By Ewan Culwich
The Italian government has reversed its decision to refuse migrant boats, officials released this Monday.
Foreign minister Enzo Milanesi has backtracked on the policy, implemented just last month, to turn away all vessels, stating that Italy’s border would remain open to prevent ‘all rescued people from landing in one country’.
This decision comes after the southern Spanish coast, including Gibraltar, became overwhelmed by boat arrivals throughout June and July.
More vessels have landed on the shores of European countries in 2018 so far, than the entirety of 2017. Southern Spain has predominantly faced the burden of this influx due to its location, being so close to north west Africa.
Although it is difficult to identify where each individual boat comes from, many set sea off the coast of Tangier, Morocco. It is a short 50 mile journey to Gibraltar.
One officer monitoring arrivals on the Spanish coast described to the BBC how they have been taking in up to ten boats per day. Yet that figure does not suggest the number of African migrants coming to Spain, as some vessels carry fewer than 100, while others obtain up to 600 hopefuls.
On the Strait of Gibraltar specifically, more than 17,000 people have been rescued since January this year. This figure soared last month after the Italian Interior minister Matteo Salvini announced the government would be closing its ports. In a public statement, he said, ‘We cannot take in one more person. On the contrary, we want to send away a few’, as Italy is already home to an estimated 500,000-700,000 undocumented migrants.
Salvini added, ‘They will only see Italy on a postcard,’ and, ‘Italian ports are no longer at the disposal of traffickers.’
As a result, non-government organizations providing the illegal means of travel had to seek out alternative routes.
Notably, S.O.S Méditerranée, who administered the Aquarius in early June. This ship trafficked 630 people from Libya to Spain, after being turned away by Italy, illustrating the NGO’s commitment to delivering the migrant crisis.
Organizer Mathilde Auvillain stated ‘If it is not Italy, it will be another country (…) our rescue operation will continue, regardless.’
It is currently unclear whether or not S.O.S Méditerranée have since participated in transporting further boats from Libya to Spain. But what is certain is the Aquarius set a dangerous precedent, as hundreds of boats have followed in accordance.
The Italian government’s justification for their policy reversal is the belief that the European Union needs more time to conduct and finalize a deal in which future boat arrivals are distributed across the continent, not confined to one area such as Italy, southern Spain, or Gibraltar.
Now the Italian government must hope that the EU listens to its demands for a fair deal. Otherwise, the southern Spanish border and Gibraltar will remain the most popular routes for illegal migration into Europe.