Is Italy the Next Greece?

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Forecast

  • More migrants will arrive in Italy in the coming months as weather conditions improve, which will reopen the central Mediterranean route and clear new crossings in the Adriatic Sea.
  • Though renewed migration into Italy will not be as dramatic as in Greece, it could create domestic problems and tension with surrounding countries.
  • Rome will try to keep the Schengen Agreement in place; support plans to create a European border and coast guard and demand the reform of existing EU migration rules.

Analysis

For the past six months, Greece has been at the center of Europe's migration crisis as nearly 1 million people reached its shores by sea, mostly from Turkey. But Italy has been dealing with its own migration problem, one that, while not rivaling Greece in terms of size and scope, could be just as problematic for the fragmenting the European Union.

According to the United Nations, more than 150,000 people reached southern Italy by the sea in 2015, particularly between April and September, when weather conditions make it easier for small boats to cross the Mediterranean. Most of these people, assisted by human trafficking organizations that take advantage of the chaos in Libya, come from countries such as Nigeria, Gambia, Guinea, Senegal, Somalia and Eritrea seeking economic opportunities in Europe. They are less likely to qualify for asylum than migrants arriving in Greece, most of whom are fleeing from war zones in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Furthermore, the European Union does not have a political counterpart in Libya to negotiate measures to manage migration flows the same way it does in Turkey.

Over the winter, the central Mediterranean route has been relatively quiet, with fewer than 10,000 people arriving in Italy between January and February. By comparison, more than 126,000 people came to Greece through the eastern Mediterranean route during the same period. But migration through the Mediterranean to Italy will resume around April, likely peaking between June and August, once again forcing Italian and European coastguards to launch more rescue operations at sea and provide migrants with shelter, food, and clothes.

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Meanwhile, many migrants on other routes, blocked from continuing their increasingly difficult treks into Northern Europe, will simply start finding alternatives. During 2015 and early 2016, most asylum seekers who reached Greece tried to enter Austria and Germany by crossing Macedonia, Serbia, and Croatia. But Macedonia has built a fence on its border with Greece, and a large number of migrants (some 36,000 according to Greek authorities) are now being forced to stay in Greece or find other countries to enter. Moreover, even if negotiations between the European Union and Turkey succeed and Ankara starts taking back migrants who reached Greece from Turkey, migration will not stop completely, nor will EU member states' rising hostility toward migrants deter some from trying to reach their desired destination.

Albania: The New Stepping-Stone to Italy

Consequently, an alternate route to Italy will likely arise across the Adriatic Sea, using Albania as the transit state. Italian authorities have warned of human trafficking organizations in Albania potentially using rubber boats to cross the Strait of Otranto, which at its narrowest point is only about 72 kilometers (45 miles) wide. It would not be the first time: In the early 1990s, thousands of Albanians reached Italy by boat. To this day, criminal groups cross the strait on a regular basis to smuggle drugs into Italy. The strait was even used by a small number of migrants last year. And because all migrants rescued by the Italian coast guard are considered potential refugees and cannot be sent back to Albania, migrants could be incentivized to try their luck across the Strait of Otranto.

Mediterranean migrant patterns

In early March, media in southern Italian cities along the Adriatic Sea, including Lecce and Bari, reported that local governments were making plans to host more of the asylum seekers reaching their shores. On March 4, Italy's interior minister met with his Albanian counterpart to discuss a potential Adriatic migration route and to increase intelligence sharing.

Still, the number of people reaching Italy via Albania will be relatively small. The Greece-Albania border is mountainous and harder to cross than the Greece-Macedonia border, which will deter some migrants. But rugged geography also means the Greece-Albania border was difficult to protect. Should migrants start trying to enter Albania, Tirana's first reaction will be to close its border, though many asylum seekers will probably find ways to avoid border controls altogether. Some will try to reach Montenegro and Bosnia, but some will try to cross the Adriatic Sea to reach Italy.

Unlike in the early 1990s, Albania now has a functioning police force and better control of its territory. It also has a handle on organized crime, making it difficult for criminal organizations to smuggle people into Italy on a large scale. Rubber boats are also few and too small to transport a massive number of people. But though arrivals from Albania will not increase dramatically, the combination of a more active central Mediterranean migratory route and a burgeoning Adriatic route will create problems for Italy and its neighbors.

Rome Tries a Different Approach

In the past, Italy's strategy for coping with summer migration spikes has been to register only a fraction of migrants and let the rest move on to other EU states, creating friction with France and Austria. But Paris and Vienna only sporadically reintroduced border controls in response to Italy's methods. This year the situation is different: Border controls have become the new norm in Europe. France and Austria have taken a tougher stance on migration and probably will not be as tolerant with Italy as they have been in the past. Switzerland, which is not an EU member, also would not hesitate to close its border with Italy.

The result, not unlike Greece's current predicament, would be migrants becoming stranded at Italy's northern borders. Migrants' attempts to cross Italy's border with France (the easiest to cross on foot) could reignite tension between Italian and French authorities. Other countries would also probably request that Italy builds more reception centers and become more efficient at fingerprinting the migrants reaching its shores.

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The influx of newcomers will create political problems for Italy at home as well. Many municipalities and regional governments, especially those controlled by the center-right opposition, will refuse to host migrants. Immigration will be on the campaign agendas of many candidates in June municipal elections, which will test the popularity of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's center-left Democratic Party. So far Renzi has benefited from a fragmented opposition, but the migration crisis could cause the anti-immigration and euro-skeptical opposition to join forces. Renzi, in turn, will likely once again use the crisis to justify higher public spending, which will create problems for Italy with the Eurozone down the road.

To combat these emerging problems, the Italian government will continue to push for an EU-wide approach to the Continent's migration crisis. Rome will support negotiations with Ankara and side with the European Commission when it comes to enforcing a controversial scheme to distribute asylum seekers among EU member states. Rome will also demand the reform of the Dublin system, which stipulates that asylum applications should take place in the country of first entry to the European Union.

Rome will also push to keep the Schengen Agreement in place and resist member states' efforts to suspend Greece's membership in the passport-free area. Italy has a lot to lose if the Schengen system is abolished because migrants reaching the Italian shores would find it harder to move on to Northern Europe if permanent border controls were put in place. Italy will likely cooperate with Germany in this matter since Berlin is concerned about the economic impact of re-establishing border controls.

Finally, Rome will support plans to create a European border and coast guard to coordinate operations among national border authorities (the Dutch rotating presidency of the European Union has promised to present a plan on the issue by June). But Italy will join the countries on the bloc's external borders, including Greece, Poland, and Hungary, in resisting European Commission proposals to create a structure granting Brussels the authority to deploy the new security force without the consent of the concerned member state.

Italy's migration problems will not be nearly as dramatic as Greece's, but they will do little to prevent the European Union from fragmenting, both politically and territorially. In the meantime, the European Union will struggle to reach a credible agreement with Turkey and stem migration to Greece, while the central Mediterranean and Adriatic routes will open new areas to watch as the Continent's migration crisis unfolds.

"Is Italy the Next Greece?" is republished with permission of Stratfor.

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