Migrants crossing to Europe from Libya have reached record high, Italy warns
The Italian coastguard reported on Monday (28 March) it had rescued 1,482 migrants off the Libyan coast in two days, a new indication that the number of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Italy is on the rise.
Some analysts had feared that the EU’s focus on shutting down the so-called Balkan route would force migrants to aim for other ways of getting into Europe.
Last week, the United Nations refugee agency said in 2016 almost 14,500 people had arrived in Italy via Libya, which was 42.5 percent more than in the same period last year, AFP news agency reported.
Crossings into Europe are watched closely by EU governments to see any side-effects of a migrant swap deal with Turkey was concluded at a summit in Brussels earlier this month. The deal, aimed at stemming the flow of people via the Aegean sea, came into effect on 20 March.
Since then, Greece has reported falling numbers of people arriving on Greek islands. On Thursday (24 March) the Greek government said according to Kathimerini newspaper that no migrants had arrived at all, although the following day 161 people arrived, and on Saturday 78.
However, it is too soon to say whether the drop was caused by the EU-Turkey deal, or other factors like difficult weather. Also, the crossing attempts from Libya may be unrelated to the EU-Turkey deal, although they will be considered in any assessment of whether European policies to stem migration flows are working.
Meanwhile, there are still around 50,000 migrants in Greece hoping to move further to the north, mostly to Germany.
Over the weekend, the German paper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported that smugglers have begun offering new routes, after countries along the so-called Balkan route had increased border security.
The paper said on Sunday that smugglers offer trips from Greece across the Adriatic Sea to Italy, for between €3,000 and €5,000.
For his part, French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned last week that roughly 800,000 migrants were waiting in Libya to make the crossing to Europe.
A spokesperson for the Tripoli navy has since labelled that claim as “exaggerated”.
On Tuesday, EU commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said the “sharp decrease” of migrants on the Turkey-Greek route was “encouraging”.
“Less than a 1,000 people arrived last week, compared to average daily arrivals of 2,000 a day in previous weeks,” said Bertaud.
She also noted the commission would “continue to monitor closely” the developments along the Mediterranean route from Libya.
“Our latest information in line with [EU border agency] Frontex is there has not been anything to suggest that there is a significant increase along this route yet.”