Analysis-Meloni in Italy faces reality as migrant flows rise unabated

By Crispian Balmer and Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) – Just as King Canute failed to hold back the seas, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has floundered in efforts to stem the flow of migrants to Italy since taking office last October.

Despite promises ahead of last year’s national elections that it would reduce immigration, the number of people crossing the Mediterranean in a flotilla of often decrepit old boats has doubled in the past nine months.

Also, under pressure from the business lobby, traditionally close to Meloni’s right-wing bloc, the government last week increased the number of migrants who can legally come to work in Italy as the population ages rapidly.

“The government is clearly not delivering on what it promised, but the parties in power are still seen by their electorate as much more reassuring than the left on immigration, so they don’t feel the pressure in the polls,” he said. said Mattia Diletti, professor of politics. at La Sapienza University in Rome.

Immigration is one of the biggest political issues in Europe and has played a major role in the rise of nationalist parties across the continent over the past decade. The failure of Meloni, a figurehead of the new right, to deliver on his promises underscores how intractable the problem is.

It’s not for lack of trying.

Since the start of 2023, Meloni has controversially limited the operations of charity rescue ships and increased penalties for smugglers after a shipwreck off southern Italy killed at least 94 people in February. She then declared a state of emergency in the face of the incessant arrival of mainly Africans.

All in nothing.

From January 1 to July 12, 73,414 migrants by boat reached Italy compared to 31,333 in the same period last year and more than for the whole of 2021, according to data from the Ministry of the Interior.

“There are no miraculous solutions to solve the migratory phenomenon,” Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi acknowledged this month during a visit to the small island of Lampedusa, which saw 25 boat landings. distinct just on Tuesday.


As the 2022 elections approach, Meloni said she would impose a naval blockade to prevent boats leaving North Africa. But analysts say that would never happen for legal and ethical reasons.

Instead, Meloni sought to revive a 2017 deal with Libya that led to a huge reduction in departures, until the COVID-19 pandemic, which then reduced migrant flows to a trickle.

But the situation in North Africa has changed enormously in the past six years, says Matteo Villa, senior researcher at the ISPI think tank, which complicates efforts to retain people in search of a better and safer life. in Europe.

“Departures in 2017 were super concentrated in a few places west of Tripoli. Now that’s not the case anymore. People are also leaving from eastern Libya. So who are you talking to? ,” he said.

A further complication is that Tunisia has also become a major springboard for migrants, with just over half of all new arrivals to Italy this year departing from there, up from just 5% in 2017, despite hundreds of deaths. in the process.

Meloni visited Tunisia twice last month, seeking progress in releasing loans she says are needed to avert a financial crisis that could trigger a tsunami of departures.

She was accompanied on her second trip by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, underscoring pan-European concern over the situation in Tunisia and the rising tide of migrant landings.


A fierce critic of Brussels before coming to power, Meloni has been much more pragmatic since becoming prime minister, working actively with the European Commission to overhaul the way migrants are relocated across the continent.

The pact is expected to go into effect this year, despite opposition from Rome’s right-wing allies in Poland and Hungary. However, a review of migrant flows across Europe over the past decade suggests that Italy may not benefit in the way Meloni hopes.

At present, many of those arriving in Italy head immediately to wealthier northern Europe, which means Rome has to process fewer asylum seekers than many EU partners – a figure representing 0.16% of its total population over the past 12 months against a European average of 0.22%, according to the ISPI.

“Between 2012 and 2021, one million people landed in Italy. We estimate that 700,000 moved,” said ISPI’s Villa.

Many companies could have done away with this workforce, a message that is getting through to the government.

Last week it announced it would issue 452,000 new work visas for third-country nationals from 2023 to 2025, increasing the number of permits available each year to a peak of 165,000 in 2025. In 2019, before than COVID hits, Italy has only issued 30,850 visas.

Seeking to appease anti-immigrant supporters, the government has hinted it is acting with restraint, saying businesses and unions applied for 833,000 permits in the 2023-2025 period.

Business leaders have welcomed the initial increase, but say more will be needed to address a long-standing demographic decline.

“Everyone knows now that we have a shortage of skilled and general labour,” said Michelangelo Agrusti, head of a Confindustria business federation in northeastern Italy.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer and Angelo Amante; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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