There’s an Asia nuclear crisis going on, and the US still doesn’t have ambassadors in China, South Korea or Japan

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Behind the high fences of the repatriation centre at Ponte Galeria, just down the road from Rome’s Fiumicino airport, dozens of women sit outside, waiting for word on whether they will have to leave Italy.

But as the government steps up its efforts to send more migrants home, many who pinned their hopes on asylum appeals are growing increasingly worried.

This week an official decree paved the way for the creation of 11 more repatriation centres capable of housing 1,600 people pending deportation, on top of the four currently in operation.

At Ponte Galeria, in courtyards easily mistaken for cages, Khadigia Shabbi, 47, can barely hold back her tears.

“Here we are dying,” the former Libyan university lecturer says.

Arrested in Palermo at the end of 2015 and convicted of inciting terrorism, Shabbi protests her innocence and has requested asylum.

She is not alone. Half of the 63 women at Ponte Galeria, which AFP was able to visit, have made similar requests. Several are from Nigeria, having crossed Libya to reach Italy. But there are also Ukrainians and Chinese.

READ ALSO: Italy unveils plan to better integrate fewer migrants

The country is sheltering more than 176,000 asylum-seekers, with about 45,000 migrants arriving since January 1st – a 40 percent rise on the same period last year – and officials are bracing for another summer of record arrivals.

‘I’ll come back’

To cope with the influx – and to deter others from coming – Interior Minister Marco Minniti pushed through parliament last month a plan to increase migrant housing and provide new resources for expelling those who have come only to seek work.

The plan includes creating fast-track asylum appeal courts for the roughly 60 percent of migrants who have their initial requests denied, in order to reach a binding decision that gets them out of the country sooner.

Between January and April, Italy expelled 6,242 people who did not have the right to stay, an increase of 24 percent on the same period last year. But the figures include more than just people rescued from the overcrowded boats coming daily from Libya who have failed in their asylum requests.

Many were sent home directly because of repatriation agreements, such as those with Tunisia, Egypt or Morocco, while others were expelled after overstaying their student or tourism visas.

But despite Italy’s new efforts to deter migrant arrivals, many say they won’t give up trying.

“If they expel me, I’ll come back afterwards. I say this honestly – there is nothing for me back there,” said one woman at Ponte Galeria.

For Luigi Manconi, a senator in the ruling Democratic Party, such centres have never functioned as well as intended, and often detain people who should not find themselves behind bars.

Many of the Nigerians at the centre, for example, were victims of prostitution networks. “They should be being helped, not incarcerated,” he said.

While they wait the women at Ponte Galeria complain mainly about the monotony of long days.

“Here, we don’t do anything, no classes, no sports, no activities,” said Pepita, a Filipina who said she had spent more than 20 years in Italy.

The French company that runs the centre, Gepsa, provides meals, underwear and hygiene kits, along with offers of psychological support. For the rest, the women at Ponte Galeria can rely only on themselves.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un watches a military drill marking the 85th anniversary of the establishment of the Korean People's Army (KPA).

KCNA | Reuters

The United States has failed to put in place enough senior diplomats to tackle the North Korean nuclear threat and trade issues in East Asia, international policy experts told an audience this week.

“You’d think we’re going into a crisis with North Korea, and there’s no ambassador in Seoul, in Tokyo, in Beijing or an assistant secretary for East Asia. You wonder, beyond the tweets and what the White House says, how actually the work of the government is going to get done,” said Vali Nasr, dean of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a former senior advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan under Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

The U.S. State Department website says that those major ambassadorships are “vacant” — as are the top U.S. diplomatic posts to India and Australia — even as smaller countries such as the Philippines have ambassadors in place.

In a statement to CNBC, the State Department pointed out that it has officials “serving in acting capacities” in those countries. The State Department deferred to the White House on senior nomination questions.

The White House did not respond to a CNBC request for comment.

“You worry that even if things are calm, you’re just one step away from a very big crisis,” Nasr said. He was speaking Wednesday evening at the Asia Society in New York.

“You cannot take on these challenges without having a government where you have people in place. It’s not possible.”-Thomas Donilon, former U.S. national security advisor

President Donald Trump has rocked longstanding U.S. policy in Asia, leaving allies in the region less certain about their relationship with the United States, while China takes advantage of the vacuum to grow as a regional power and take over as the arbiter of international standards. Against that backdrop, North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un has threatened various countries with nuclear attack.

“You cannot take on these challenges without having a government where you have people in place. It’s not possible,” Thomas Donilon, former U.S. national security advisor, said at the same event. He led U.S. efforts to impose existing sanctions on Iran.

“It is not possible to do that without dozens and dozens of diplomats around the world who are working every day on these things,” Donilon said. “So the staffing is a really big issue.”

The U.S. Senate confirmed Robert Lighthizer as U.S. Trade Representative late Thursday, more than 100 days after Trump’s inauguration.

Moon Jae-in takes 41.1% of the vote in S Korea election

Moon Jae-in takes 41.1% of the vote in S Korea election  

Iowa Governor Terry Branstad awaits his confirmation as ambassador to China and only got out of the GOP-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week. Members of the committee have blamed incomplete paperwork for the delays.

Private equity executive William Hagerty wasn’t nominated as ambassador to Japan until March.

No record of a nominee for ambassador to South Korea appears on the White House website.

Of 557 key executive branch positions that must be confirmed by the Senate, the Trump

administration has failed to produce a nominee for 460

, according to a running tally from the Washington Post.

Of about 200 ambassadorial posts, 77 remain “vacant,” according to a May 10 document from the State Department.

Tillerson ‘bears some responsibility’

Analysts pointed out that the only confirmed State Department official is Secretary Rex Tillerson himself.

Tillerson “definitely bears some responsibility” for not nominating people for some key posts, Nasr told CNBC on Friday. He said he could not think of a previous case in which so many important posts had not been filled by the first few months of a new president.

“It does not signify competence or seriousness,” Nasr said.

To be sure, the heads of state themselves still dictate the tone of international relations overall.

“Ambassadors in Asia haven’t played a [major] role for quite some time,” Charles Freeman III, managing director at consulting firm Bower Group Asia and former assistant U.S. trade representative for China affairs.

Bower said the National Security Council and White House have played a greater role in Asian affairs, though he noted that good leadership at embassies is necessary for continuity in foreign policy.