Irregular sea arrivals to Italy are up this year. By September 13th, Italy had recorded at least 21,011 migrant arrivals at its shores: higher than for the whole 2018 (20,629), and almost twice as high as last year. Wasn’t the COVID-19 pandemic supposed to deter irregular migration, as well as the regular kind? Think again. Along the Central Mediterranean route, two forces appear to have been at work, acting as an incentive for migrants to depart from both Libya and Tunisia. And the pandemic has had an effect, but not the one many expected.
First of all, however, we should frame the perceived surge in irregular sea arrivals within a larger context. Using forecast models, at ISPI expect irregular sea arrivals to Italy to slightly exceed 25,000 by year end. Such figure would be largely in line with the around 19,000 arrivals recorded between 2002 and 2010, just before the popular revolts in Tunisia and Libya in 2011 brought close to 65,000 migrants to the country’s shores. 25,000 arrivals in a year is also 85% lower than the around 170,000 persons that reached Italy irregularly by sea each year on average between 2014 and 2016. The bottom line is that the period of high irregular arrivals to Italy has ended more than three years ago, and that we are trying to explain an increase from very small numbers which still leads to much smaller numbers. We might call it a “mini-surge” in irregular arrivals along the Central Mediterranean route.
The two forces that supported this mini-surge concern refugees and “economic” migrants alike. The first was there right from the start, and it dates back from much before this year’s pandemic: dire living conditions in Libya, both in or near detention centres, or in dilapidated urban dwellings. Given this, it is no surprise that last March, at the height of the pandemic in Italy, many migrants and asylum seekers in Libya still preferred to try crossing the Mediterranean than to remain put. As Italy went into lockdown and sea arrivals dropped to a trickle (just 241 migrants landed on Italian shores in March – an 80% decline compared to February), almost 1,300 migrants departed from Libya over a 31-day period. And while most of those who left Libya were brought back by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, the fact that attempted arrivals continued almost unabated despite the novel coronavirus hitting Italy hard and deterring departures from all other sea routes speaks volumes about the conditions for migrants and asylum seekers in the country.
The second force has to do with the economic and mobility effects of the pandemic in Tunisia. For years, Tunisia has been plagued by chronic unemployment and an unstable social and political environment. For a country supported by tourism – that accounts for around 8% of the country’s GDP and employs 400,000 workers, or 10% of the total workforce – the closure of borders has dealt a terrible blow, jeopardizing the slow recovery after terrorist attacks on popular tourist localities of 2015. Indeed, according to the latest official statistics, tourist arrivals in Tunisia recorded a drop of close to 100% in the months of April through June. And even as this was occurring, tens of thousands of Tunisian seasonal migrant workers found themselves stuck in the country, unable to reach Europe to make a living.
While likely more short-term than migrant conditions in Libya, developments in Tunisia have been the main driver contributing to this summer’s mini-surge in sea crossings. In July and August, irregular sea arrivals from Tunisia made up around two thirds of total arrivals to Italy. This is a stark reversal if compared with the period of high sea arrivals to Italy (2014-2016), when around 90% of those who reached Italy’s shores had departed from Libya, while Tunisia made up just 5% of the total. And whereas irregular sea arrivals from Tunisia have always been fairly composite in terms of nationalities, this year Tunisian citizens made up over 80% of boat passengers.
In conclusion, the mini-surge of irregular sea arrivals to Italy is a great case study to highlight the complexities of the pandemic shock on migrants’ decisions to attempt to reach Europe irregularly. For one, it shows that in countries that are sufficiently close to Europe expectations of “involuntary immobility” have been largely exaggerated. While this appears to be a very big issue for those living further away from developed countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, in many instances not only the incentives but also the means to cross the Mediterranean are still there. Second, the mini-surge shows how hard it continues to be to predict trends in irregular arrivals, as sudden variations remain able to reverse previous trends in a matter of months or even weeks. Just consider the fact that, had arrivals from Tunisia followed the same seasonal trend as in 2019, we could have expected around 15,000 irregular arrivals to Italy by year end – i.e., 40% less than the 25,000 that we are expecting now. Third, and most importantly, the mini-surge shows that the COVID-19 pandemic can have differentiated, if not unexpected, effects on short-term migration movements that should be further investigated. But long-term drivers of migration such as demography, economic opportunities, family and social networks abroad will continue to shape the willingness to migrate in the future, whether regularly or not. Even in the post-pandemic world.