London - Italy's government passed toughened asylum laws Monday as the country faces a surge in migrant arrivals on its southern shores.
The new measures will allow for the extended detention of migrants awaiting asylum decisions, from the current three months to an initial six months - with the possibility of an extension up to 18 months.
"That will be all the time needed not only to make the necessary assessments, but also to proceed with the repatriation of those who do not qualify for international protection," Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said at the start of the meeting, according to Reuters. The Cabinet also approved the creation of more detention centers in remote areas.
In the past week, almost 10,000 migrants have landed on the small Italian island of Lampedusa, which has a population of 6,000 people. Most have crossed the Mediterranean Sea on small boats from Tunisia, a journey of just over 100 kilometers. Italian authorities say a further 180 migrants arrived on Monday. Conditions are dire, with migrants sleeping on the streets because the reception centers are full.
Claudine Nsoe, a 29-year-old mother of two young children from Cameroon, arrived on Lampedusa on a small boat last week, after an arduous two-day journey.
"I hope that the situation improves and that they let us leave from here, because the living conditions are not easy. We sleep in the open air, in the sun and in the cold. There is no food ... and there are children," Nsoe told Reuters.
European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen joined Meloni on a visit to Lampedusa on Sunday and promised a tough response.
"We have an obligation as part of the international community. We have fulfilled it in the past, and we will do so today and in the future. But we will decide who comes to the European Union and under what circumstances, and not the smugglers and traffickers," von der Leyen told reporters.
Migrants rescued at sea walk after disembarking from a vessel, on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, Italy, Sept. 18, 2023.
The EU commission president outlined a 10-point plan to try to ease the pressure on Italy, including a bigger role for the bloc's border agency Frontex in identifying and repatriating migrants who don't qualify for asylum.
The plan is unlikely to have a big effect, said Camino Mortera-Martinez of the Brussels-based policy group the Center for European Reform.
"When it comes to substantive points and content of things that the Commission can do - or the European Union even can do - about this problem, there is absolutely nothing new. We see von der Leyen's 10-point plan that she offered Italy, and we see the same things that we've been seeing for the past 10 years," Mortera-Martinez told VOA.
Italy's prime minister said the migrants must be stopped at the source "with a European mission, including a naval one if necessary, in agreement with the North African authorities to stop the departure of the boats."
"Assess in Africa who is or is not entitled to asylum and accept in Europe only those who actually have the right according to international conventions," Meloni said in a televised statement on Sunday.
The European Union signed a strategic partnership with Tunisia in July worth $1.1 billion in return for a crackdown on human traffickers and tightened border controls.
Human rights concerns
Human rights groups have expressed concerns over Tunisia's treatment of refugees and say Europe must offer a more humane response. In 2023, alone, more than 2,000 people have died attempting the crossing between North Africa and Europe, according to the United Nations.
Andrea Costa, manager of the Baobab Experience charity, which offers support to migrants in Italy, said the tightened laws will only force migrants to make riskier journeys.
Migrants wait to be transferred from Lampedusa Island, Italy, Sept. 15, 2023. Thousands of migrants and refugees have landed on the island after crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Tunisia, overwhelming local authorities and aid organizations.
"The key is to invest in reception rather than rejection. These people have set off on a very difficult and harsh journey with a high mortality rate. You don't stop them by putting up walls. You don't stop them by closing borders or with naval blockades. Welcoming them is the best answer you can give," Costa told Reuters.
EU member states are struggling to agree on a New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which the bloc says would create a 'fairer, efficient and more sustainable migration and asylum process.'
Under current EU laws, migrants must apply for asylum in the country where they first arrive, adding to the pressure on front-line states. Several Eastern European countries, such as Hungary and Poland, are refusing to accept refugee quotas to share the burden of countries like Italy.
"We are a continent united in many things. Migration is not one of them. Or if it is, it's basically on the consensus that we have to protect the borders," said Mortera-Martinez.
"But if we don't agree on something beyond that, then we will basically damage our own [European Union] project and that's going to be, in my view, particularly visible after the elections in 2024," she said.
With those European elections scheduled for June, analysts say right-wing populist parties are looking to capitalize on voter discontent over Europe's handling of migration.