Syrian and North African refugees making their way through Italy to the northern border with Austria might encounter an unwelcoming military barricade.
Brenner Pass, the land crossing between Italy’s South Tyrol region and Austria, is home to an increasingly controversial refugee plan.
Mayor of Brenner, Franz Kompatscher, says no troops have arrived yet, but defense minister, Hans Peter Doskozil, has said that four Pandur armored vehicles were deployed, and 750 troops are on standby.
Conflict at the Mountain Border
Italy and Austria both have elections coming up, making the refugees situation a hotly charged political issue. Both are also part of the Schengen area, where there is no border control. Since 2015, some European countries have reintroduced border controls to help deal with the refugee crisis.
Last year, plans to build a fence at the Brenner Pass border between Italy and Austria sparked protests and outrage. Italian citizens clashed violently with police in South Tyrol while demonstrating against the border control.
“There isn’t a problem with migrants here, it’s not like it was last year,” Mayor Kompatscher says. “Very few come here now because they know it’s very difficult to cross the border. Some do manage to cross, but it’s not easy.”
Italy Draws Even More Refugees Than Last Year
According to current information from the International Organization for Migration, 85,183 refugees have arrived in Italy alone this year, compared to 181,436 in 2016. Since January, 2,150 migrants are reportedly drowned or missing after attempting the Mediterranean crossing to Italy. 12,225 have arrived just in the last week.
Nearby Greece has seen a steep decline in refugees this year. Conditions in its refugee camps have gotten so bad that some have tried to get back to Turkey, or even back to Syria, rather than staying.
“Anywhere. Anything is better than this,” one refugee from war-torn Aleppo told Al Jazeera in tears. “Sometimes, I just want to take my wife’s hand and jump into the sea.”
Families with enough money can sometimes hire smugglers to get them to wealthier European countries, like Germany.
In addition to Syria, migrants are fleeing North African countries like Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Sudan, as political conflict, terrorism and civil war have worsened.
The European commission has put pressure on both Italy and Greece to improve the sanitary conditions and comfort of their refugee camps. The EU committed to relocate 160,000 refugees out of these camps and into other European countries back in 2015.
So far, Europe has only about 10 percent of that goal. The remaining 90 percent of refugees slated for relocation continue to linger in a cramped purgatory. Only Finland and Malta have fulfilled their resettlement promises.
Chaos at Sea as No One is in Charge
The EU has called for a code of conduct for NGOs that rescue migrants at sea. It has asked Italy to cooperate with NGOs to draw up a plan. Italy wants the Italian and Libyan coast guards to be in charge of these NGOs. But UN agencies like the UNHCR have opposed these plans.
Vincent Cochetel of the UN Refugee Agency, says that every day shipping companies in the Mediterranean are switching off their GPS systems to avoid having to pick up refugees. He questions whether NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian is doing anything to effectively rescue people. Cochetel called for a code of conduct for NATO’s military ships operating in the Mediterranean.
Director of the Europe office of the International Organization for Migration in Europe, Eugenio Ambrosi, sees any proposed code of conduct as a “slippery slope.” He says Europe has a code of conduct already: European law.
Some Mediterranean states are accusing their northern neighbors of not doing enough to help them with the mass of migrants coming to their shores. EU officials are accusing Italy and Greece of not doing enough themselves.
On Thursday, EU home affairs ministers will discuss the latest Brussels plan. It calls for Italy to open more camps and send more refugees back to their home country if they don’t qualify for asylum.
Amidst all the mismanagement, chaos and bickering, migrant families are waiting months for their asylum interviews. Many of them are out of money and living in undignified squalor.