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'Pack your bags,' Italy's new leaders tell 500,000 illegal migrants — but it'll cost them

Migrants marched in Naples for the event Reddito e diritti per tutte e tutti Nessuno escluso. Demonstrators arrived from all the provinces of Campania to call for better rights and more security for migrants.
Salvatore Esposito/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Italy's new populist government has wasted no time in repeating its campaign promise to deport hundreds of thousands of migrants — although the financial, logistical and humanitarian implications of such an undertaking are only now becoming clear.

The right-wing Lega party, which formed a coalition government with Five-Star Movement (M5S) last week, is the driving force behind anti-immigration rhetoric and it is looking to fulfil a pledge to deport as many as 500,000 illegal migrants.

Lega leader Matteo Salvini — who is now Italy's deputy prime minister and interior minister — reiterated the government's aim to deport illegal migrants on a visit to Sicily last weekend.

The island, which has been a major point of arrival and detention for migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea, had to stop being "the refugee camp of Europe," Salvini told reporters.

"It is not enough to reduce the numbers of people arriving. We need to increase deportations," he said.

Visiting a migrant detention center in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo, where he was greeted both by supporters and pro-migrant protesters, Salvini said his government's stance on migrants was one of "common sense."

"These are emergency centers, my interest is to work in order to reduce the number of people arriving and increase the number of deportations. This is not easy to do, nor is it possible to do it in a quarter of an hour, but in the coming weeks we want to give new signals, to cut costs and (migrant detention) durations."

On Saturday, speaking at a rally in northern Italy, Salvini had told illegal migrants "get ready to pack your bags."

Italy's new hardline interior minister Matteo Salvini arrives at the reception centre (CPSA) in Pozzallo, Sicily, on June 3,2018.

Both immigration and deportation have become key topics for debate in Italy, a country that has struggled to cope with the high number of migrants — both economic migrants and refugees, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa — arriving on its shores in recent years.

In 2017, 119,310 men, women and children arrived in Italy after traveling by sea, according to data from the UN's International Organization for Migration (IOM). That figure represented the lowest total in four years, the organization said. So far this year, 10,808 people have arrived by sea.

Most of the arrivals had departed from North Africa and thousands have died during the journey which is often made in un-seaworthy boats organized by people smugglers.

The IOM recorded that 2,832 people died or went missing while attempting the crossing to Italy in 2017. So far this year, 384 people have died, according to IOM data. Around 600,000 migrants are believed to have reached Italy over the last four years.

Putting 500,000 people on planes

Sea rescues and repatriations, as well as the loss of life, have become a regular hallmark of the migrant crisis. On Saturday, 60 migrants were killed when their boat sank off the coast of Tunisia, marking one of the worst boat tragedies in recent years. Tunisia has become a major point of departure for many migrants amid tighter controls to prevent boat crossings from Libya.

On Sunday, Salvini said the only way to avoid more deaths was to stop people getting on boats in the first place. He caused a diplomatic row by accusing Tunisia of sending "convicts" over to Italy in migrant boats.

He said he would increase repatriations despite the logistical and financial — not to mention, humanitarian — implications of such a move.

A group of illegal migrants are processed by Italian officials and given basic health checks by members of the Italian Red Cross as they disembark from an Italian navy boat in the harbour at Messina.
Gideon Mendel/Corbis via Getty Images

Federico Soda, director of the IOM's coordination office for the Mediterranean, told CNBC that deportation agreements would have to be created with a vast number of countries in order for Italy to forcibly deport illegal migrants — with each nation having to first accept the migrant was from its country and accept his or her return.

With 60 nationalities registered at Italian ports last year alone, the number of countries that Italy would have to draw up deportation agreements with, in order to deport 500,000 people, would be immense, Soda said.

"To carry out returns you need agreements with those countries, so it gets very complicated, very quickly," he said. Italy already has an agreement with Nigeria, for example, but this only accounted for 15 percent of all arrivals last year.

"It's very fragmented and there are lots of small numbers of migrants from many countries. If you take the top five countries in terms of arrivals, they don't even account for 50 percent of the arrivals."

Soda said that Salvini's and the Italian government's rhetoric on migrants "sells well" to the public but, in reality, moving half a million people back to their countries of origin was "unthinkable."

"The return rate of migrants in recent years has been really low and that's due to the very, very complicated situation in terms of how many nationalities (there are). The political ambitions have to be reconciled with the operation realities.

"Everyone thinks, 'Just get them out of here, just send them back,' and it's an easy sell (to the public), but you're talking about putting half a million people on planes."

'Absurd' and 'astronomical' costs

The islands of Sicily and Lampedusa to the south of Italy have been a particularly focus during the migrant crisis.

Lampedusa and the Sicilian port of Pozzallo, which Salvini visited Sunday, are known as "hotspots" where facilities have been set up with funding from the European Union (EU) for the initial reception, identification and registration of asylum seekers and other migrants arriving at those locations. The country has two other hotspots in operation, with two more planned.

Hotspots were designed to speed up the registration and "distribution" of migrants to other EU countries as part of a quota-based system, where each member state was meant to take a share of migrants. They also handle deportations and are not without their problems or critics.

Refugees and migrants after being rescued at sea earlier in the day on June 10, 2017 off Lampedusa, Italy.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Italy has eight detention centers, including the hotspots, in use, as of 2017, according to the Global Detention Project (GDP), which analyzes detention and other immigration control regimes around the world.

Michael Flynn, executive director of the GDP, told CNBC that the Italian government's proposals to deport around 500,000 people were "ridiculous," costly and impracticable.

"These kinds of statement (from Salvini) are clearly intended to serve short-term political interests and the government is speaking to fears rather than trying to allay those fears," Flynn said Monday.

He acknowledged that Italy was facing "acute pressures that other countries aren't necessarily facing," but said the financial and psychological costs of deporting so many migrants would be huge.

"If the government were truly serious about deporting 500,000 people they would have to build a garrison state in order to achieve that goal, the cost of which would be astronomical and plunge the country's economy into turmoil."

Noting that Italy managed to remove, by forced deportations and voluntary returns, nearly 6,000 people in 2016 and 6,500 in 2017, when it had bed space for less than 400 in its immigration detention centers, Flynn said removing more people was unfeasible.

"Imagine the size of the system necessary to detain 500,000 people to facilitate their deportation? It is an absurd sum of money, not even counting the cost of the deportation flights.

"And money is not the only cost: such an effort would do irreparable physical and psychological damage to thousands of people, many of whom have already suffered unspeakable tragedy and trauma, and it would destroy any lingering claim Italy may still wish to cling to about being a liberal democratic state."

Soda, the IOM's director of the coordination office for the Mediterranean, shared a similar view.

"The costs are astronomical because forced returns involve a massive amount of work by law enforcement agencies and resources in terms of compelling people to leave, actually handling people — literally to the plane, on the plane then to the end (of the process)," he said. "If commercial flights are chartered then the numbers returning on these will be small too."

'Italians first'

Whatever European officials think, migration is a bone of contention for the public and any promises to restrain or restore a sense of order to the immigration system, whether feasible or not, is popular with the public.

Salvini and his fellow coalition leader, Luigi Di Maio, head of M5S and the new minister for labor and economic development, know this. It's not for nothing that the Lega party campaigned ahead of the March 4 election with the slogan "Prima gli Italiani" — Italians first.

Lega Nord far right party leader Matteo Salvini address supporters during campaign rally on Piazza Duomo in Milan on February 24, 2018 a week ahead of the Italy's general election. Italy stepped up security for mass demonstrations by far-right and anti-fascist groups across the country on February 24, 2018 as tensions rise ahead of next week's general election

With their coalition government only a few days old, they know too that voters will be closely watching to see if they fulfill their campaign pledges of tax cuts and massive social welfare spending, aside from the costs implied by deporting migrants.

Salvini and Di Maio were both in Sicily on Sunday to campaign ahead of municipal elections, looking to build on their popularity in opinion polls — a popularity that has largely, and uncomfortably for more open-minded Italians, been built on anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Lega started out as a northern Italian secessionist movement but campaigned at a national level ahead of the March election, benefiting from the public's general frustration with austerity, low employment rates and the immigration that Italy has experienced in recent years.

Soda told CNBC that it was apparent that anti-immigration pledges were popular — "it sells well," he said — but that the reality is different. "It's understandable that the government wants to work on returns but the numbers being thrown around are unrealistic."

The migrant crisis has allowed politicians like Salvini and Di Maio, both euroskeptics, to score points at home. But it has also given them another stick with which to beat Europe.

Salvini didn't miss an opportunity to criticize Italy's EU membership and international organizations on Sunday, saying they had not helped to solve the migrant crisis in Italy and the wider region.

"I want to highlight that Italy every year sends 6 billion euros in cash to Brussels," he said. "I cannot give these 6 billion euros to Brussels and then let them damage us on the fronts of agriculture, migration, fishing, commerce and finance. Why am I giving 6 billion to receive nothing in return?

"I agree that the problem is not just a European one, Italy is also part of international organizations, like the United Nations and NATO. I would like to know why they are not contributing in a concrete way to solve the situation in northern Africa and the Mediterranean."

EU second

Salvini is not alone in criticizing European institutions. Eastern European countries, which became a conduit for hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving on land from Syria at the height of its civil war in 2015, as well as Greece, Malta and Spain, have also criticized the response to the migrant crisis, citing a lack of support.

European rules, under the Dublin Regulation, require migrants to request asylum in the first EU country they arrive in, meaning that Italy and other "frontline" nations have had to register, process and detain thousands of migrants.

The EU tried to help frontline countries under immense pressure from the sheer number of arrivals in 2015 by setting up "hotspot" centers where migrants could be identified, registered and processed before being relocated to other member states, according to a contested EU quota system designed to relocate 120,000 refugees.

A mounted policeman leads a group of migrants near Dobova, Slovenia October 20, 2015.
Srdjan Zivulovic | Reuters

This quota system has largely failed — as of the end of May, only 12,690 migrants had been relocated from Italy and 21,999 from Greece, according to EU data. Eastern European states refused to sign up to the quota system — another hugely contentious issue.

Hotspots have become synonymous, too, with claims of harassment and long processing times. Lampedusa's hotpot closed temporarily in March amid claims of mistreatment. National governments managing hotspots, meanwhile, felt they hadn't received the support promised and that other EU states were not taking their share of migrants.

On Tuesday, European home affairs ministers are holding meetings in Luxembourg at which migration and reforms to the Dublin Regulation will be a key topic of debate.

Arriving at the meeting, the European Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs Dimitris Avramopoulos told reporters it was a chance to find "new ways to address migration in the future."

"Dublin (regulation) is part of the larger puzzle of migration and we have put on the table right now seven proposals to better improve our borders management and to put other controls on migratory flows and to enhance cooperation between member states. Cooperation is the key word," he said.

Asked about Italy, the commissioner said the EU would avoid "meddling in the domestic affairs of member states."

Italy's Salvini will not be attending the meeting because of a confidence vote taking place in Rome. However, he has sent a delegation that he said will oppose reforms to the asylum system that Italy believes does not help alleviate the pressures placed on it and other frontline countries by the Dublin Regulation, or proposed reforms to the legislation.

"Instead of helping Italy, they (other European interior ministers) would want to make it even more burdensome. The Italian government will say 'no' to the reform of the Dublin Regulation and the new asylum policies because they condemn the countries of the Mediterranean — Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Malta — to be alone," Salvini said Sunday.

Europe's migrant crisis might not make the headlines as it did back in 2015, but Italy's new government has ensured that migration is back at the top of its, and Europe's, agenda.