Italy under the EU’s Dublin Regulation, which requires people to seek protection in the first EU country they enter, since it would put them at risk of mistreatment and human rights violations.
Asylum seekers and migrants that are sent to Cooperativa Teams facilities in Catania are often traumatised by their experiences in Lampedusa and have not undergone initial psychological screenings, according to Ecora. Many minors put on board boats by their families are unaware of the next steps, and end up running away at night in the hope of reuniting with relatives in other European countries, she added.
According to Conti, what makes the situation even sadder is that these issues with Italy’s reception system are nothing new: “After all this time, we haven’t figured out alternative methods to welcome [people] with dignity.”
(*For security reasons, only the first names of asylum seekers and migrants are being used.)
Edited by Tom Brady and Eric Reidy.