European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has praised Italy’s response to Europe’s irregular migration crisis in a letter to Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni just days after a shipwreck killed more than 60 migrants just off the country’s coast.
In the letter dated 6 March, which was seen by EURACTIV, Von der Leyen praises Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s government, stating that “the work done by Italy and others to offer safe and legal pathways to vulnerable people through humanitarian corridors makes a vital contribution.”
“It is clear that migration is a European challenge that requires a European solution,” stated von der Leyen, adding that EU lawmakers need to finalise the legislation that forms the bloc’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum.
It also refers to an upcoming EU Resettlement Forum in May that will look at “how to continue supporting at the EU level Italy’s experience with humanitarian corridors.”
The letter from the Commission chief is a response to a letter from Meloni following the sinking off the south Italian coast of Calabria of a boat carrying several hundred migrants. Since the tragedy, which left more than 60 people dead, there have been contradictory statements from the Italian and Greek governments and the EU’s border control agency Frontex, about the events leading up to the boat sinking.
Last weekend, Meloni stated that the Italian authorities did not receive emergency communication from Frontex and that there was no warning that the boat was in danger of sinking.
On Tuesday (7 March) Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi reiterated that Frontex did not provide them with any warnings or distress calls, during an urgent briefing to parliament.
“The Frontex report about the boat did not represent a dangerous situation. Secondly, there had been no distress calls of any kind”, the minister said.
However, EURACTIV was informed by a source within Frontex that they had intercepted the ship on the night of 25 February and then communicated with Italian authorities. They added that information such as poor sea conditions, thermal imaging, which showed the possibility of a presence of a large number of people in the bow, and other data was communicated to Italy.
After Frontex’s communication, the Italian authorities sent two patrol boats of the Guardia di Finanza (GDF) to intercept the ship, which had to return to port because of the rough weather and sea conditions, as they explained in a press release published on Monday.
In February, the Italian parliament passed into law a government decree establishing a code of conduct for migrant charity ships, despite criticism from the United Nations and humanitarian groups.
The new set of rules is part of Prime Minister Meloni’s efforts to crack down on the rescue vessels, which her government says encourage people to make the perilous trip across the Mediterranean from northern Africa.
Her right-wing coalition government has also been accused of controversial pushbacks of migrant boats seeking to land.
Government data suggests that 12,667 people reached Italy in the first two months of 2023, more than double the same period of 2022. Meanwhile, the missing migrants project estimates that at least 157 people have been reported as missing, presumed dead, so far this year.
Elsewhere, von der Leyen promises that the EU will “provide at least half a billion euros of funds for resettlement and humanitarian corridors until 2025 offering support for the resettlement of about 50,000 people”.
EU leaders adopted their toughest stance yet on migration at a summit focused primarily on the matter in February, promising to ramp up action on migration control and repatriation with third countries, primarily in North Africa. They also threatened to suspend aid, tariff-free trade and visa access to countries that refuse to take back failed asylum seekers.
Von der Leyen’s letter provides more detail on the new African partnerships outlined at the February summit, promising that “as part of our programming of EU funds this year we will once again give priority to this work, with a particular focus on Tunisia and Egypt.”
“We will also provide further support to Libya’s maritime border management and search and rescue capacities and step-up complementary actions to strengthen control of its land borders with Egypt,” the letter adds.