A high-ranking government official in Athens has denounced as “clumsy” Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi’s statement that Greece’s “strong containment” migration policy forced a boat with migrants to go directly to Italy, resulting in a shipwreck which killed more than 60 people.
The two countries’ geographical position has put them at the frontline in terms of irregular migration.
Migrants arriving in Italy mainly depart from the coasts of North Africa, but the number of migrants arriving from Turkey, despite being closer to Greece, has increased in the last two years. In 2022 there were about 16,000, 15% of all arrivals.
According to IOM data, 25,983 migrants have died in the Mediterranean since 2014.
“Greece is implementing policies of strong containment of arrivals on that route, even with pushbacks that are under scrutiny from the European Union,” Piantedosi said.
“So that – and survivors will be asked about it – will have probably influenced the decision to come directly to Italy,” the minister said.
The boat that wrecked last Sunday on the coast of Crotone, Calabria, had departed from Izmir, Turkey, 20km away from some Greek islands.
In Rome, sources said it was impossible for Greece not to detect the boat before it reached Italian waters. They even hinted that the Greek authorities intentionally let it pass their seas.
“In the Aegean every day we have thousands of boats and ships […] not everything can be detected by radars unless a patrol vessel identifies a suspicious behaviour”, the Greek government source told EURACTIV.
“Italy’s accusation is clumsy”, the source added.
EURACTIV was informed that at a meeting in Malta on Friday, migration ministers of the two countries would discuss the incident. The Maltese government have also been accused of ignoring vessels plea for help, responding slowly, and passing the buck to others, including the controversial Libyan Coastguard.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis have said they are collaborating closely on migration. Meloni recently emphasised that she is sitting “at the same desk” with Mitsotakis at the EU Council.
The official said migrants do not want to stay in Greece because they know that they will be stuck in organised migration camps. Instead, they prefer to go to Italy, and from there, it’s “easier” to leave for Germany or other central EU countries, the source added.
“Italy does not have the migration reception infrastructure that Greece has, and therefore migrants prefer Italy as a way to reach central Europe”, the source said.
Greece has created more than 32 migration facilities since 2015.
According to the Viminale, hotspots in Italy are under severe pressure and transfers are being made to Extraordinary Reception Centres (CAS) and to existing Reception System Integration (SAI) system centres throughout the country.
The active hotspots in Italy are Lampedusa, Pozzallo, Messina and Taranto.
But Lampedusa, particularly, has been facing great challenges.
Last summer, the average number of migrants at the Lampedusa hotspot was 1,600 against a capacity of 350 beds. In 2022, overall, there were over 100,000 transits, and the hotspot is constantly collapsing. Currently, admissions are close to 1,300.
“We have an average of 300-400 arrivals a day (…), and we manage to transfer about 200”, Lampedusa Mayor Filippo Mannino told AdnKronos.
Only poor weather temporarily stops the landings. “These are the only times when there is some calm when law enforcement and personnel involved in managing the landings can breathe a sigh of relief”, explained Mannino.
According to Aegean Boat Report data, in 2023, Greece turned back 73 boats and about 1,800 migrants. Asylum claims in 2022 were 279 per 100,000 population, compared to 133 in Italy.
Who is responsible for the shipwreck in Calabria?
Six months ago, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Greece for rejecting a boat that later sank, causing the death of eleven migrants.
The Italian Coast Guard and Guardia di Finanza are under investigation. Frontex says it reported the boat’s presence near the Italian coast as early as Saturday (25 February) the evening before it ran aground around 4 am. on Sunday.
Rescuers said most of the migrants were from Afghanistan, while others were from Pakistan, Iran, Somalia, and Syria.
Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi’s words on the tragedy, in which more than 60 people lost their lives, and many are missing, ignited the immigration debate in Italy with the newly appointed Democratic Party (S&D) Secretary Elly Schlein calling for his resignation.
Tough migration policy
Minister Matteo Piantedosi is a close ally of Deputy Prime Minister and Transport Minister Matteo Salvini, previously serving as the chief of staff when Salvini was Interior Minister in Giuseppe Conte’s government.
The “code of conduct” for NGO ships operating in the Mediterranean was recently approved by the Italian parliament but was widely criticised by the opposition and several humanitarian groups because it would complicate rescue operations.
“The number of migrants rescued by NGOs is insignificant compared to total arrivals. Italy continues to be a transit country […] There are 500/600 thousand irregular migrants in Italy”, Carlo Calenda, leader of Azione, a party that is soon expected to officially merge with former PM Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva (Renew), wrote on Twitter.
(Sarantis Michalopoulos | EURACTIV.com – Federica Pascale | EURACTIV Italy)