After almost three months of jumping up and down in place, the newly invested Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has hit the ground running in the worst possible direction. The head of the anti-immigrant party, the League, Salvini has positioned himself as the strongman in the unlikely coalition government recently formed with the ideologically fungible Five Star Movement.
In a speech to supporters on May 31, the night before he was sworn in, Salvini upped the inflammatory rhetoric and doubled-down on the League’s worst campaign promises. He announced plans to cut the budget for reception centers for asylum seekers and, in an unnerving call-and-response with the excited crowd, said that sending all irregular migrants back home was a top priority.
On June 3, Salvini went to Pozzallo, a Sicilian port where many rescued migrants and refugees disembark, to thunder that the “good times are over” for undocumented migrants and to insinuate that nongovernmental organizations saving lives in the central Mediterranean are complicit with smugglers.
The timing was heartless at best. It came just after a fatal day in the Mediterranean, with at least 112 people estimated drowned when a boat that departed from the Tunisian coast sank at sea, and nine people, including six children, died in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece. Salvini insists he values human life but has yet to condemn the fatal shooting of a Malian labor rights activist in Calabria on June 2.
It is true, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel said only recently, that the rest of the EU has largely abandoned Italy to deal with large numbers of migrants and refugees. It is understandable that Salvini has intoned against a proposed reform of the Dublin Regulation, the EU rules that generally require the first country of entry to examine asylum claims. The proposed changes would arguably increase the pressure on Italy without ensuring a more equitable distribution of responsibility.
But there are no excuses for Salvini’s dangerous rhetoric, which is likely to inflame social tensions and intolerance while promoting policies that are both unrealistic and unsavory.
Increasing safe returns for migrants to their countries after fair and efficient procedures is a reasonable policy objective. But Italy cannot simply expel hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants without severe repression, and Italy doesn’t yet have the agreements with many key countries of origin needed to facilitate returns. Cutting already minimal and often sub-standard accommodation and care for asylum seekers is no solution, while potentially violating binding EU rules and being just plain cruel.
Limiting the ability of nongovernmental groups to rescue people in distress at sea and take them in a place of safety could contribute to more deaths at sea, strip Italy of the moral standing it has acquired over the last several years for its leadership in rescue at sea, and undermine the valiant work of volunteers from nongovernmental groups and Italian Coast Guard and Navy personnel who have saved tens of thousands of lives at sea.
The outgoing Democratic Party government had already intensified cooperation with Libyan authorities to stop departures and enable Libyan coast guard forces to intercept migrant boats in international waters and take people back to horrific conditions in arbitrary detention in Libya. It’s not yet clear what Salvini and the new government have in mind, but it’s worth remembering that the League’s Roberto Maroni was interior minister in 2009 when Italy implemented its nefarious policy of literally pushing boats back to Libya.
Italy’s new government assumes power at a time when nativist populist parties have growing clout in Europe and its anti-immigrant stance will no doubt be welcomed by Hungary’s Viktor Orban, whose government is currently trying to criminalize people working for groups that assist asylum seekers. Salvini has already said he wants to work with Orban, with whom he has already spoken on the phone, to “change the rules” of the EU.
Salvini’s migration policies may well face challenges not only from Italy’s vibrant civil society groups but also in the courts and from EU institutions.
Given the League’s and Five Star Movements’ anti-EU rhetoric and willingness to condemn institutional checks and balances like the Italian Constitutional Court and the Italian president, there is cause for concern they will have few compunctions about flouting constraints on their power.
Europe should recognize that Italy needs greater support to ensure a humane approach to migrants and to protect refugees, but also be willing to insist that Italy’s government respect human rights.