ROME—The Brenner Pass is a picturesque Alpine corridor that traverses the frontier between Italy and Austria. The actual border crossing, with its electronic gates now permanently open, is dotted with tacky souvenir shops and signage in German, Italian, and English bidding farewell or welcome.
As one of the lowest points of passage through the Alps, it has been used for migration since the prehistoric era, as evidenced by the remains of 4,000-year-old Ötzi the Iceman, whose mummified corpse was discovered in a frozen gully nearby in 1991. It was the site of a crucial and bloody land grab during World War I, and the Brenner Pass is where Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini met in 1940 to discuss Italy’s role in the Führer’s grand plans for Europe.
The original road through the pass was laid during Roman times and since then it has been the main thoroughfare for horses, traders, trains, road transport, holidaymakers, hikers and, most recently, migrants hoping to join family or find jobs in northern Europe.
Now the Brenner Pass is fast becoming a symbolic flashpoint as Europe struggles with the potentially catastrophic migration crisis it has failed miserably to manage.
This week, Austrian Defense Minister Hans Peter Doskozil announced he has sent four Pandur armored personnel carriers with 750 troops to the Brenner Pass to stop the migrants and refugees who arrive in Italy by sea from heading north into Austria. For the moment the troops are on standby, but Doskozil says they could deploy “at a moment’s notice” calling them “indispensable if the influx into Italy does not diminish.”
And since there are no viable solutions to diminish the influx—in fact, it’s growing daily—Doskozil’s threat may soon become a reality.
Around 85,000 migrants have landed in Italy after leaving from North African shores so far this year, with more than 12,000 plucked from the sea last week alone. The arrival numbers are around 20 percent higher than this time last year, which were higher than the year before, and so on.
More than 2,150 people are known to have died trying to cross this year, which probably understates the true human tragedy since many migrant boats sink without any survivors or witnesses to tell of their demise. The story is not new, and the details of death, despair, and inaction tend to blend together, which does little to help the cause of compassion and humanity.
Attempts to train the Libyan Coast Guard to stop the flow have resulted in serious abuses as those migrants who are turned back by the Libyans are often forced into inhumane detention centers until they are sold into slave labor or can afford to attempt the crossing again. Many who have been rescued have gunshot wounds and signs of sickening torture.
Attempts to distribute migrants through a European quota system have also failed, with most migrants making their own way to where they have family or other support networks.
Italy fingerprints and registers each migrant in accordance with the 2013 Dublin Treaty, but the Italian government has had little success keeping track of migrants once they enter the over-taxed asylum system. It can take up to two years to process requests, during which time the applicants often give up and move on. State-run migrant camps are open, and opportunistic smugglers who can move people easily across Europe’s open borders make it easy to disappear.
There have been endless meetings and attempts to try to stop the tribes that run the smuggling rings in north and sub-Saharan Africa, and plenty of talk about setting up a coordination center to deal with asylum seekers in Libya, but so far nothing has materialized except more boats on the horizon.
With no success stopping the influx, European countries like Austria—which wants no more migrants at all after taking the equivalent of 1 percent of its total population last year—feel they have no choice but to take matters into their own hands.
When Austria announced its plans to put soldiers at the previously open border, Rome summoned the Austrian ambassador for crisis talks, which led to a softening of the tone, but not the removal of the standby soldiers. Austria will hold snap elections in October, and the stakes are high for those anti-immigration parties that want to appear strong.
But the truth is, what Austria is threatening—dramatic as it sounds—is nothing new. The French have been batting back migrants from Ventimiglia on the Italian and French border for more than a year now, which has created a growing migrant camp on the Italian side. The French just never made the kind of formal announcement the Austrians did.
Still, militarizing one of Europe’s presumably open borders is seen as a slap in the face to Italy, which has borne the brunt of the migrant crisis for years and which has been lobbying for a whole lot more burden sharing.
It is no secret that for the many years this crisis has unfolded, Italy has dealt with it by turning a blind eye as the new arrivals hop trains and buses north. It is only now that the border countries are stopping the passage that Italy feels the immense pressure since the migrants are stuck where they do not want to be, and where there’s no way to give them jobs. As it is, youth unemployment in Italy is around 37 percent according to the latest statistics. Only Spain and Greece are worse at offering employment opportunities to the younger generation, let alone migrants who might be forced to stay.
Closing an otherwise open border with military force is a largely symbolic measure since few migrants pass into northern Europe so blatantly. Most who are caught on the move or turned away at official borders instead cross the mountains with the help of land traffickers who make hefty profits ferrying migrants through the mountains in pickup trucks and on horseback from Italy into Austria and France.
European leaders have been meeting all week to come up with new rules and regulations that are meant to stem the crisis. One involves a “code of conduct” for nongovernmental organizations who run charity ships that carry out search and rescue missions near the Libyan waters. The Italian Coast Guard estimates that the the groups rescue about a third of the total number of migrants. The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, puts that number closer to 40 percent. The rest are picked up by the Italian Coast Guard, European Union Frontex border patrol, and military assets and passing merchant ships.
Over the weekend, Italy threatened to close its ports to foreign-flagged charity ships laden with migrants if it didn’t get help from the rest of Europe.
The charity ships have come under fire in recent months, accused of creating a pull factor by patrolling too close to the Libyan waters and making it easy for smugglers to do their work. The code of conduct currently under discussion by EU leaders includes ensuring that the charity ships don’t turn off their location transponders, which would allow authorities to make sure they don’t enter Libyan waters to conduct rescues, which would mean they would have to take the rescued people back to Libya, not Italy.
Other points may include whether or not the rescuers can board the migrant vessels to unload them, or whether they can only help people who have fallen into the water. The full code of conduct is expected to be announced later this week, and rescuers say they fear it will include measures that will put the migrants and the rescuers at risk.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the impulse for action of the NGOs is a humanitarian impulse; they want to save people in dire circumstances,” European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said earlier this week on the sidelines of crisis talks on migration. “But we have to make sure that in executing those intentions we do not create additional problems or perhaps even the risk of accidents at sea when there are also others operating in the same area. So a code of conduct could create clarity for everyone operating in this very complicated field so that there are no accidents.”
Still, as leaders hypothesize on dry land about what can and should and maybe should have been done, the boats just keep coming and the crisis just keeps getting worse.