Italy is currently dealing with what one official called a “biblical exodus,” as nearly 6,000 migrants have been intercepted and picked up by the navy, on boats from Libya, in past four days. The migrants come from countries including Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Nigeria, Gambia, Mali, and Senegal, and the recent uptick is likely the result of warming weather.
More than 15,000 have reached Italy this year, and this year’s influx may rival the Arab Spring year of 2011, when a record 64,000 reached the country’s shores. Hundreds of thousands more are though to be waiting in Libya to make the dangerous journey in rickety boats. The Italian navy began an operation to spot migrant boats in transit after two disastrous shipwrecks off the island of Lampedusa last year that killed 350 people.
The death rate of the Africa-EU crossing is about 10 times what it is at the U.S.-Mexico border, and some critics say the Italian navy's operation has actually made things worse by encouraging people to undertake the journey in less seaworthy boats with the expectation they will be rescued.
Italy feels, with some justification, that it's shouldering a major burden on behalf of the rest of Europe. More than half of the people who enter Europe do so through Italy, most planning to eventually make their way to Northern Europe. Already the largest recipient of EU aid for migration, the Italian government, which takes over the EU’s rotating chairmanship in June, argues it needs more funds to address the problem.
At the same time, human rights groups have criticized the grim conditions inside the camps set up for new arrivals—26 migrants underwent a gruesome hunger strike to protest the conditions at a holding facility in Rome in January—and critics say the issue has only become an overwhelming crisis “because of the bad management of Italy's asylum system.”
Italy is currently in the midst of a plan to move migrants to camps throughout the country so no one region becomes overwhelmed. Meanwhile, the influential Lega Nord party has argued for years that migrants should be barred from entering entirely.
The migration of people from Africa and the Middle East to Europe is one of the major stories of the last few years. And as long as the economic gulf between Europe and the countries across the Mediterranean continues to grow, and political conditions in North Africa remain unstable, the issue likely isn’t going anywhere.
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