An insight from the Italian powder keg

By Agnese Olmati

If migration has continuously been in the spotlight since the beginning of the refugee crisis, it is only during the past few months that Italy has really hit the headlines of European newspapers, despite having been one of the main doors to Europe for several decades.

It is no coincidence that this persistent interest for in Italian migration policies has been renewed since Interior Minister Matteo Salvini took office last June [2018]. His decision to shut ports to rescue boats carrying migrants has been hardly discussed and criticised, as well as his attacks to Maltese authorities and European leaders, accused of leaving Italy alone in front of the continuous arrivals of migrants that apparently no Italian government has never concretely tackled before.
Salvini’s determined response to the problem of illegal migration might seem very harsh and cold-hearted – and it actually is. But what Salvini is efficiently doing is simply making good on the promises made during the last electoral campaign. Being the leader of the right-wing and anti-immigrant party “League” (Lega, in Italian), it is no surprise that one of his most urgent goals is halting the flow of migrants into the country.
Actually, this is not only an Italian priority. Hungary has built a double layer barrier stretching for 155 kilometres along the Serbian border. France has rejected migrants at its border with Italy. Spain has built fences around the Moroccan cities of Ceuta and Melilla. Greece is at the core of the EU deal for the readmission of migrants coming from Turkey. Obviously, European countries have done their best to stop the arrival of migrants, but apparently more can be done – for example the EU could follow Trump’s advice and erect a wall across the Sahara Desert.
However, there are no visionary discussions about the possibility of building any kind of barrier in the Mediterranean, at least for now. Thus, the only solution Salvini could find to prevent migrants from arriving in Italy is refusing to allow rescue ships dock at Italian ports.
This decision, which has been implemented several times during the past few months, is actually only the thin end of the Italian wedge. A long and permeating anti-migration campaign has dominated media and the public discourse and topics such as the numbers of migrants invading the country, the problem of public safety and the flaws in the reception system have been used to create a sense of fear and concern amongst many. Another issue that has weighed on the tense atmosphere is the slow process to criminalise humanitarian aid. For a long time, NGOs conducting search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea have been under attack and accused of encouraging traffickers who profit from dangerous Mediterranean crossings.
What is obvious is that parties such as the League have been fuelling this anti-migration rhetoric and are now benefitting from its results, as the growing support for Salvini and his refoulement policies demonstrate.

But what his Italy right now? Is it really a country brushing up its 20th century fascist memories? Recent physical attacks against refugees by Italians might confirm that, but fortunately the boot is more divided on the issue than it seems.
The determined anti-immigration stance of the government and its resonance on the European stage actually show only one side of the country. A part of Italy is still rowing against the dominating rhetoric of fear and hate against migrants, as it was shown by many NGOs supporters, pro-refugees associations and common people who have repeatedly demonstrated against Salvini’s actions or in favour of the migrants victims of violence.

Domenico Lucano
Domenico Lucano, mayor of Riace (Soledad Amarilla / Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación)

In such a complex and edgy context, a person such as Domenico Lucano, mayor of Riace, becomes a great example to show that Italy is much more than Salvini. Lucano’s main merit is the creation of an exemplary integration system which has become well-known all over the world.
When some years ago many of its inhabitants were leaving their home to migrate to Northern Italy or abroad, where economic and working conditions were more prosperous, Riace was in danger of becoming a ghost town. The mayor thus instigated an integration scheme which still offers abandoned apartments to refugees. In addition to this, training is provided in order to allow them holding the jobs of those who have left. The initiative helped Riace to rebuild its population and economy and has transformed it into a multicultural place.
But times are now tough also in Riace. The town has not been included amongst the beneficiaries of national funds for the reception of migrants, which are fundamental for maintaining Lucano’s system. Such a project, which demonstrates that it is possible to integrate migrants in Italy, puts a spoke in Salvini’s wheel, as the Minister of course wants to help migrants, but in their home countries and through agreements with third countries such as Egypt, for instance. The great attention Lucano has received worldwide is probably the reason why he was defined by Salvini as zero, as a person not even deserving a visit during his tour in the region of Riace. However, facts are facts, and this small town on the instep of Italy’s boot clearly shows that welcoming (and integrating) migrants is possible and it can benefit not only them but also the hosting communities.

Unfortunately, many Italians are not interested in the successful examples of integration. Nor in the figures concerning migration, which see the number of migrants arriving in Italy decreased and always inferior to the arrivals in Spain. What is still prevailing is the sense of loneliness Italians feel in front of the ships coming from the Mediterranean. A feeling which together with the anti-EU rhetoric of the current government might have the effect of increasing Euroscepticism in the country.
In the meantime, the situation is getting tense also on the European stage. Salvini’s policies have finally managed to attract EU leaders’ attention to the point that they now seem to care about the Italian migration problem. However, his firm opposition to the revision of the Dublin regulation, together with the veto of other countries, makes discussions among the 28 very complex. Additionally, his several alliances with Hungary, Austria and even Germany are not producing the expected results, as every country is interested in protecting its own borders, not Italy’s.
If Salvini might not be successful in Brussels, he is more likely to get a positive outcome at the national level. Currently, the government is discussing a new decree which is at the core of Salvini’s propaganda and political project. It aims at deleting the humanitarian residence permits, which are peculiar of the Italian protection system and are issued to migrants who are not eligible for the refugee status – around 25% of people requesting international protection got this permit in 2017, compared to the 8% who obtained the refugee status. The decree also points to the necessity of an efficient refoulement system and of an extended list of the crimes that result in the denial or revocation of the international protection, including assault and battery on a police officer, sexual harassment, and drug trafficking.

A country split into two, a Union which does not come to any agreement, a never-ending tragedy in the Mediterranean. Salvini is nicknamed “the Captain” by his supporters, being the leader of their team. But he is now turning into il Capitano of the entire Italy and in some ways, he might deserve the title as he seems to be the only one with a clear goal and the tools to achieve it.

Featured picture: “Aprite i porti” (“open the ports”), Palermo (2018).

Shortly after this article was published, Domenico Lucano was arrested. You can read more about his arrest and his reaction to it in this article published by La Repubblica.

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