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Rising death toll & unsettling alliances: Italy's alarming response to migration crisis

In February 2023, the Italian parliament passed a government decree establishing a code of conduct for NGO rescue ships, limiting their rescue operations in an effort to deter illegal immigration to Italy and limit it.

June 28, 2023 at 8:30 am

2023 has been the deadliest year for migrants crossing the Mediterranean since 2017.

In 2022, more than half of those that took on the world’s most treacherous migration route departed from Libya, a country that has been embroiled in conflict and civil war for nearly a decade, and about a third from Tunisia.

By June 2023, Tunisia had overtaken Libya as the gateway for the highest number of migrants heading for Italy, which has served as a primary destination for those trying to reach Europe in search of a better life. Tunisia’s worsening economic, political and social crisis, as well as the recent crackdown on sub-Saharan Africans in the country under President Kais Saied and the rise of anti-Black rhetoric have all been factors which have contributed to the rising number of people seeking to leave the country.

In the first half of 2023, more than 44,000 migrants reached Italian shores, but not without great loss and sacrifice. The UN has documented more than 1,000 dead or missing in the central Mediterranean in the first 6 months of 2023 alone.

Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni paid a visit to Tunisian President Kais Saeid earlier this month as her far-right government continues to seek ways to stem migration from the North African country.

READ: Tunisians protest against irregular migrants

Italy is promising Tunisia greater facilities and resources for coastal patrols, which Amnesty International has described as another step towards a dark road for Meloni’s government as it continues to encourage an increasingly repressive leader and turn a blind eye to human rights abuses.

In an attempt to create a deterrence and limit undocumented migration to Italy, in February 2023, the Italian parliament passed a government decree that sets out a code of conduct for NGO rescue ships, restricting their rescue efforts.

Under the new measures, rescue ships’ ability to carry out multiple rescues in one mission have been curtailed. Each ship must sail directly to a specified port to disembark after a rescue, rather than remain at sea searching for other migrant boats in distress. Organisations violating the new rules can face fines of up to €50,000 ($54,600) and have their vessels impounded.

The Italian government also declared a six-month state of emergency in April 2023 to be backed by an initial funding of €5 million ($5.45 million) intended for the management of migrant arrivals and repatriation facilities. This allows the right-wing government to repatriate migrants faster and issue expulsion orders to those not allowed to stay.

READ: With scores missing from shipwreck, family members flock to Greek migrant camp

Italy’s aggressive approach in addressing the surge in irregular migration to Europe is not an isolated one. Rather, it is reflective of a wider rise of the far-right in Europe and harsher attitudes towards migrants – from Greece’s pushback and crackdown on migrants to Hungary’s border fence and the UK’s planned deportation to Rwanda.

By hindering rescue efforts, seeking to block refugees from leaving countries such as Tunisia and focusing on repatriation without sufficient bilateral agreements with countries of origin, which leaves migrants stranded indefinitely in repatriation centres, Italy and its European backers are comprising their obligations under European and international law, leaving the fate of thousands hanging in the balance.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.