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Italy Threatens To Close Its Ports Over Spike In Migrant Arrivals


In Italy, more than 12,000 migrants arrived at ports last week. And there's been a 20 percent increase in the flow of migrants into Italy this year over the same period last year, more than 85,000 arrivals. The U.N. high commissioner for refugees calls it an unfolding tragedy as the country struggles with the costs and the logistics of caring for all these people. Most of Italy's European Union partners are not responding to appeals to share the burden. Well, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us on the line now. Good morning, Sylvia.


KELLY: What exactly is Italy asking other European countries to do to help?

POGGIOLI: Well, last week, Italy threatened to close its ports to ships owned by humanitarian aid groups, the NGOs, non-governmental organizations, that are currently rescuing some 40 percent of the migrants crossing the Mediterranean. That led to a meeting Sunday in Paris of the interior ministers of Italy, France and Germany and the EU migration commissioner. Now, some estimates say that 220,000 migrants could arrive in Italy by the end of this year. So Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni asked for help in preventing the flows, as he said, from becoming unsustainable and feeding hostile reactions within our social fabric.

KELLY: Wow, 220,000 migrants that could arrive this year - just huge numbers that Italy is trying to grapple with. How - I mean, how are other countries reacting to the plea for some help there?

POGGIOLI: Not very well. They - the three - the other two countries rejected outright Italy's request that some of the migrant arrivals be disembarked in other European ports, such as Marseille in France and Barcelona in Spain. They also rejected the idea of a European central command for search and rescue operations. Now, Rome is particularly disappointed with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who said last week that France would help migrants who were escaping war, those who are eligible for asylum but not so-called economic migrants. Italian commentators point out that many of those migrants come from former French colonies in Africa.

KELLY: I guess one question is what kind of leverage Italy has in these negotiations. Did Italy manage to get anything out of these talks you were describing in Paris?

POGGIOLI: Well, France and Germany did agree to step up the relocation of asylum-seekers from Italy across the EU. But it's really not clear how they can do that because in 2015, the EU had set up a quota system for each country. But it was a flop because the East Europeans - that's Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia - simply refused to take migrants in even at the risk of heavy fines imposed by the EU.

France and Germany also agreed to increase economic support for the coast guard in Libya to help curb the human traffickers on Libyan coasts, as well as more funds to help secure Libya's southern border, which is the migrants' main point of entry from sub-Saharan Africa. But those are not short-term solutions.

KELLY: No. Let me turn you to one controversial aspect of this. This is a new code of conduct for NGOs involved in the search and rescue operations. Just quickly, what will that entail?

POGGIOLI: Well, earlier this year, an Italian prosecutor accused some humanitarian groups of collusion with human smugglers in Libya, although no evidence turned up. Now, the code of conduct would apparently involve NGOs providing detailed information on their financial assets...


POGGIOLI: ...Who their donors are and clear identification of everyone in their crews. The NGO ships would also allegedly be...


POGGIOLI: ...Banned from entering Libyan territorial waters, although I don't know how that can be enforced. The NGOs are really saying this is like blaming the messenger.

KELLY: Sylvia, we'll leave it there. That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. Thanks so much.

[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: Slovakia is among a small number of European nations that in the past declined to accept migrants, and it is challenging the EU’s quota system. But it has recently allowed in a small number of migrants.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 4, 2017 at 11:00 PM CDT
Slovakia is among a small number of European nations that in the past declined to accept migrants, and it is challenging the EU's quota system. But it has recently allowed in a small number of migrants.
Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.