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Italy quadruples length of migrant detention to deter ‘biblical exodus’ from Africa

Migrants arrive in Lampedusa
Nearly 130,000 migrants have entered Italy this year, many through Lampedusa - Ciro Fusco/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Italy will increase how long migrants can be detained before being deported to a year and a half under tough rules to deter a “biblical exodus” of record boat crossings from North Africa.

Nearly 130,000 migrants have entered Italy this year, about twice as many as over the same period in 2022. Thousands have landed in overwhelmed Lampedusa, Italy’s most southern island.

Giorgia Meloni, the Italian prime minister, said the time migrants due to be expelled could be detained would be increased from a maximum of 135 days to 18 months, which is about 547 days.

In a television interview, she said the move would send a “very clear message to the whole of Africa” that “if you rely on traffickers to break Italian laws, when you arrive in Italy you must know that you will be detained and then repatriated”.

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The time limit for detentions used to be 18 months between 2011 and 2014, before being reduced under a centre-Left government.

After landing, migrants whom Italy determines should be expelled are sent to so-called “permanent repatriation centres”.

However, the vast majority are sent to reception centres throughout the country where they stay while they await a decision on their asylum request.

Ms Meloni, who won the election last year on a vow to stop immigration, has vowed to set up more repatriation centres “as soon as possible”.

Migrants in Lampedusa make their way to a ferry to be taken to the Italian mainland
Migrants in Lampedusa make their way to a ferry to be taken to the Italian mainland - Valeria Ferraro/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Antonio Tajani, Italy’s foreign minister, warned that there could be a “biblical exodus” of migrants from Africa towards Europe, which he likened to “barbarian invasions”.

He said poverty, climate change, Islamist extremism and war were disrupting the lives of millions of people, from West Africa through the Sahel to Sudan and the Horn of Africa.

He said the European Union could not tackle the crisis alone and that he would raise the issue at the United Nations General Assembly

“There are no walls that are capable of halting the movement of millions and millions of people,” he said in New York.

“Look at the history of the barbarian invasions – the Roman army, the most powerful in military history, could not stop them.”

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, presented a 10-point action plan for tackling the huge migrant flows when she visited Lampedusa alongside Ms Meloni on Sunday.

The plan includes a new EU naval mission in the Mediterranean, which Berlin has signalled it may support.

It came as Austria announced it will introduce emergency controls on its border with Italy because of the migrant crisis.

Italy and Austria are both members of the European Union’s passport-free Schengen Zone, but the emergency measures would mean the return of border checks.

“The minister of the interior has already made appropriate arrangements for dragnet controls at the Austrian-Italian border,” Karl Nehammer, the Austrian chancellor, told the Krone newspaper on Sunday as he announced the travel restrictions.

EU rules allow for the temporary return of border controls between member states in certain circumstances, including migratory pressure on the bloc’s border countries.

However, the return of such controls is controversial in a union that prizes freedom of movement as one of its most cherished achievements.

The European Commission has already threatened Austria with legal action for the border checks it carries out on fellow EU member Slovenia.

Soldiers and drones deployed

Gerald Darmanin, the French interior minister, who visited Rome on Monday, said 60 per cent of the arrivals in Lampedusa were economic migrants and not genuine refugees.

“We have to protect the EU’s external borders and, above all, look into asylum requests immediately, and send people back to their country when they’re not eligible,” he said.

About 50 French soldiers – reinforcements to an existing contingent – arrived on the border between France and Italy at the weekend.

Extra drones have also been deployed for the aerial surveillance of remote mountain paths that migrants use to try to cross into France.

Meanwhile, on Monday Germany rejoined a scheme to distribute EU migrants arriving in southern Europe, citing its “duty of solidarity” in light of mass arrivals on the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Joachim Gauck – who was the president of Germany from 2012 to 2017 and was once the face of Merkel-era liberal refugee policies – called on Berlin to “discover ways of acting that aren’t appealing to us at first because they seem inhumane”.

Lamenting a “loss of control” at the EU’s external borders, he said Germany “doesn’t need migration into our welfare system”.

“I’ve come round to the opinion that it is not at all morally questionable – indeed it is politically necessary – to pursue a policy of limitation that initially restricts the rights of those who come to us,” added Mr Gauck.

Polling shows that Germans’ faith in the government to tackle the problems caused by mass migration has plunged.

One poll released by broadcaster ARD last week found that only one in four voters now trust Olaf Scholz’s centrist government to find solutions to the issue.

The rise in migration is widely seen as one of the main reasons for the far-Right Alternative for Germany party’s current popularity, with polling showing it on course to win more than 20 per cent at the next election.