The Honorable Giulio Terzi, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Italy, remarks from ICT's 17th World Summit on Counter-Terrorism: Global Migration, Terrorism and Integration workshop
1) Impact on the EU future.
I am grateful to the organizers of this workshop for giving me the opportunity to address a topic which has only gained further importance worldwide and especially in Europe, since we did discuss it in this forum last year. It was easy for me to foresee at that time that Migrations, terrorism and integration would remain a politically charged debate within the EU and especially for Italy.
In a recently published work- "The retreat of western liberalism"- Edward Luce ventures into predictions which may sound like the ones made by Cassandra. These scenarios need however to be taken seriously.
"Europe may have to turn into a fortress in order to face itself, writes E. Luce. Even before Merkel allowed in up to a million of Syrian refugees, global migration had hit a post-war peak. Three per cent of the world's population now live in countries other than where they were born. According to Gallup surveys of global migration, 16% of the world - 700 million people-would move to wealthier nations if they could. This is especially true of Africa and the Middle East. Many more will keep trying... Europe is their natural destination… Hungary's Victor Orban was right about one thing. Europe should have secured its external border before it scrapped the internal ones. Europe cannot solve the Middle East by importing it. Nor does it have the capacity to absorb millions of Africa's economic migrants."
2) Concerns about migration and Islamic terrorism.
Concerns about migration and terrorism appear increasingly interlinked. A Gallup poll last year found that 66% of Europeans believe that "non-resident terrorism is a serious problem; 55% answered that current immigration levels are a serious problem in their countries".
Worries about terrorism and immigration levels fueled the rise of nationalist parties that shook up European politics in 2016. Debate within the European Union has been growing about badly needed reforms to the bloc's asylum policy.
The EU's Commission wants all member states to share the burden and prove intra- European solidarity with countries such as Italy, Malta and Greece which are at the front line of Mediterranean global migration flows. A policy has been met with resistance and even outright refusal by a relatively small, but very determined group of EU leaders which is rejecting the idea of indiscriminate and unconditional acceptance of illegal flows of migrants by their own countries, for reasons of economic sustainability and social integration.
The fear that migration is a "Trojan horse" for terrorists seeking entry into the EU, adding up to jihadist network established by older generations immigrants, continues to spread wider in the European public opinion and some political leaders.
The threat of Islamic terrorism appears to be linked to public support for anti-immigration policies. The percentage of European citizens who say their country's level of immigration is a "serious problem" varies widely in the Gallup I just mentioned, from 86% in Malta, where it outweighs concerns about Islamic terrorism, to 18% in Iceland. But tendency to view immigration as a serious problem rises with the likelihood to describe terrorist attacks - by either native- born, foreign or immigrated terrorist - the same way.
Among 14 countries studied by Gallup, the relationship between concerns about immigration and Islamic terrorism is statistically independent of individuals' feelings about racial and ethnic minorities. As EU members debate reforms to the union's asylum regime, the increasingly close connection between immigration and terrorism in many citizens mind should be acknowledged by EU Institutions and governments. They should inform themselves and their constituents with accurate facts and information about a major security and social issue that up to know has been- too often- analyzed through ideological lenses.
Terrorism fears and concerns among the European public about an unhindered immigration, are unfortunately coupled with EU policies of denial and obfuscation about these threats.
By doing so, they are encouraging groups which are openly against EU integration, and are actively campaigning against Western values and key principles of liberal democracies, like the Rule of Law and individual freedoms. For EU policymakers, the result may be further divisiveness and instability in the face of challenges that make common vision and solidarity more important than ever.
3) The EU common border: Italy as the front line.
According to Frontex and Italian statistics the number of illegal entries into Italy hit a high point over the last two and half years, with a total above 300.000 migrants in eighteen months. More then 80% of migrants heading to Europe have landed in this period in Italian ports. As their numbers grew, a new picture emerged of the land and sea routes many migrants are taking, and the "pull factors" which have emerged as powerful drivers.
With the diversion from the Balkan to the central Mediterranean route after the EU agreement with Turkey, the illegal border crossings to Italy has increased dramatically, to an unprecedented situation, with peaks of 7/8.000 landings in single days during the summer.
The Libyan quagmire has continued to be a breeding ground for human traffickers, jihadist organizations, Daesh and every kind of criminal network. As written in many UN reports there is ample evidence of cooperation and integration among criminal groups which specialize in drugs, weapons, human trafficking, terror financing and money laundering. Libya, Sahel, and other Mediterranean regions constitute no exception. Migration flows toward Europe are organized, planned and carried on a context of "multi-purpose criminal enterprises".
That is why it is especially important to understand, and possibly react to, the " pull factors" existing on our side of the Mediterranean, which can encourage and support - may be unwillingly- the human traffickers and their readiness to throw to sea thousands of human beings.
4) The " pull factors".
After the agreement between Brussels and Ankara closed the "Balkan route", the Central Mediterranean quickly became the gate to Europe for global migrations, mostly made of economic migrants from Africa, especially Sahel, Western Africa, and the horn of Africa. Economic conditions of those populations, drought, demography, violence, and terrorism are and increasingly will be for a long time very strong forces to motivate the populations concerned while seeking a better future abroad, notwithstanding the enormous risks of the journey human traffickers promote to unaware people.
However, the sudden peak from April 2015 on, from Libya to Italy, according to EU Institutions and Governments was not only due to geopolitical reasons. While it took time to police investigators and Tribunals to prove with circumstantial evidence cases of improper cooperation and even allegedly criminal collusion between NGO's operators and traffickers, the evidence of a "pull factor" in NGO's operations in Central Mediterranean had become a stronger concern both for the public opinion and the political leaders since the 2015 summer.
Over the time frame April - August 2015/16/, illegal migrants crossing from Libya to Italy were respectively 84 and 82 thousand, while for the same period April- August this year the number- although huge- has been "contained" in the low 70 thousands: this August "only" 1.572 arrived, after a "Code of Conduct" was signed by main NGO's and the Italian Government with the endorsement of the EU Commission.
The Code establishes that NGO's ships must operate exclusively in the high seas and not in Libyan waters, that they must cooperate with Frontex, Triton, and the national Navies involved in Search and Rescue, that the transponders cannot be shut off- as it has often been the case- and last but not least that the aim the NGO's ships must be to cooperate with Navies tasked to saving lives at risk, and not of coordinating with traffickers in transferring migrants from different ships in order to facilitate and encourage their business.
We cannot underestimate the debate that the whole story has fueled, especially in Italy as country directly concerned. The Italian public opinion is particularly sensitive to migration and other humanitarian issues. They strike a sensitive chord of my country's political culture and traditions. At the same time, there are significant interest, of a political and often a economic nature, that come into the picture. Integration, multiculturalism, inter religious dialogue, value of all immigrants for the Italian society and economy are principle to be taken for granted for a wide spectrum of parties and media generally identifiable as "catholic" and/or" progressive". Another at least equally important segment of the Italian public opinion appears increasingly focused on the need to preserve cultural identity, security, social and economic conditions in a country which has still to recover from the financial and economic downturn post 2008.
Having said that, the unfortunately high number of investigations and convictions for corruption and misappropriation of public funds earmarked for migrants, and the connections emerged between criminal organizations and humanitarian operators, projects a bleak picture and can discourage potential donors in a Country- Italy- the top ten NGO's have totaled last year voluntary contributions for 404 Million €, have employed 13.41 people, together with 80.000 volunteers and activist. But there is a much bigger and composite reality beyond the top ten NGO's, and that is one of great efforts and successes, but also uneven accountabilities and interests, as certain NGO's have unfortunately shown in the Central Mediterranean."
5) Immigration and national security.
According to perceptions documented by polls I have just quoted, threats to European countries are increasing, while the flow of immigrants only worsens the security situation. This is a politically charged point to make.
Until March 2015, when the Italian Authorities learned from Tunisians investigators that an Islamic terrorist involved in the March19th attack at Bardo museum in Tunisia- with 4 Italian victims and 18 more from other countries - Abdel Majid Touil, possibly the organizer, had traveled from Libya to Porto Empedocle in Italy a month before, undetected in a dinghy among immigrants, until that March any hint at the risk that jihadist may hide among migrants crossing the sea from Libya was labeled as an anathema. Even after the Tunisian request of extradition of Abdel Majid Touil the Italian Minister of Interior insisted for weeks that there was no evidence of jihadists taking the migrants route; to the point that many in the opposition and in the press called for the resignation of the Minister.
More recently Italian Authorities have discovered an increasing number of cases of islamic terrorists who either radicalized in Italy, or immigrated illegally in the country in order to plan attacks in Germany, France, Belgium and Spain, or did only multiply. That happened with Adam Harun, active member of Al Qaeda and then of Daesh, who as been recently extradited by the Italian Government; it happened with Ben Nasr Mehdi, a convicted Jihadist who returned to Italy concealed among migrants landed in Lampedusa; it happened with Abdul Rahman Nauroz, the leader of a jihadist network dismantle by the Italian police in Northern Italy, a case which raise strong indignation since the terrorist was the beneficiary of social allowances given to refugees; it happened with Anis Amri, one of the terrorists- and probably the mastermind- involved in the Berlin attack who had radicalized in jail in Sicily and then let free after a short detention. According to many sources, these cases seem to be only the tip of the iceberg.
In fact, until the Bardo's tragedy two and a half years ago no one in Italy could talk about the risk that terrorist could mix with migrants, or that migrants of first or second generation in Muslim families could radicalize and become terrorist.
Until a couple of years ago if anybody said that in public he was sure to be attacked as "populist" or "islamophobic", trying to scare the public for electoral purposes. That was also the common wisdom among Cabinet members, intellectuals, media, in the Catholic Church, Ngo's and humanitarian organizations active in migrants hospitality.
The deep rooted conviction was the following: these are desperate people fleeing wars and destruction; we must welcome them with open arms, without fears or second thoughts.
These convictions were so strong that, as the Government recognized with the EU Commission, tens of thousands illegal immigrants were allowed to enter Italy, a Schengen member, between 2014 and 2015 without any fingerprinting or other identification being taken.
Unfortunately, not only did such attitudes contrast with the changing surrounding environment, but also ignored repeatedly expressed warnings by the Intelligence and diplomatic Authorities of important Allies and Partners.
6) A turning point.
The wave of attacks in Europe which followed the one in Tunisia, the killings of nine Italian citizens in Dacca, the loss of Italian lives in Paris, Nice, Barcelona and the increasing number of casualties of Islamic terrorism are finally changing the overall perception of security in my country, as in all Europe. For the Italian Government and part of the public opinion that change happened with considerable delays compared to the threat. The Islamic State was present in Libya since mid 2014. The Italian intelligence and Judiciary had been tracking for at least six/seven years cases of first and second generation immigrants who had embraced the Jihad. Investigations and trials had been underway for a long time. Still, even during 2014 and the first months of 2015, that is to say until the killing of Italians at Bardo Museum in Tunisia, the Italian government and the mainstream media were extremely cautious on the subject. There was a great care in downsizing the perceived risk, differently from other European Governments.
The reason was political. The attempt was to tell the public that the concerns raised by anti migration and "populist" parties were wrong and misdirected. That become unsustainable in the course of 2015 and later on. Migration, Muslims radicalization and terrorism are now perceived by the Italian public opinion as more and more interconnected. But for quite a long time there has been an effort to deny the evidence, to "wait and see". This attitude was also explained in one sentence by the American philosopher Michael Walzer when he said: "I often meet people more concerned of being considered islamofobic, than willing to condemn Islamic terrorism". By confusing in such a way the political debate, European leaders do not help their own citizens in getting together, to reinforce their common will and identity.
Almost half a million illegal immigrants, a large share of which from Muslim countries, has entered Italy over the last three years, with increasingly high numbers of unaccompanied children, and single young men. Although the total numbers of foreign residents or 'de facto' residents are in Italy around 10% of the total population, the share of the Muslim communities is growing much more rapidly than the others as effect of last years “open door policy” for humanitarian reasons. These critical elements may bring the Italian model close to the 'breaking points' we had to observe in UK and in France but which faster then the Italian Government seems to believe and tries to sell to its public opinion.
An advice should therefore be addressed to European leaders who are more concerned of appearing "politically correct" then providing a correct information to their citizens, then raising awareness on extremism, radicalization and the need for a different approach in the way our societies should respond to Islamic fundamentalism. A distorted and complacent narrative is only reinforcing the attempts by radical islamists to spread their message that our constitutional values are not seriously believed and supported by all layers of our institutions, and by the political establishment. Whenever schools and teachers are shy or reluctant in asserting those values, when they accept that in their classes hatred propaganda and antisemitic feelings develop, as it happened after recent attacks in France and Belgium, extremists and radical Islamists win. The same happens when complacency is shown at the highest level, hiding symbols of western culture and christianity in order to please foreign Muslim visitors. If the public were adequately informed of the true picture, especially the strategies, connections, duplicities and threats inherent in the radicalization process, the involvement and support of our societies for a wide plan of Action in education, counterterrorism, and social and economic support to the most critical sectors in our societies and immigrated communities would be quite different.