Michael Peel, Mehreen Khan — FT.com Sept 6, 2017
The number of migrants who arrived in Italy by sea tumbled in August. That’s a striking change on a central Mediterranean route that had remained busy even as traffic to the east dwindled.
As the European Commission presents its full data on migrant flows on Wednesday the questions to ask are why, and at what cost?
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has already said that just 3,813 people landed in August in Italy, which accounts for the overwhelming bulk of migrant sea arrivals in Mediterranean EU countries. That’s just a third of July’s figure and well under a fifth of the number for August last year. The EU’s latest figures are expected to be similar.
The decline in overall Mediterranean arrivals was driven by Turkey’s agreement in March 2016 to take back migrants who had crossed to Greek islands.
The estimated 126,000 who arrived by sea in EU Mediterranean countries this year is barely a third of last year’s total and is a small fraction of the more than 1m who crossed in 2015. Even so, more than 2,400 people are thought to have died or been lost in the Mediterranean in 2017 — almost one fatality for every 50 who made it.
Experts warn against reading too much into sharp monthly movements in ever fluctuating arrival numbers. But the dip comes after EU action, such as funding a crackdown on smuggling centres in Niger through which migrants crossed the Sahara and travelled on to Europe. Brussels has also trained coastguards in Libya to intercept migrant boats.
If the impact of these measures is unclear, the same can be said for how the clampdowns are being conducted, particularly in the chaos of Libya. Brussels says it is putting in place a monitoring mechanism for the coastguard there. The International Organization for Migration has described conditions in the country’s migrant detention centres as “unacceptable”.
The Turkey deal last year had pros and cons that were pretty obvious when it was signed. The same can’t yet be said of the strategy that may be behind this year’s sharp fall in migrant numbers to the west.
Chart du jour: what happened to the Med route?
Last August, more than 21,000 migrants arrived in Italy by sea, according to the UNHCR. That figure has fallen by more than 80 per cent to 3,813 this year.