More than half of the world's refugees are children. This girl is from Syria. Source: Bengin Ahmad, Creative Commons
More than half of the world’s refugees are children. This girl is from Syria. Source: Bengin Ahmad, Creative Commons

For better or for worse, in an international system, outcomes in one state can have far reaching consequences. This is especially prevalent in Italy as I witnessed first hand last semester (as a study abroad student) of how refugees can effect state policies. Although refugees have continued to come from the Middle East for months, the issue of immigration continues to dominate news head lines as Italy and the European Union struggles to come to a consensus. I was lucky to have Dr. Andrea Merli as a professor last semester to comment on the ongoing crisis in my International Conflict Resolution class. Curious to learn more about its potential ramifications, I interviewed Dr. Merli for more information regarding this human rights situation.

Can you give a brief background of your own expertise and any experience you might have had with the current immigration program in Italy?

I am a lecturer of “International Conflict Resolution” at Lorenzo de’ Medici International Institute in Florence, and a board member of the NGO COSPE, which works for sustainable development, gender empowerment and human rights together with communities in several emerging countries, and with migrants in Italy. At the same time, I have no direct connection with the immigration program in Italy.

What was the Italian operation “Mare Nostrum”?

Operation “Mare Nostrum” was a find-and-rescue operation promoted by the Italian Government in order to locate migrants’ boats in the open sea, on their way to Sicily. Migrants’ flows have dramatically increased since the governance crisis in Libya, in the aftermath of the Arab revolutions of 2011. The operation, named after the Romans’ words for Mediterranean Sea, was intended to save as many lives as possible by approaching boats in danger and boarding people to safer vessels, so as to prevent shipwrecks. It is estimated that the operation allowed saving over 100.000 lives from 2013 to 2014.

Although many believe that Mare Nostrum was a success, why did it end?

The Operation was shut down in November 2014 when the Italian government called the European Union to share the political and financial responsibility for the migrants’ crisis. Indeed, the emergency had had a continental dimension since its early days, as most migrants intended to reach the Italian shores only as a first step to move on to northern Europe. Still, European legislation requires the country of arrival to manage the migrants’ status, either by accepting them as refugees or enlisting them for repatriation. Several European countries have been very reluctant to provide support for maintaining the Operation, as fear that migrants’ boats could be used by terrorists to enter Europe did play a role in discouraging assistance. This kind of attitude, unfortunately, shows that the path to European political integration remains steep and troubled.

Do you believe that the EU can collectively solve this issue and what efforts have they made so far?

The EU certainly has the capability and resources to respond to the emergency in ways that may provide protection to people in search of a way out from conflict and poverty, without compromising European security. The biggest challenge remains that of the willingness to participate in a common effort, since different countries often feel bound to different priorities. At present the emergency response is based on voluntary contributions, without a comprehensive, much-needed framework.

An inflatable boat carrying refugees across the Mediterranean sea. Source: Noborder Network, Creative Commons

Some critics believe that the Mediterranean might become a source of terrorism due to the large groups of displaced immigrants; do you believe this is likely?

I believe that terrorism can be seen as a dramatic byproduct of severe socio-economic inequalities and deep-rooted ignorance. It follows that the most effective way to offset terrorism is by reducing inequalities and ignorance on the ground, in the regions where they hamper the lives of millions, which are not limited to the Northern shores of Africa, but reach as far as Somalia, Nigeria and Syria. So far the experience shows that terrorist groups eventually try to operate in Europe through local residents, even people who are holders of European citizenship, rather than by sending their affiliates on migrants’ routes. As of today, the connection between migrants and terrorists appears extremely weak because of the very dangers of the migration journey, which often begins on wrecked pieces of floating junk and, in the best scenario, directly ends in the hands of governmental authorities. So, I would argue that counter terrorism activities can be effectively pursued without obstructing humanitarian protection for those in need. Closure is no bypass for equity, and no shortcut for real security.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.