Maritime arrivals: the recent situation in Greece and Italy
Let us now look in more detail at how the situations in Greece and Italy have evolved since the year 2015, when over a million people arrived in these two countries after traversing the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey – in the case of those arriving on Greek Islands such as Lesbos and Chios – and from Libya, in the case of those arriving on the Italian islands of Lampedusa and Sicily.
Following an agreement between Turkey and the European Union in March 2016 to send asylum seekers who had crossed the Aegean Sea back to Turkey (discussed in greater detail later this week), the numbers of maritime arrivals in Greece fell sharply from 853,000 in 2015 to 173,000 in 2016. However, at the same time, there has been a major backlog in the processing of asylum applications, with thousands of asylum seekers subsequently unable to move.
In June 2017, over 60,000 asylum seekers were ‘stranded’ on the islands; many living in substandard conditions in overcrowded detention centres or sleeping rough in the countryside and on beaches. There were numerous reports of suicide and acts of self-harm as well as tensions between different national groups and gender-based violence in the detention camps. International NGOS such Human Rights Watch have called on the Greek government to end its policy of containment on the islands and transfer asylum seekers to the mainland in order to enable children to go to school and adults to work.
There have also been growing signs of hostility on the part of locals: for example 400 people marched in Chios in June 2017 to protest the impact of the stalled situation upon the island’s economy, especially tourism.
Writing in January 2017, after a particularly cold winter in Greece that saw migrants exposed to sub-zero temperatures, Anna Triandafyllidou described the difficult and as yet unfulfilled tasks facing the Greek authorities: provide decent reception conditions for asylum seekers, including adequate accommodation, healthcare and schooling for children; accelerate the relocation of refugees to other European countries and process the claims of those arriving after March 2016 with a view to returning them to Turkey.
Triandafyllidou suggested that one solution would be to accept that the migrants were going to stay in Greece and so rather than funding improvements to detention facilities, money should be invested in developing employment opportunities and self-help schemes in order to facilitate their integration. She concludes that
‘we can at least create a future for the 60,000 people who are currently stuck in Greece […] they could become an engine for social innovation and economic growth in a crisis-stricken Greek society that has shown significant solidarity and relatively little xenophobia in the last few years.’
This said, the situation remains stagnant.
In contrast to Greece, Italy since 2015 has seen a rise in the number of people reaching its shores, from 148,000 in 2015 to almost 180,000 in 2016, and the central Mediterranean route has become, once again, the principal route into southern Europe. It is also by far the most dangerous route, with 1 in 49 people dying attempting to reach Italy in 2016.
Despite being surrounded by the deadliest waters in the Mediterranean Sea, Italy has been accused by other EU states of being overly generous in offering protection and acting as a magnet for economic migrants with no other legal options of reaching Europe. In 2017, for example, there was a surge in Bangladeshi migrants leaving north Africa on boats towards Europe. It should also be noted that until the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, Libya was a major destination country for sub-Saharan and south Asian migrants but many have since fled the country, either towards Tunisia or across the Mediterranean to Italy and have subsequently applied for asylum.
Similar to Greece, Italy has experienced a major backlog of people waiting for their asylum applications to be processed and unable to leave the country. In July 2017, 170,000 people were estimated to be living in Italian reception centres or housed by local authorities. Reasons for the build up include the blockades of borders by neighbouring France and Austria that have impeded migrants making onward journeys and more rigorous identification procedures on arrival in Italy which prevents asylum seekers from lodging asylum applications in other EU member states.
In July 2017, the Italian government, concerned with the consequences of immigration upon domestic politics, struck a deal with Libyan authorities to improve the patrol of its territorial waters and with militia groups in control of smuggling operations. This led to a dramatic 80% drop in maritime arrivals in the following two months, although numbers started to rise again in September suggesting that Libya’s instability jeopardized the possibility of a long-term arrangement. Just as the bilateral agreement between the Italian government and the Gaddafi regime in 2008 (see ‘People on the move across the Mediterranean Sea’) had led to accusations that Italy was breaching its obligations to the UN refugee convention by pushing boats back towards the African coast, international criticism again highlighted the harsh conditions faced by migrants in Libya, from arbitrary detention in desert camps to cases of torture, rape and death.