Xenophobia Meets Reality in Italy

Matteo Salvini is Italy's new hard-line anti-migrant interior minister. But his bark may end up worse than his bite.

Matteo Salvini answers questions at the Foreign Press Association in Rome on February 22, 2018. 
Matteo Salvini answers questions at the Foreign Press Association in Rome on February 22, 2018. (ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s new deputy prime minister and interior minister responsible for managing immigration policies, is undergoing a baptism by fire. On Sunday, the SOS Méditerranée rescue vessel MV Aquarius saved 629 migrants stranded in Libyan waters. Normally, Salvini would have been tasked with overseeing their transport to Italy. Instead, he formally denied the ship permission to dock. By midweek, he was facing accusations of violating European human rights conventions.

Salvini is the federal secretary of populist Lega party, which along with the Five Star Movement comprises the country’s new “government of change,” ever since Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s initial failure to form a government in May proved to be a false alarm. Now that Salvini has stepped onto the national stage, he represents a strange intersection of fear and hope to those familiar with his past. He is the scourge of asylum-seekers and unauthorized immigrants in Italy, a nemesis of domestic and international human rights organizations, and a recurring nightmare for pro-Europeanists.

He is also a welcome herald of change for Italians who doubt the European Union’s willingness to fairly distribute incoming asylum-seekers across all member states. (According to the International Organization for Migration, 42 percent of the 32,080 migrants and refugees who entered Europe by sea in the first five months of 2018 landed in Italy. The others arrived in Greece, Spain, and Cyprus.) Salvini has positioned himself as an ally of countries like Austria, Slovenia, and the Visegrad states — Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and the Czech Republic — in opposing attempts by Brussels to regulate the Continent’s acceptance of refugees.

But Italy’s proximity to Africa raises the stakes of this confrontation with the EU. Unlike its fellow ideological opponents of EU migration policies, Italy is on the literal front line of the migrant crisis. Salvini recognizes that this puts his country in a delicate position as it seeks to change migration outcomes; it may act as a model adherent to international conventions or an audacious experimenter willing to push against the limits of the law. This government, led by two improvisational populists and a symbolic premier, has unsurprisingly chosen the latter route.

A document summarizing the government’s action plan reflects immigration policies that Salvini has championed before. It mentions the need to evaluate asylum applications in countries of origin or transit, reduce migrant flows at external borders, stop international trafficking with help from other EU member states, establish detention centers in each of Italy’s 20 regions, create a national registry of imams and Islamic worship spaces, and eliminate the controversial Dublin Regulation that determines migration policies within the EU (and, more specifically, obliges Italy and other border countries to host the migrants who arrive there).

But the document’s pragmatic and technocratic tone belies Salvini’s reputation as a rabble-rouser. Some people have attributed incidents this year involving violence against black migrants and immigrants in Italy to the belligerent rhetoric used by Salvini and other Lega representatives. Shortly after the government’s installment, Soumayla Sacko, an agricultural worker and trade unionist from Mali, was shot and killed in the southern Italian municipality of San Calogero. His death ignited a large protest in Milan where marchers chanted anti-racist slogans and posters read “Lega e Salvini assassini” (“The League and Salvini are assassins”).

The nature of the Italian coalition’s action plan is provisional, much like Salvini’s own leadership style. Besides the compromises made in the aftermath of the March general elections, Salvini sometimes demonstrates a readiness to adapt when it promises political success. In the last year, that has meant rebranding Lega Nord as a national rather than regional party and invoking a spirit of Christian nationalism to contrast Italian citizens against what he believes is the looming threat of radical Islamic invaders. The question now is whether Salvini will remain flexible when it comes to migration policy.

The Aquarius, and its hundreds of stranded migrants, posed the first such test. Salvini’s initial response was to contact Maltese authorities and urge them to let the ship disembark in the island nation. Though the Maltese capital agreed to assist the Aquarius with air evacuations, it wasn’t enough for Salvini. “The good God put Malta closer to Africa than Sicily,” he told journalists. He believed Valletta qualified as a secure port (a decision that Maltese authorities deferred to a rescue coordination center in Rome) and lampooned the government for not pulling its weight.

After Rome denied the Aquarius permission to dock, the boat, which carried 123 unaccompanied minors, received instructions to stand by at a location between Italian and Maltese shores. As time passed and the need for medical care and resource replenishment increased, a diplomatic quandary risked becoming a human rights violation on Italy’s behalf under international law.

The fallout over the Aquarius isn’t the first time Italy’s actions concerning migrants at sea have been questioned as legally dubious, if not plainly transgressive. A 2017 memorandum of understanding between Italy and Libya established a partnership on border security between the countries. Thanks to a series of controversial negotiations spearheaded by Salvini’s predecessor, Marco Minniti — whom Salvini has praised — Italy helps the Libyan coast guard contain the flow of migrants. Thousands of migrants are detained in Libya, where the United Nations and Amnesty International have reported instances of sexual violence, torture, forced labor, slavery, and other abuses. (Last Thursday, the U.N. Security Council sanctioned six men involved in trafficking and smuggling operations in Libya.)

A friendship treaty signed by former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi and Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2008, which shared some elements of last year’s memo, was annulled in 2012, when the European Court of Human Rights decided that Italy had violated the principle of non-refoulement when it forced African migrants and asylum-seekers to return to Libya, where their lives would arguably have been endangered. Whether Italy will again be held accountable for internationally wrongful acts remains to be seen.

Regardless of whether the Italian government’s immigration policies are lawful, Salvini faces resistance from some of the Italians these edicts would theoretically benefit. The mayor of Naples, Luigi de Magistris, criticized Salvini’s handling of the Aquarius situation. “If a heartless minister leaves pregnant women, children, elderly people, human beings to die in the sea,” de Magistris said, “the port of Naples is ready to take them in.” Additionally, Salvini’s goal of creating repatriation centers in every region of the country was met with hostility from most of his party’s base in northern Italy. Regions like Lombardy, Veneto, and Liguria — which have been mainstays of Lega success going back to the early 1990s — balk at the notion of concentrating asylum-seekers in their cities, even when the purpose is to streamline their expulsion from the country. Lega’s growing popularity doesn’t translate to a consensus on how best to fulfill populist imperatives, and Salvini will have to recognize this sooner or later.

Salvini’s diplomatic plans, meanwhile, quickly run into barriers set by Italy’s neighbors. At a June summit of home affairs ministers in Luxembourg, Italy and 10 other EU member states stood against a proposal by Bulgaria, which currently presides over the Council of the European Union, to reform the Dublin Regulation. The Bulgarian proposition sought to give member states more flexibility in deciding how to address arrivals on a case-by-case basis while preserving a quota provision that would go into effect for critical situations.

In 2015, the Visegrad states resisted the European Commission’s efforts to impose quotas that would alleviate migrant influxes on the Continent’s southern borders. Salvini’s chummy relationship with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is by no means friendly to the cause of asylum-seekers, is in many ways an unlikely one. Rome often cries foul at the general failure of nearby countries to accept an equitable number of asylum-seekers, and Hungary is consistently one of the worst offenders on this front (the government is now considering legislation that would penalize those who offer food or legal advice to asylum-seekers and refugees).

Salvini’s Italians-first mentality means he’d rather not have refugees from Africa enter Italian territory at all. However, recognizing the unpredictable reality of migrant flows, he prefers to abandon a quota system and instead transfer the responsibility of border management to third countries. Salvini and Orban agree that the Dublin Regulation is a faulty piece of work; Salvini decries its de facto reliance on Italian shores, and both detest its proviso that a country would be legally required to accommodate people it may not actually want. This is perhaps the extent of Salvini and Orban’s commonalities. Orban is likely to reject any Italian effort to hold Hungary responsible for incoming arrivals. If that happens, Salvini’s admiration for Orban’s intransigence will wither into indignation.

Until then, Salvini’s excitement for the near future is understandable. In less than a month, the EU Council’s rotating presidency goes to Austria, whose governing coalition’s junior partner is the far-right Freedom Party. In February, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced that a September summit will focus on security and illegal migration, and Interior Minister Herbert Kickl remarked this month that there would be a “small Copernican revolution” in light of the Dublin reform’s failure. Days after Salvini acceded to power, the anti-immigrant Slovenian Democratic Party won a plurality in its national election. One Lega politician expressed interest in an alliance between Italy and Slovenia to radically alter the EU’s behavior in managing refugee emergencies.

And yet despite the myriad gains anti-establishment politicians continue to make throughout Western Europe, it is still unclear what a feasible alternative to the Dublin Regulation looks like. The flop of the Bulgarian compromise once again underlined the gulf between reformist and abolitionist tendencies within the EU. Where politicians like Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron see the Mediterranean crisis as a technical problem to be fixed by appealing to a sort of utilitarian fairness, people like Salvini find justice in self-determination, a principle of individualism — albeit one felt on a national scale — that takes priority over international protocols.

The remarkable decision of new Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to give safe harbor to the Aquarius in Valencia will embolden Salvini to stick to his guns, in defiance of sharp criticism from other EU member states. “There will be other arrivals, obviously,” Salvini said in response to the development. “I don’t have a magic wand, I am not Superman. I wanted to start a debate on a continental level and to prove Chancellor Merkel’s point that ‘Italy was left alone, it can’t go on like this.’”

Aaron Robertson is a James Reston Reporting Fellow for The New York Times. He is currently completing an MSt in Modern Languages at the University of Oxford.

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