Italy has a migration problem, just not the one it thinks it does. To illustrate the challenges facing the country, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini continues to point south, at people coming by boat across the Mediterranean. But in reality, in part because of the government’s hard-line approach, the number of people arriving by sea has plummeted, from over 180,000 at its peak in 2016 to a little over 3,000 so far this year.
Instead, the greatest influx of people seeking asylum is now coming from the north — from other European countries, who are sending migrants back to Italy in accordance with the EU’s so-called Dublin regulation. The regulation states that a migrant’s country of arrival is responsible for fingerprinting and registering them, handling their asylum claims, hosting them if they are granted some form of protection and sending them back to their countries of origin if they are not.
If migrants travel onward — to Germany, for example — the new country has the right to send them back to where they first arrived in the European Union. In 2018, Italy accepted more than 6,300 Dublin transfers — the highest figure ever. That’s almost twice as many people as arrived by boat so far this year.
Last year, Germany alone sent 2,292 asylum seekers back to Italy, a number that can be expected to rise this year. By comparison, less than 1,200 migrants have arrived by boat from Libya in the first seven months of 2019; the total for the year is expected to be about 1,900. And yet, despite the growing number of asylum seekers arriving from other EU countries, Italy is receiving far fewer than it would if the Dublin rules were working as planned.
Over the past few years, as migration roiled Italian politics, Rome accepted only a fraction of the people it was requested to take back. Since 2013, Italy has received more than 220,000 transfer requests from European countries and accepted just 25,000. In 2018 alone, France and Germany asked Italy to take back more than 50,000 people.
Rome has fought the Dublin system for years, arguing it’s “unfair” and pushing for the rules to be revised — without much success. Successive Italian governments have called for new mechanisms that would distribute migrants across European countries more equitably, lifting the burden for registering and managing migrants off border countries. The most recent attempt, in 2015, fell apart almost as soon as it launched, when some EU countries refused to take part and others took in only a small share of what they promised.
The truth is that, under Dublin, Italy is doing just fine. The system is highly dysfunctional. Once migrants move to another EU country from their original point of arrival — often Italy, Greece, Spain, or Malta — it is very hard to send them back. Between 2013 and 2018, just 15 percent of those found in a different country from the one responsible for processing their asylum request were in fact returned.
Why don’t these transfers happen? Officials will usually blame the migrants themselves, who sometimes disappear before a transfer can be carried out. In reality, political reasons play a large part. The country responsible for taking charge of a migrant can put up a myriad of tiny technical obstacles to block the transfer. And if the transfer does not happen within six months’ time, responsibility shifts to the country where the migrant is currently located.
This is why EU countries where migrants actually want to live — like Germany, Sweden, Austria and the Benelux countries — end up receiving the most migrants, processing their asylum requests and dealing with failed asylum seekers, in spite of the Dublin rules.
A cynic might suspect that this is also why successive Italian governments, and now Salvini, have shown so little interest in actually reforming the system despite continuously requesting “solidarity” from other EU countries.
At a meeting in Paris earlier this week, several EU interior ministers agreed to form a “coalition of the willing” to redistribute migrants that disembark in Italy and Malta. Italy didn’t attend, arguing that such promises would be as empty as they proved to be in 2015 when governments failed to come to an agreement on reforming Dublin. It also objected to the fact that the deal would require Italy and Malta to allow all migrants rescued in the Central Mediterranean to be disembarked and registered in their countries.
Salvini is right to call for binding commitments instead of ad hoc promises, but refusing to cooperate in the search for them might not be the wisest approach. The solution a handful of EU ministers came up with on Monday is a step in the right direction — and it’s along the lines of what Italy has been calling for.
If Rome continues to play a blocking role in the reform of the Dublin system, its neighbors might decide they’re better off focusing their efforts on making sure the regulation is properly applied.
This article was originally published on Politico