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I was born and raised in Sicily in a house by the Mediterranean Sea, facing the coast of Africa. I have always looked at the sea with a mix of respect and awe. The same feelings that I have for those courageous men and women who have rescued hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants in the Channel of Sicily.
In the past three years that number has reached 580,000. That’s more than the population of the city of Edinburgh or the state of Luxembourg. Imagine if, every day, hundreds of migrants were disembarked in the ports of Hastings and Calais. But also imagine if we had let them drown. By saving lives, we have put Europe on the right side of history.
Italy has been bearing the brunt of this political, humanitarian and social crisis. In the EU, despite the formal agreements, the debate has produced few results — a very limited number of relocations and the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa — with no tangible effect on the pressure Italy is sustaining.
We are calling for urgent measures to be taken in Brussels, such as stronger regional co-operation on search and rescue activities. At the same time, we want to set clear regulations for non-government organisation vessels operating in the Mediterranean. Rescuing migrants at sea should be governed by two principles: saving lives and disembarking people in the most secure ports. Are the Italian ports the only secure and available ones in the Mediterranean?
Until a decision is taken in Europe, Italy is promoting a new strategy, a change of tack, just as any experienced sailor would do navigating the difficult waters of the Mediterranean. This new format involves EU member states and countries of transit. In a ministerial conference scheduled this week in Rome, I will be asking participants to deliver prompt and concrete results.
First, I will announce new pledges to finance activities that increase Libya’s capacity to control its southern borders, that help the International Organisation for Migration to perform assisted voluntary returns from Libya, and that contribute to fight the cancer of smugglers of migrants. Libya is a fragile country and the main transit route of migrants to Europe. The best way to provide stability is to fight traffickers, the most heinous “travel agents of death”.
Second, we want to do more to help other countries of transit. The core of our strategy is to help them control their borders and return migrants.
Supporting countries of transit has to become a political and security priority for the EU. Populism is having a feeding frenzy on the migration crisis and spreading fear in our communities. And it is in Europe’s security interest to disrupt the business model of traffickers, since their revenues are also flowing towards terrorist organisations.
Third, we must continue to protect and assist refugees and migrants. International organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and IOM can help us greatly in this mission.
And we must reach a consensus on establishing programmes both for assisted voluntary returns of migrants and for resettlement of refugees from countries of transit. This can be a real “game changer”.
To achieve these goals, EU member states have to show much more solidarity, by channelling more resources towards countries of transit, bilaterally and through the Trust Fund for Africa.
In these difficult years for Europe, hit by terror, Italy has successfully combined solidarity and security. At the same time, we have been serious and responsible towards EU partners, identifying migrants and controlling our northern borders.
Today the flows are becoming unsustainable. We ask our EU partners for the same level of seriousness and responsibility, by displaying concrete and immediate solidarity towards countries of transit. That’s the best way to allay political fears and to continue looking at the Mediterranean with respect and awe.
The writer is the foreign minister of Italy