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Italy declares a state of emergency over migration

Marta Silvia Vigano
April 14, 2023

Following a surge in migrant arrivals, Italy's right-wing government has declared a six-month state of emergency. Analysts warn the measure may have detrimental consequences for migrants.

A migrant disembarks from a rescue ship in Italy
Around 31,000 migrants have disembarked on Italian shores since the start of 2023Image: Darrin Zammit Lupi/REUTERS

Italy's right-wing government has declared a six-month national state of emergency to help it cope with a surge in migrants arriving on the country's southern shores. While awaiting its formal adoption, a special commissioner is to be nominated and initial funding for 5 million euros allocated as part of the measure spearheaded by the Italian interior minister, Matteo Piantedosi.

Is Italy really overwhelmed with new arrivals?

While the current government campaigned strongly on the promise to crack down on migration and achieve zero disembarkations, some 31,000 migrants — either rescued by Italian military boats or charity ships, or reaching Italy without assistance — have disembarked since the start of 2023, according to Interior Ministry figures. For the same period in the last two years, the numbers were around 8,000.

Although the number of arrivals has gone up compared to previous years and reception centers like the one in Lampedusa are overrun, spokesperson for the NGO Italian Council for Refugees Valeria Carlini tells DW that the situation is nothing like in the mid-2010s following the war in Syria when, despite stronger migration influxes, no state of emergency was declared. 

Responding to a state of emergency is “unusual and shows the weakness in managing what is now a structural phenomenon like migration,” Carlini elaborates.

Dealing with migration as an emergency is, however, consistent with the government’s line on migration seeking to criminalize NGOs helping migrants at sea, argues Carmine Conte, a legal policy analyst with the Brussels-based think tank Migration Policy Group.

The polarization of the debate around migration by the Italian government reveals the lack of a long-term comprehensive strategy for migration management that protects human rights and ensures safe access to Europe, continues Conte.

Carlini suggests that this response is also short-sighted in the face of an increasingly old population and a strained labor market in Italy that would benefit from the socioeconomic integration of migrants.

The only other time a state of emergency was activated over migration in Italy was in 2011 under the Berlusconi government in the wake of the Arab Spring.

State of emergency explained

The state of emergency in Italy allows the government to bypass parliament in emanating laws, even in derogation of previous legislation. The rationale of the measure is to give the executive branch extraordinary powers and slimmer processes in the face of human and natural unforeseeable catastrophes such as earthquakes.

Luiss University’s full professor of constitutional law Raffaele Bifulco recognizes that while the use of a state of emergency is always a “worrying development” in a democratic system, this is sometimes a necessary measure of last resort.

Meanwhile, Italy's opposition continues to point out Meloni’s hypocrisy, who didn’t mince her words when such a measure was used to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, labeling it “liberticide.” 

What does it mean for migrants? 

Premier Giorgia Meloni states this measure will allow the government to free up funds and aid more easily to create new reception, identification and return centers, thereby managing migration flows faster and more effectively while accelerating return procedures.

This entails building at least one reception center per region, set against the mere 9 facilities currently present on national territory.

At this stage, there remains little clarity around where exactly the allocated 5 million euros will end up, but for many, alarm bells have already begun to ring. Building more reception centers can be dangerous, notorious as they are for their poor conditions and human rights violations.

Carlini argues that 5 million euros is too little to face what the government is now labeling an emergency and that the measure will lead to an emergency-oriented management of an already struggling reception system, with deteriorating standards and lower chances of integration.

The measure also needs to be seen in conjunction with the recent legislation passed by Italy criminalizing search and rescue activities by NGOs vessels, as well as the decree currently under discussion in parliament that aims to severely restrict the use of special protection. 

Conte warns that sped-up repatriation based on likely inadequate assessments of asylum and protection requests as well as shrinking special protection could result in more illegal arrivals and deaths at sea, producing an effect similar to the Salvini decree in 2018.

Overall, sources DW spoke to agree that this measure will have detrimental consequences for people migrating and the protection of human rights.

Italy demands European action over migration

Like many governments before, Meloni has been demanding more solidarity and better coordination among EU countries to tackle migration flows.

"Let's be clear, this doesn't resolve the problem, the solution for which is tied to a mindful and responsible intervention by the European Union," Minister for Civil Protection and Maritime Policies Nello Musumeci told Italian news agency ANSA.

While the sources DW spoke to cannot predict whether Meloni will leverage Italy's declaration of a state of emergency at European Council level to ask for more support from other EU countries, there is consensus over the fact that this latest move aligns with the government’s approach to make it harder for migrants to safely arrive to Europe.

Edited by: Lucy James