Much like the bodies of water migrants cross in search of better opportunities, Europe’s migrant crisis can seem to stretch on endlessly — both for the migrants themselves and for European politicians.
A drop in the number of migrants arriving in Italy last month suggested that, perhaps, a change in the pattern of migration had arrived. There was a 57% decrease in the number of arrivals in July, according to data released by Frontex, a European migration watchdog.
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But according to the report, the factors that led to the decrease may not be cause for celebration, or signal an end to the migrant crisis.
The causes for the decrease included poor sea conditions in the first half of the month, unrest at Libyan coastal city Sabratah, and higher Libyan coast guard activity that deterred smugglers from shuttling migrants across the dangerous passage, according to the group.
The last of those factors, increased coast guard presence, has been roundly criticized by human rights watchdogs, who say refugees and migrants are subjected to abuses at the hands of the coast guard and the Italian police.
“Italy, along with other EU member states, should be focusing on increasing its search and rescue operations,” Gauri Van Gulik, Amnesty International deputy Europe, told CNN. “Instead it has chosen to shirk its responsibilities and endanger the very people it says it is trying to help, including by providing military cover and support to the Libyan coast guard, whose reckless and abusive conduct against refugees and migrants during interceptions has been repeatedly documented."
Last year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 4,576 migrants died crossing the Mediterranean en route to Italy, and this year another 2,000 more have drowned.
Overall, the report said, the number of migrants crossing the central Mediterranean route — one of four primary migration routes between Northern Africa and Europe — is on par with 2016. Migrants to Italy across the central Mediterranean route come primarily from Nigeria, Guinea, Eritrea, Sudan and Mali, according to the report.
Italian authorities boasted that the recent statistics may be indicative of a broader shift in the migration crisis, but those outside of politics seem less hopeful.
“We are still under the tunnel, it's a long tunnel, but I start seeing the light at the end of it,” Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti said at a conference Tuesday, according to Reuters.
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Experts worry that the decrease in migrants entering Italy may not be due to natural factors, and have criticized Italian leaders for "pursuing short-term electoral gain at the cost of migrants’ lives."
They cite Italy and Libya’s controversial policies aimed at stemming the tide of migrants across the central Mediterranean route.
Last week, the Italian government presented rescue organizations that operate in the Mediterranean with a “code of conduct” requiring rescue boats to keep police officers on board at all times, avoid Libyan waters, and cease transfers from rescue boats and other vessels.
If rescue organizations don’t sign on to the 13-point code of conduct, they will not be allowed to dock on Italian shores, the Guardian reports.
“They’re just trying to keep NGOs as far away from Libya so that the Libyans could do whatever they want with no witnesses around,” Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo of the University of Palermo told the Washington Post.
So far, according to Reuters, five of eight primary rescue organizations have signed on to the code, but three have refused, including Medecins Sans Frontieres, which announced it would stop migrant rescues at sea on account of the policy. Aid organizations say that the new policies limit their ability to operate in the region and violate international maritime law.
“[The new policy is] the result of a wrong belief that having rescuers attracts migration,” Matteo de Bellis, a migration researcher at Amnesty International, told the Washington Post.
Libya, for its part, has established a search and rescue zone and restricted maritime access to rescue operations.
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According to Reuters, Italy expects that migration numbers will remain low in August.
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