The Italian government has hailed a fall of more than 50% in the number of migrants from Libya reaching its coastline in July as a potential turning point made possible by tougher actions against smugglers operating in the Mediterranean.
The number of migrants reaching Italy fell to 11,459 in July from 23,524 in June and 23,522 in July last year. Over the past few years the summer months have been the peak period for traffickers in the Mediterranean.
The fall in numbers making the crossing is likely to be the result of a more aggressive turnaround policy by the Libyan navy and coastguard, backed by improved boats and equipment – funded by the European Union – and Italian-led training. In the past few days, the Libyan coastguard has fired warning shots at one NGO ship seeking to rescue migrants. At a press conference on Thursday the Libyan navy underlined the message by telling foreign ships to stay outside Libya’s search and rescue zone.
Italy, including its coalition government, is deeply divided over its response to the migrant crisis, but ministers are desperate for any sign that it is is managing to bring numbers under control as it faces attack from populist and centrist parties.
Matteo Renzi, who is likely to be the Democratic party leader in elections expected next year, welcomed the July and early August fall as significant.
However, even if the July fall is maintained through August, about 140,000 migrants are projected to reach Italy this year.
The Italian government’s efforts to drive the figures down are under political attack both domestically and in Libya.
At home, the Italian government is pressing NGOs that are operating rescue ships to sign up to a 13-point code of conduct or else finds their ships barred from landing in Italian ports. So far four NGOs have agreed, with four refusing on the grounds it requires them to allow the Italian military to accompany their rescue missions, something they say is in breach of humanitarian…