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​Italy threatens release of refugees into EU if assistance doesn’t increase

Published time: May 13, 2014 20:15
Police escort migrants as they get off from San Giorgio vessel of Italian Navy at Sicilian harbour of Augusta.(Reuters / Antonio Parrinello)

Police escort migrants as they get off from San Giorgio vessel of Italian Navy at Sicilian harbour of Augusta.(Reuters / Antonio Parrinello)

Italy is threatening to allow refugees currently residing within its borders to make forays into the rest of the European Union unless the EU increases assistance in managing the influx of migrants arriving via boats from North Africa.

Interior Minister Angelino Alfano demanded on Tuesday that the EU step up its efforts.

“The European Union has two options: either it comes to the Mediterranean to put the EU flag onMare Nostrum or we will let migrants with right of asylum leave for other countries,” Alfano wrote on Twitter.

The demand comes shortly after the Italian Navy was forced to rescue some 200 refugees and retrieve 17 bodies after a boat carrying African migrants sunk off the coast of Libya. The accident happened on Monday, some 100 miles south of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Four-hundred people were thought to be trying to attempt the crossing from Libya.

The European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmstrom, did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for a statement.

On Monday, the Libyan government also said it was struggling to cope with immigrants attempting to depart the country’s shores for Europe.

“This was the second shipwreck in a week,” Admiral Mario Culcasi, commander of the Mare Nostrum task force set up to deal with the crisis, told Reuters. “They are a symptom perhaps of the difficulties that the smugglers are facing, above all in finding seaworthy boats,” he said.

Libyan Interior Minister Salah Mazek told a news conference last weekend, before the tragedy struck, that: “I’m warning the world and Europe in particular – if they do not assume their responsibilities, Libya could facilitate the transit of this flood of immigrants towards Europe.”

More than 4,000 migrants concealed in smugglers boats made it to Italy's shores in the past week alone. At least 34,800 people have made the crossing already this year – compared to 43,000 across the whole of 2013.

Hundreds have died in overcrowded, rickety, and unstable boats while attempting the crossing. UN refugee agency UNHCR says it is uncertain why there has been a spike in immigrant numbers this year, though some have concluded that it is a result of Egypt becoming less accommodating for Syrian refugees, as well as Morocco becoming an increasingly difficult location from which to travel to Europe.

The situation is likely to deteriorate as weather improves, Chris Lom, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, told Reuters.

The topic of immigration is currently a high priority in the EU, with less than two weeks before European parliamentary elections. The issue affects the southernmost countries far more than the central EU block, and the south has long been demanding extra support to cope with the problem.

A large proportion of the migrants hope to travel on to economically secure countries; Italy’s employment rate remains at a nearly 40-year high.