Italy has become one of the main gates of entry into the EU for refugees and undocumented migrants. Between January and the beginning of September 2015, over 121,000 migrants were smuggled by sea or land to Italy.
According to the UNHCR, 93,715 refugees resided in Italy in 2014. In 2014, 63,655 first time asylum applications were made, growing sharply from 25,720 in 2013. In 2014, the top three citizenships of asylum applicants were Nigeria (10,135), Mali (9,790) and Gambia (8,575).
The Mediterranean is one of the main migrant routes, with increasing numbers of drowned or missing people at sea (including a vessel sinking with over 800 on board in April 2015). Some of the sea crossings are facilitated by the smugglers.
The small island of Lampedusa (the most southern point of Italy) hosts a reception centre with capacity for up to a few hundred refugees, but the reality is that at times it hosts over 1,000 people.
Many refugees entering Italy wish to continue their journey towards Northern Europe. In June 2015, those trying to move onwards through Ventimiglia at the Italian-French border were stranded in Italy as France denied them entry.
The government’s approach
Between October 2013 and October 2014, the Italian government ran the search-and-rescue operation Mare Nostrum in the Mediterranean sea. In November 2014, Mare Nostrum was replaced with the EU-run operation Triton, the latter focusing more on control and prevention. In October 2015 the EU began operation Sophia, aimed against human smuggling.
The Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, has repeatedly asked for European solidarity as the inflows continued. In June 2015, he threatened the EU with the provision of Schengen visas to migrants if there was no deal involving other Member States sharing the burden of the refugee crisis.
The government appealed to the regions to host asylum seekers arriving in Italy. Roberto Maroni – governor of Lombardy, a northern region of the country, and member of the anti-immigrant party Northern League member– threatened municipalities accepting migrants with financial cuts. A similar stance was taken by Veneto and Liguria regions’ leaders.
Refugees in host communities
Solidarity marches for the refugees were organised in large cities, but demonstrations against immigration also attracted followers.
Church and several civil society organisations showed solidarity with refugees. For instance, an appeal was made by Archbishop of Milan to parishes in the Lombardy region to host refugees. Hundreds of families accepted to host refugees in response to a call by the non-governmental organisation, Amici dei Bambini..
Anti-immigrant rhetoric is present, but there are also accounts emphasising the positive economic impact of migration.
The newspaper La Repubblica was among the signatories of the open call by European newspaper editors urging the EU to act in response to the refugee crisis.
In spring 2015, almost one in three Italians declared that immigration is one of the main issues facing the country. This was an increase of 13 percentage points from autumn 2014.