Human Rights Watch will soon release a report which alleges that Italy is summarily returning migrants arriving illegally from Greece before they have an opportunity to apply for asylum. When I first read this in the New York Times, it did not seem particularly alarming since European law typically requires migrants to apply for asylum in the first country they enter in Europe. However, according to the article, the European Court of Human Rights has found that Greece does not have an effective system in place to adjudicate asylum claims, which, I suppose, changes the calculus (at least for those migrants who aren't actually from Greece).
In recent years, many of the countries in southern Europe have been confronted with large numbers of refugees who travel north by boat to escape unstable regimes in Africa. Italy is certainly one of the countries that has needed to address the increase in incoming refugees. One of the ways Italy addressed the issue was through a process called interdiction. Essentially, Italy was stopping vessels from Africa before they had a chance to arrive in Italy and forcing the boats back to Libya or other countries in northern Africa.
The European Court of Human Rights recently struck down the practice in Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy. Italy's situation is comparable to the influx experienced by Malta, a small island country off the coast of Sicily. Malta does not have the highest number of refugees, but it does have one of the greatest number of refugees as a percentage of the population as a whole. I spent some time in Malta last summer, where I witnessed the impact that the refugee influx is having on the country - an issue that really only came to the fore in the past decade.
The tension in the practices of these southern European countries is between, on the one hand, the need to ensure that migrants seeking refugee status have a chance to apply before they are sent back to their home country and, on the other hand, that these countries don't bear an unreasonable burden based solely on their geography. The ECHR held in Hirsi that financial and social burdens are not a sufficient justification for returning people to their home countries if there is a legitimate chance they will face persecution or torture. What, if anything, should the rest of Europe be required to do to help lessen the burden on these southern European countries?