LONDON // Italy pleaded on Sunday with fellow European states to accept boats carrying migrants rescued from the Mediterranean as the regional refugee crisis deepened.
Interior ministers from Italy, France and Germany and EU officials will meet in Paris on Sunday night to discuss implementing a coordinated approach to the Mediterranean migrant influx that threatens to overwhelm the Italians' ability to cope with new arrivals.
With more than 12,000 refugees estimated by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi to have arrived on the country’s shores during the previous weekend alone, Italy called upon other European nations to take “even one vessel” containing refugees making the dangerous crossing from Libya.
Ahead of the Paris summit, interior minister Marco Minniti told Italian newspaper Il Messaggero that "we are under enormous pressure" and called for a wider European response to the emergency as the situation in his country's reception centres became critical, according to the Italian Red Cross.
"There are NGO ships, [European Union] Sophia and Frontex boats, Italian coast guard vessels. They are sailing under the flags of various European countries. If the only ports refugees are taken to are Italian, something is not working. This is the heart of the question," Mr Minniti said.
"I am a Europhile and I would be proud if even one vessel, instead of arriving in Italy, went to another European port. It would not resolve Italy's problem but it would be an extraordinary signal" that there was a Europe-wide willingness to help Italy.
Mr Minniti, who met with France’s Gerard Collomb, German minister Thomas de Maiziere and EU Commissioner for Refugees Dimitris Avramapoulos, also noted how unrest in Libya was contributing to the crisis, as "97 per cent" of migrants set off from that country’s coast.
The UN says that more than 83,000 people have been rescued crossing the Mediterranean and brought to Italy in 2017. In excess of 2,100 are estimated to have died making the journey, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
This represents an increase of nearly a fifth on 2016, contributing to a humanitarian and political crisis in Italy. Last month, Virginia Raggi, the mayor of Rome who represents the populist Five-Star movement, demanded that migrants stop being sent to the capital.
Italy’s ruling centre-left Democratic Party suffered a mauling at the polls last week in local elections at the hands of a coalition made up of Five-Star and right-wing Northern League.
"What is happening in front of our eyes in Italy is an unfolding tragedy," Mr Grandi said on Saturday, as he urged other European countries to help defuse the situation.
The country was "playing its part" in attempting to mitigate the emergency, but “these efforts must be continued and strengthened. This cannot be an Italian problem alone".
Italy is expected to propose taking a tougher line with NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS Méditerranée, who operate rescue missions in the Mediterranean. These agencies are accused of operating as a pull for migrants because they sail close to the Libyan coast.
The NGOs argue that they are caught in a dilemma, having to patrol so near to Libya because people smugglers are sending migrants off in unseaworthy vessels that are at risk of sinking as soon as they enter international waters.
Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported last week that the Italian government was pushing for a code of conduct to be drawn up for NGO aid boats, with the threat of seizure against organisations that did not sign up to the code.
Mr Minitti also called for changes in how refugees who were applying for asylum in Europe were processed, proposing that registration took place in Libya rather than in Italy, with successful applicants being transported safely to Europe.
"We have to distinguish before they set off [across the Mediterranean] between those who have a right to humanitarian protection and those who don't.
"And, on the basis of the decisions made by the UNHCR, we must ensure the former depart for Europe while economic migrants are voluntarily repatriated,” he said.
The Italians also proposed the creation of a force that would oversee rescue operations taking place across the entire Mediterranean – according to Corriere della Sera – a body that could then spread migrant arrivals across the European Union. The UN's Mr Gradi agreed that the continent had to commit to an "urgent distribution system".
Wider discussion of the crisis will take place among European governments at an EU summit in Talinn, Estonia this week.