Lampedusa's refugee system is saturated. An intense wave of landings has severely tested the island's capacity for flow disposal, with more illegal migrants than residents on the peak days, and contributed to reopening the eternal debate over the Dublin Convention.
Some members of the government, starting with Minister Matteo Salvini, have described the crisis in terms of an "act of war" and called for draconian measures to achieve a drastic cut in the flows. Minister Salvini's statements rest on a kernel of truth: the frequency of landings indicates that a hybrid war is underway by means of that powerful tool of destabilization that are weapons of mass migration. The solution will come neither from Brussels nor from the Maghreb, but from Rome.
The problem of liquid borders
More people landed illegally in Italy in the first nine months of 2023 than in the entire 2022: 127,207 versus 104,061. These are not the numbers from the black period of the migration crisis of the past decade, when more than 334,000 people landed irregularly on Italian shores in 2015-16, but what is worrying is their framing within a pre-existing trend.
Arrivals have increased, from 2020 to the present, at the rate of thirty thousand a year: 34,154 in 2020, 67,034 in 2021, 104,061 in 2022. But 2023 will probably close with an increase in entries of more than thirty thousand.
Excellent relations with Algeria and agreements with Tunisia have not served and will not serve to significantly reduce landings, stopping them at the point of departure, because the Maghreb is more a victim of the phenomenon than its originator. This destabilizing motion has its roots elsewhere, in the Sahel and equatorial environs, and has little genuine substance: it is the prelude to what could happen if the geostrategic Saharan belt were to remain under the control of hostile actors, such as Moscow, Beijing and, in prospect, Ankara and Abu Dhabi, namely the outbreak of an exodus exceptional in size and social, political and economic impact on the affected theaters.
Italy has always lost at the table on mass migration, which has been used (successfully) as a blackmail tool since the time of Mu'ammar Gaddafi, but a recent paradigm shift-the exit of the Sahel from the European sphere of influence-imposes the need to follow innovative lines of action in defense of the liquid and permeable frontier that is the Mediterranean.
Fighting the weapons of mass migration
The solution to Italy's problems will come neither from Brussels, which on the issue of migration is divided and has little awareness of hybrid wars, nor from the Maghreb, which in recent years has become more an area of transit than of origin of flows.
The European Union could come to Italy's relief by agreeing to the inauguration of a defensive naval mission, temporarily suspending the Dublin Convention and contributing to the economic stabilization of North Africa's two soft underbelly, Libya and Tunisia, but the onus is on Italy to pursue unilateral, bilateral and/or multilateral initiatives to actively counter piloted migration flows.
Understanding is the key to active counteraction. To understand is to initiate in-depth studies of the phenomenon of remote-controlled migration, which is among the most effective hybrid weapons (Greenhill, 2010), and to seek the expertise of potentially useful countries, such as Australia.
The identification and repatriation deadlines, rather than lengthened-increasing the length of stay in CPRs from twelve to eighteen months is under discussion-should be expedited to the point of ensuring completion of the deportation of those who do not meet asylum requirements in no more than three to six months. De-bureaucratization of procedures, increased manpower, revision of the executive enforcement of deportation decrees, and creation of ad hoc transnational units for data cross-referencing are the ways to achieve these goals. As a deterrence function, on the other hand, we would need harsher (and more certain) punishments for human traffickers and continuous, not sporadic, operations to neutralize the masterminds of the flows - the disruption of chains of command, from the top to the bases, to undermine the logistical - organizational capabilities of trafficking networks.
Italy needs agreements to speed up identification and repatriation procedures with the main countries originating the flows, new facilities for detention and deportation - possibly ad hoc airports in and around Lampedusa - but, especially, policies that can solve the problem at its root. Because rejections, given Italy's awkward position in the Mediterranean, are a palliative destined to consume its effects over time.
The Sahel is the first and main reason for the boom in illegal landings in the last three years. The European Union's outermost border has almost fallen completely, buffeted by coups, civil wars and clockwork insurgencies, and is now indirectly and directly controlled in significant part by Russia, China, Turkey and malign non-state actors, from warlords to terrorist organizations, who have one goal in common: to open the spigots of illegal immigration, whose sources lie between the Sahel and the Equator, to put pressure on Europe.
The Sahel is the origin and reason for this unfolding crisis, which could easily exceed the size of last decade's waves due to a concatenation of factors, notably climate change, demographics, state failures, endemic poverty, and terrorism, against which little or nothing has been done by European powers in recent years and which will take years, perhaps a decade or two, to dissolve. The time to act, sending forward development cooperators, investors and peacekeepers, is now.
Geopolitical analyst, foreign policy consultant and author. Graduate in Area and global studies for international cooperation (University of Turin), educated between Italy, Poland, Portugal and Russia. Specialized in hybrid warfare, Latin American issues and post-Soviet space.