Salvini is a man with a mission: Change immigration patterns

Expect more ships turned away and expect an acceleration of policies that target foreigners and other people who don’t fit Salvini’s definition of an Italian.
Sunday 01/07/2018

With a new populist government in place, Italy’s immigration policy was expected to shift to the right but the actions of new Interior Minister Matteo Salvini have begun a new era in a country where the majority of the border faces the sea.

Immigration is a common bogeyman used to drive up fear among local populations. It’s an easy scare tactic for nativist and populist politicians seeking a scapegoat for larger national problems. Often, however, once the nativists and populists attain power, their rhetoric and actions moderate.

This has not been the case with Salvini, whose Trump-like rhetoric during the campaign has carried over into office. For instance, he closed a Sicilian port to a boat carrying migrants who were crossing the Mediterranean.

Salvini’s rhetoric dehumanises segments of the population. He recently said he has the “answer to the Roma question” and claimed that, after a census solely on the Roma people, he will expel foreign Roma from Italy. “Unfortunately, we will have to keep the Italian Roma because we can’t expel them,” he also said.

Salvini’s drive, it appears, aims not only at consolidating but at reversing immigration patterns. While European countries such as France and the United Kingdom have a long history of immigration, Italy’s immigrant communities arrived much more recently. And it’s long been a thorn in the side of a radical nationalist like Salvini.

Earlier this year, a man in central Italy drove around and shot at dark-skinned people, wounding six. After he was apprehended, it turned out the shooter had run in local elections as a member of Salvini’s party. Rather than disavow the man, Salvini spoke about Italy’s need to halt illegal immigration.

It seems that support for Salvini and his methods are growing in Italy, despite the country’s struggle against right-wing fascism during the second world war never being far from memory. Since national elections on March 4, support for Salvini’s party, the League, has grown from 17.4% to 28.5%. The League only trails the country’s top political party, the Five Star Movement, by 2 percentage points.

Salvini’s rise is largely due to his pithy talking points and ambitious promises. He’s promised tax cuts but his key focal issue is to cut down on immigration.

The immigration issue has been the heavy focus of the country’s media. Perceptions of a quickly evolving Italy mean that even Italians who tend to lean left politically are saying the immigration rate is growing too fast.

While immigration generally stimulates economies, and Italy’s can use all the help it can get, experts say that Italian governments in the last few decades have done a poor job of setting up institutions and laws that would help immigrants settle and integrate in Italy. Instead, the view of immigrants is largely negative — they take jobs, they bring crime.

What could have been an opportunity has turned into a crisis of social and cultural acceptance.

Salvini was recently in Tripoli meeting with Ahmed Maiteeq, deputy prime minister of the UN-backed Libyan government. While immigration in Italy is diverse — people from the Philippines, Peru and Romania are among the largest diasporas — Libya has long been the launching point for migrants from sub-Saharan and North Africa.

While in Libya, Salvini said he wanted the former Italian colony to present itself as a “great opportunity” for Italy by building strong trade relations. Previous meetings between the two countries focused heavily on Libya’s security and stability, issues intrinsically linked to migration through the North African country.

Salvini though made one point that his predecessors did not. His goal, he said, is “blocking the full-on invasion of those associations that would like to substitute the government and authorities and in fact help illegal migrant traffickers.” It’s telling that he describes the ships arriving on Italian shores as an “invasion.”

As long as such rhetoric is winning him support in the polls, expect a continuation of his push against immigration. Expect more ships turned away and expect an acceleration of policies that target foreigners and other people who don’t fit Salvini’s definition of an Italian.