By Steve Scherer
CARRARA, Italy (Reuters) - Italy is promising to send more migrants who do not qualify for asylum back home, either by force or with their consent, as a fourth year of mass arrivals of migrants by sea began at a record-setting pace.
The number of migrants setting off to reach Italy by boat from Africa has risen more than 50 percent so far this year, after half a million people arrived during the past three years.
The registration of all the newcomers and new border restrictions mean increasing numbers of irregular migrants are staying in Italy rather than moving onto wealthier Northern Europe as they have done in the past.
The center-left government's push to ramp up returns is meant both to deter migrants from risking the dangerous journey and to stem criticism from far-right parties like the Northern League that are capitalizing on anti-immigrant sentiment a year ahead of a national vote.
For similar reasons, the European Union's executive is pressing all 28 member states to return more migrants ahead of elections this year in the Netherlands, France and Germany, where far-right parties, which are also anti-EU, are gaining support.
"The goal is to increase forced returns very significantly and send a strong message to anyone thinking of migrating to Europe," Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti said on Thursday, confirming plans to build new detention centers to keep migrants from disappearing before being deported.
Italy deported 5,800 people last year and a similar number in 2015, a fraction of the 335,000 people, both refugees and migrants, who arrived during that period.
But very few were sent home voluntarily, though it is a decades-old practice that is both cheaper and easier than using force, because Italy only launched its program to help those who volunteer to go home in September.
So-called assisted voluntary returns do not require heavily guarded detention centers and a nightmare of red tape as with forced deportations, which also can lead to ugly scenes of people being dragged onto planes.
Far more migrants in Germany and Sweden went home voluntarily last year, often with money in their pockets, than were shipped home empty handed, evidence that Italy missed an opportunity to reduce the number of irregular migrants - estimated at a half million - living here.
"We were late," Minniti said of the delay in setting up an assisted returns program.
Amounts and procedures for assisted returns vary from country to country but the idea is the same - that if word spreads in the countries people are setting out from that some are choosing to come home, others will not make the risky and expensive journey in the first place.
Seydou Fall is one of only dozens of migrants in Italy to have signed up to the voluntary returns program so far. He lives near a sparkling beach in Carrara, Tuscany, but can't wait to go home to Senegal.
His Italian asylum request was rejected, like more than 50,000 others last year, and he scrapes a living hawking towels on the beach in summer and umbrellas or sunglasses in winter on the streets of nearby Massa, backed by mountains streaked with white from ancient marble quarries.
Life in Italy is much grimmer than he had imagined.
"One has dreams, but when you see the reality here, if you are not strong, you will have problems," said Fall, 39. "I know lots of migrants who are hungry."
The program will pay for his flight and he will get 400 euros ($421) in cash and 1,600 euros to invest in a livelihood at home - in his case, growing peanuts on his father's farm.
Only about a third of migrants who reach Italy qualify for asylum, leaving the rest in limbo. Legal appeals to asylum rulings can take years and the economy is chronically sluggish, providing few opportunities to new arrivals.
Germany, which has registered more than a million would be asylum-seekers since 2015, offers assisted returns to those unlikely to qualify for international protection in exchange for them dropping their asylum requests.
Last year Germany completed 80,000 returns - half of all of those in the EU - and 70 percent were voluntary.
"Experience shows that voluntary returns are most cost-effective and easier to organize," a German interior ministry spokesman said.
Sweden, where a generous refugee program attracted tens of thousands of people, also had far more voluntary deportations than forced deportations after it toughed rules last year, at 16,000 compared with 2,500 forced to return home.
Italy has put aside 16.4 million euros for assisted returns this year, 10 million euros more than it had planned last year. Some of this has been matched by EU funds. The German budget increased this year from 50 million euros to 90 million euros.
Valeria Carlini, a spokeswoman for the Italian Council of Refugees (CIR) in Rome, which is organizing Fall's trip home, said the key to boosting voluntary returns was making migrants aware of the option.
"Unfortunately, Italy has not made a big effort to publicize voluntary assisted returns," she said. "There needs to be a push to provide information in places where migrants gather - from call centers to ethnic restaurants to police stations - and it needs to be a massive effort."
Germany widely advertises its program, even handing out a leaflet about voluntary returns with asylum rejection notices. Italy is now about to launch a major promotional campaign of its own, an Interior Ministry source said.
"LIVING LIKE A KING"
Voluntary returns might be a hard sell, unless the only alternative is forced deportation. Many migrants have paid people smugglers thousands of euros to come to Europe, and fear even worse poverty at home and the humiliation of going back with little to show.
Aliou Mbaye, a 52-year-old Senegalese who sells sunglasses at a central Rome metro stop, acknowledges that life in Italy is tough. However, although he had never heard of Italy's assisted returns program, he thought he would never use it.
"There's nothing for me (in Senegal). And if I went back everyone would expect me to have got rich here. They think I'm living like a king," he told Reuters.
Until recently the typical profile of an immigrant who returns home voluntarily was that of Myriam Chiriboga, an Ecuadorian woman who has been living legally in Italy for 20 years and has decided finally to rejoin her family.
She came to escape an abusive partner, leaving her young daughter and son in Ecuador with relatives. With the money she earned, she bought a home in Ecuador and paid for her children's education. When she returns home in March, she plans to open a pizzeria near the university in Riobamba.
"I miss my children and my sister," she said. "I'm tired of spending Christmas by myself."
But CIR's Carlini said the number of rejected asylum seekers choosing voluntary returns was increasing, with more than a quarter of those it handles asking to go home. "We've seen people who arrived two, three months ago and found out that Italy is much different from what they expected," she said.
Fall needs no convincing. Instead of living in his dark, one-room apartment with a friend and trolling the streets for buyers of Chinese goods, "it is better to return home to the fields where you can live with dignity," he said.
His message to young Africans who want to come to Europe is very simple. Don't.
"I know what I'm talking about. It hasn't been easy for me. I don't have papers or a job," he said. "If they understand, they will say, 'Thank you, brother.'"
($1 = 0.9471 euros)
(Additional reporting by Michelle Martin in Berlin and Karolina Tagaris in Athens and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; editing by Crispian Balmer and Philippa Fletcher)