Italy’s populist government draws line over migration

Many are expecting the new government to begin mass deportations of illegal migrants.
Sunday 17/06/2018
The Italian Navy patrol vessel Orione (L) sails next to the French NGO SOS Mediterranee Aquarius ship as migrants are being transferred in the Mediterranean Sea, on June 12. (AP)
Fractured Europe. The Italian Navy patrol vessel Orione (L) sails next to the French NGO SOS Mediterranee Aquarius ship as migrants are being transferred in the Mediterranean Sea, on June 12. (AP)

LONDON - The European Union entered a new era after Italy and Malta closed their ports to a ship carrying migrants and refugees and several European foreign ministers agreed to form a coalition “of the willing” to fight illegal migration. 

Italy’s new far-right government pledged to take a firm stance against migrants and refugees, promising to deport more than 500,000 illegal migrants already in the country during an election campaign dominated by the migration issue.

The new government demonstrated its resolve on migration on June 11 by refusing to open its ports to Aquarius, a Gibraltar-flagged humanitarian ship that had rescued 629 migrants and refugees off the coast of Libya.

The Italians said the ship should dock in Malta, something Maltese officials refused. Spain’s new socialist government eventually offered to accept the ship.

The crisis escalated when the interior ministers of Austria, Germany and Italy — all immigration hardliners — appeared to reach an agreement to cooperate to fight illegal migration. “We believe an axis of the willing is needed to fight illegal migration,” said Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose country is to assume the European Union’s rotating presidency on July 1.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini declared victory following Spain’s decision. “Italy has stopped bowing its head to obey. This time there are those who say, NO,” he posted on Twitter.

Salvini is the head of the anti-immigration Northern League that led a centre-right electoral coalition that won a plurality of seats in Italy’s parliament. The new populist government is composed mainly of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the far-right Northern League, led by compromise figure Giuseppe Conte, an academic and political novice.

Both the Northern League and the Five Star Movement pledged to tackle immigration in their election manifestos.

Many are expecting the new government not just to push a firmer line in terms of accepting incoming migrants but to begin mass deportations of illegal migrants as well.

“It is not enough to reduce the number of people arriving. We need to increase deportations,” Salvini, who also holds the post of deputy prime minister, said during a visit to a Sicilian immigration detention centre.

Speaking at a rally in northern Italy shortly after the formation of the new government, Salvini told illegal immigrants to “get ready to pack your bags.”

Questions remain whether the new government will carry out mass deportations, given the administrative and practical difficulties, or whether such claims are political rhetoric aimed to unify support at home and increase pressure on Brussels.

Italy, through forced deportations and voluntary returns, removed 6,000 people in 2016 and 6,500 in 2017. It would require major expenditure to construct detention centres and training immigration officials to ensure deportations along the lines promised by the new government.

Italy’s decision to turn away the migrant ship raised legal questions. EU law requires asylum seekers to register in the first safe country they reach. However front-line countries, such as Italy and Malta, complained this creates an onerous burden on them.

“Should there be other boats… with a foreign flag, we will do the same. Hadn’t we stopped this boat, where would it have landed? In Italy. Tomorrow it would have been the same and the day after it would have been the same,” Salvini said.

Critics said that since the Italian Coast Guard had coordinated the rescue, including picking up more than 280 migrants in its vessels before transferring them to Aquarius, the responsibility for accepting the migrants lays with Italy.

“Italy doesn’t shrug off its responsibility when it comes to saving lives but it asks that others do the same,” Italian Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, who oversees Italian ports and the coast guard, said after the Spanish announcement.

Conte has called for “obligatory” redistribution of asylum seekers around the European Union, with an EU summit to take place on June 28-29 likely to discuss changes to asylum laws and how to better share the burden of migrants and refugees.

French President Emmanuel Macron strongly criticised Italy’s decision to shut its ports to migrant ships. The Italian government summoned the French ambassador to discuss the issue. Given the nature of the disagreement over migration between front-line countries, such as Italy and Malta, and other European countries, such as France and the United Kingdom, the EU summit is expected to be a tense affair.

Approximately 5 million foreign nationals are legally residing in Italy, figures from the national statistics institute state. That is equivalent to 8.3% of Italy’s population.

However, nearly 700,000 illegal migrants have arrived in the country by boat since 2013, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa via Libya. Migration study foundation Initiatives and Studies on Multiethnicity estimates there are approximately 500,000 people living in Italy illegally, just less than 1% of the population.