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With Closure of Balkan Route, Italy Focuses on Potential for a Renewed Adriatic Migrant Route

March 21, 2016

By Elisa Sguaitamatti

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: the closure of the Balkan route to migrants, and Greece’s ensuing placement of large numbers along its northern borders, indicate a likely increase of illegal border crossings towards the Adriatic Route- overland into Albania and across the sea into Italy, as we predicted in The Adriatic Chessboard back on February 22.

The Adriatic Route: Italian Public and Official Perception

The ongoing refugee and migrant crisis is currently receiving much media coverage in Italy. The country fears that the old smugglers’ routes from Albania to Southern Apulia are going to be reactivated in the near future, especially after the closure of the Balkan route used by migrants to reach Northern Europe via Macedonia and Serbia.

This Adriatic route, which goes from the Albanian mountains all across the Adriatic Sea to Italy is very well known to the Italian authorities and general public. They still have a vivid memory of the millions of Albanians who left their home country via boat and reached the Apulian shores in the 1990s.

“There is the danger of a route from Albania,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi recently said, indicating that Italian officials are constantly monitoring the situation. Other officials have echoed this comment but express cautious assessments, like Interior Minister Angelino Alfano.

“We are used to making provisions as well as observing reality,” Alfano said. “So far we have no evidence of any huge flow from the Balkans. It doesn’t seem appropriate to create alarmism on this since it’s not a fact today.”

Although it may not be a reality yet, nonetheless the Italian government is already starting to consider the eventuality of this event in the short term. Hence, it is working to identify all the necessary measures that need to be taken to cope with potential major influxes of migrants, such as the creation of hot spots, reception and identification facilities.

The Mediterranean and Balkan Route

Italy received more than 10,000 migrants coming from North Africa via the Mediterranean route between 1 January and 10 March of this year. Overall, Italy and Greece together had to deal with more than 150,000 asylum-seekers over the same period, according to official data released by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

The Mediterranean route appears to have been the preferred choice made by Sub-Saharan and North African migrants so far, mainly leaving Libya or Egypt to get to the little island of Lampedusa or Sicily.

On the other hand, the Balkan route, which became popular last summer and autumn for millions of Syrians and Iraqis, is no longer an option. As Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia announced border closures, more and more arrivals are likely to happen thanks to improving weather conditions. At present, 12,000 migrants are living in makeshift houses and shelters near Idomeni still wait to cross the frontier between EU Member State Greece and Macedonia, though a recent violent attempt supported by international activists failed (around 2,000 participants were returned to Greece unharmed by the Macedonian Army, though three migrants died while trying to cross a river).

The President of the European Council Donald Tusk officially confirmed this closure of frontiers recently in a statement: “irregular flows of migrants along the Western Balkan route have come to an end,” he said. Now, after the shutdown of a major migrant route, new alternatives to get to the heart of Europe are emerging. It is likely that migrants will be forced towards Albania and then to Italy. Not only is this route more convenient, but a Macedonian initiative for joint border cooperation was accepted by Bulgarian officials, who are also fortifying their border with Greece. Macedonian military and police are continually repairing stretches of fence with Greece that migrants continually attempt to break, despite the presence of Greek police and Frontex officials.

Over the past six months, the Italian authorities have been holding talks with their Tirana and Montenegro counterparts to work in a joint effort to prevent the re-emerging of people smugglers’ routes.

The EU Response: the Deal with Turkey and Possible Route Diversification towards the Adriatic

The EU’s controversial agreement with Turkey is designed to stop the flow of migrants to Greece, and to return those trying to enter via boat. But it remains to be seen whether a deal with Turkey’s will make a difference. Despite claims that police have been having more success, arrivals to the Greek islands continue with a daily average of some 2,000. And the long and complex sea border between the two countries will make it difficult for the coast guard, Frontex and eventual NATO ships to stop all the smugglers.

However, the perception that the Balkan Route (through Macedonia) is now sealed will spread among the migrant communities, and not only Italian officials are concerned about what this will mean for Albania and Italy. The spokesperson of Frontex recently underlined that “old routes could get reactivated.” This means that refugees are increasingly going to use the routes from Greece to Italy and from Turkey to Italy.

Mogherini’s Visit to Tirana

As for the European institutions, last month Federica Mogherini, the EU Foreign Policy Commissioner, traveled to Tirana to meet the Albanian authorities and discuss in detail all the problems related to the migration crisis.

Further, Italian Interior Minister Alfano raised the issue at several international summits constantly making clear that “this is not only an Italian problem, but a European one.” In the past six months, Europe has struggled to come up with effective solutions regarding the refugee crisis, mainly due to a lack of consensus among Members States on the equal distribution of quotas of migrants.

Italy’s Handling of the Crisis: Downplaying the Risks while Making Rapid Intervention Plans with Albania and Montenegro

Italy has seen many more migrant arrivals this winter compared to both 2014 and 2015, and therefore is trying to downplay the risks accompanying this influx.

Indeed, when asked about refugee flows from the Balkans, Mario Morcone, the head of the Migration Department at the Italian Interior Ministry, commented that “there is no sign yet to say that it’s happening.”

However, according to Frontex, there are rising concerns for Southern Italy. Irregular migrants picked up in Apulia are most often now travelers who had first entered Greece, whereas those detected in Calabria normally come from Egypt or Turkey. Most such people are Syrians, Pakistanis and Afghans.

Moreover, at the end of February at the regional security and public order meeting in Bari in the Apulia region, the Italian Interior Minister made some important remarks on current developments: “the work we are doing is very hard and serious. The same holds true for our liaison officers in the Balkan region. Here I’m referring to the intervention planning with Montenegro and Albania in collaboration with Frontex. We are working to prevent this route from reopening. However, should it ever happen, we are ready to tackle the flows of migrants.”

Minister Alfano also added that Albania represents a strategic partner for Europe to face “the Balkan question,” and that Italian officials are doing everything within their power to keep Greece from being left alone in addressing the emergency and humanitarian crisis.

The January Meeting in Amsterdam, Official and Unofficial Talks with Albania, and the Policy of a ‘European Solution’

In addition, during a previous informal meeting of Ministers of Justice and Home Affairs in Amsterdam last January, which was predominantly dedicated to the migration crisis, Italy specifically demanded more cooperation and coordination on this theme.

The country has been involved in both official and unofficial track-two diplomacy talks with the Albanian counterparts, but Minister Alfano remarked once again that “it cannot be only a bilateral relation with Tirana; it must be a European issue too. We are doing our job but it is crucial that each of the European Member States does its own part as well.”

The Italian government is already working to take all necessary measures to address a potential emergency as well as offering humanitarian and relief efforts. In Alfano’s words, “we should not put the cart before the horse. Now what we are doing is putting a lot of effort into adopting a prevention policy at the international level, and at the same time trying to reduce the likelihood of a refugee crisis in the Adriatic Sea.”

Finally, on a visit to a Sicilian reception facility on 14 March government officials reiterated that the solution to tackle the migration crisis can only be European. “Italy’s job is to protect the external southern frontier of Europe, in order to make movements of people within Europe not only free but also safe. The only solution is a European solution” Alfano stated.

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