In his previous article Sean McLaughlin looked at how elements of Italian society are adapting in accepting refugees and migrants. Here, Sean seeks to explain that Italy’s response at a national level has been just as admirable.

Arrivals of large amounts of peoples to Italy’s southern shores is not a new phenomenon. Following increased flows of people to Lampedusa, in October 2013 the Italian military services began operation Mare Nostrum. Its successor mission was Triton, which began on November 2014 and is led by Frontex, the EU’s border security agency. In this, boats are detected, found and taken to Italian ports. That mission has been supported by 9 Italian patrol vessels and 14 vessels and aircraft from other European countries. It has a modest budget of EUR 2.9m per month.

Cold statistics

The Mediterranean-sea route to Italy has become the zone of the most journey-induced deaths of all major international migrations routes. The following series of events has led to this. A power vacuum was created in Libya following the overthrow of colonel Gadhafi in 2011, since then allowing for the flourishing of illicit trades such as people smuggling. With relatively stable, pro-western governments, journeys are dissuaded from the geographically much closer Tunisia and Morocco and in early 2016, the previously-major route into Europe via Turkey was closed.

Arrivals into Italy in 2017 totalled around 70% of the overall illegal arrivals into Europe and in 2017, 119,369 made the journey to Italy, with around 3,000 dead or missing, according to the IOM. Subject to many moving parts, the migration crisis in the Mediterranean can change very rapidly. Parts of the year can see falls and spikes in numbers due to releasing pent up demand or changing weather conditions.

Early in 2018, a separate operation named Themis was launched in which Italy will remain the leader. Each European country with access to the sea is responsible for assisting ships in trouble within their national search and rescue zones. Strategies at a European level of managing the flow of peoples have also related to tackling structural problems in Libya and in Africa’s Sahel region, of which, military assistance has played a key role.

Such policies have been consistent with Macron’s Sorbonne speech of late 2017, where he stated that “Even the most robust borders and most ambitious security policy will not suffice to curb long-term migration flows. Only stabilisation and development in countries of origin will dry them up.”

The year 2017 saw France and Italy better fund security in Libya and in June 2017, the EU provided EUR 50m to a 10,000-troop force in the Sahel’s G5 countries (Mali, Mauritania, Chad, Niger and Burkina Faso). Among the objectives are to fight jihadism, illegal immigration and cross-border crime.

If it is the burden of Europeans to continue to assist in state building of its less fortunate neighbours, surely, if we are aiming to dissuade this perilous journey we should create a situation in which citizens of those countries do not feel the need to flee?

Antonio Guterres, the secretary general of the UN, has previously warned that the “region is now trapped in a vicious cycle in which poor political security and governance, combined with chronic poverty and the effects of climate change, has contributed to the spread of insecurity”.

True, the region may become the centre of international attention as these problems accelerate. By 2050, the population of the above-mentioned G5 countries is set to increase to 204.6 million (more than 250% growth). Would reasonable foresight not suggest that these problems could easily intensify? Knowledge and experience gained of the region should be harnessed with the area prioritised by foreign policy machines.

In mid-2017 Italy began training the Libyan coastguard to intercept migrants setting off in hazardous boats and while this has been met with opposition, it has prevented Libya from becoming a feeder state for smugglers. It has also allowed NGOs to settle there, and created scope to build institutions.

In December 2017, Italy sent 500 troops to Fort Madama, in Niger, near the Libyan border, which sits among key smuggling routes. The force of around 120 engineers and its 100 trucks will be landed at Gabon, in West Africa, driven inland and will aim to tackle traffickers and jihadists as well as training Niger’s defence forces.


Italy’s involvement does not exclude diplomacy either. The Economist recently drew attention to Marco Minniti, currently serving as Minister of the Interior, who in April 2017 brokered an agreement between the warring tribal leaders from Libya’s sparsely populated south, a bottleneck for Sahel migrants. This, together with Italian-backed coastguard training, has seen numbers drop markedly.

Mr Minniti has built a prestigious reputation, based largely on his careful handling of the situation. He garners impeccable knowledge of Libya’s kaleidoscope of militias and competing power centres. And above all, he has understood that Africa’s problems are also those of Italy’s – the situation needed to be tackled, and through various means. He understood that the issue is prominent in the minds of Italian voters and is affecting Italian internal politics.

The two articles in this series have aimed to show how Italy deserves credit for its efforts, in integration of its new arrivals and in its foreign policy. It cannot be said that Italy has shied away from dealing with a humanitarian crisis before, and when it arrived on its shores.

The migration problem is the question of our time. And Italy has the capacity to deal with it. Its armed forces rank eight in the world’s most powerful. The purposes that militaries serve are changing as Europe’s navies and armies have no use remaining stationary. Meanwhile, to the continent’s south, they are needed.

And to what end? Many state that Libya’s southern frontier is now Europe’s southern flank. I would be inclined to agree. The past few years have shown that what happens in Nigeria can swiftly become an Italian problem. That the northern region of Sahel is deemed so ungovernable and uncontrollable, is even more a reason to be involved. European powers should not fear further coordinated engagement in the region and in this, Italy can take the lead.

Sean McLaughlin
Sean McLaughlin is a financial analyst for Latin America in London. Aside from this, Sean is building a profile as a commentator on political and economic developments on the European continent.

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