Analysis-EU, Italy talk tough on migration but action won't be easy

By Alvise Armellini

ROME (Reuters) - Three years ago, when EU naval mission "Sophia" was shut down after rescuing 45,000 migrants in the central Mediterranean, Italian opposition leader Giorgia Meloni was jubilant. Now, as prime minister, she wants to bring it back.

But this time she is calling for the European Union ships to focus on blocking migrant departures from North Africa rather than saving lives at sea, something experts on migration and international law say is unfeasible.

Meloni's change of tack comes after seeing her right-wing government's election promises to stop sea arrivals from North Africa undercut by landings on the island of Lampedusa.

Well over 10,000 migrants reached the Italian island - whose permanent population is about 6,000 - last week.

Lampedusa sits in the Mediterranean between Tunisia, Malta and the larger Italian island of Sicily and is a first port of call for many migrants seeking to reach the EU.

"It (the Sophia mission) is exactly the proposal I intend to bring to the next European Council when we talk about immigration", Meloni said in a television interview on Sunday, hours after visiting Lampedusa with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

"Sophia", like previous EU and Italian naval missions, was opposed by Meloni and other right-wing politicians because they said it encouraged migrants to sail to Europe, often on flimsy boats, in the likelihood they would be rescued.

Critics say her idea of redeploying the ships to block departures is against the law and impracticable.

"Trying to put together a naval blockade would be an illegal, unthinkable act of war ... that would have devastating effects," said Ferruccio Pastore, head of the International and European Forum for Research on Immigration (Fieri).

Pushing back boats would violate international asylum rules and the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as being operationally dangerous, Pastore said, evoking a precedent involving Italy and Albania.

In 1997, an Italian navy ship enforcing a naval blockade that Rome and Tirana had agreed on to stem migration across the Adriatic Sea collided with a migrant boat. The shipwreck killed 81 people.


Reviving "Sophia" would also raise the issue of where to send rescued migrants. In 2020, it was discontinued as other EU nations balked at Italian requests to have them redistributed around the bloc.

"European solidarity meaning 'let's share the burden' is not going to work at least until (May's) European (Parliament) elections and I think it won't work even afterwards," Pastore said, referring to increased partisanship during campaigning.

Signs of this have emerged in recent weeks, with France and Austria stepping up border controls to prevent migrants crossing over from Italy.

Rome is continuing to violate the Dublin accord stemming from the 1990s intended to ensure asylum seekers do not leave the EU country they first arrive in, a senior German official told Reuters, asking not to be named.

Italy says it is so overwhelmed by new arrivals that it is unable to respect the Dublin rules.

In Lampedusa, von der Leyen stopped short of endorsing Meloni's naval blockade plan, saying only that she supported "exploring options to expand existing naval missions in the Mediterranean or to work on new ones."

She presented a "10-point action plan" that mostly consisted of an offer of more help for Italy from existing EU policy tools and a pledge to speed up an EU-Tunisia deal aimed at curbing migration, which is not yet operational.

Other EU states have not commented publicly on the idea of a naval blockade, which Italy says would also need the consent of North African states. But Germany is against it, according to diplomatic sources in Brussels.


"It seems to me that there are few new ideas, a lot of rhetoric, a lot of anxiety, a lot of dramatisation," Maurizio Ambrosini, Professor of Sociology of Migration at the University of Milan, said about the latest EU and Italian proposals.

Meloni's cabinet on Monday adopted measures to build more detention centres for migrants with no legal right to remain in Italy and lengthen the maximum time they can be held awaiting repatriation to 18 months, from three months.

The measure was needed to reverse "years of immigrationist policies", Meloni said.

But Ambrosini and Pastore pointed to data showing that when detention terms were extended in the past - only to be reversed later - this did not lead to an increase in repatriations.

They said repatriations are difficult, expensive and it is often hard for authorities to identify the countries of origin of failed asylum seekers and persuade those states to take them back.

Migration "is a huge problem for which there are no miraculous recipes, no silver bullets," that can replace patient diplomatic and economic development efforts with African partners, Pastore said. "It is an issue that will stay with us for decades".

(Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski in Brussels, Editing by Gavin Jones and Janet Lawrence)