There’s No End in Sight for Matteo Salvini’s War on Migrants

Italy’s interior minister has already passed draconian laws to stop humanitarian rescue ships. If he manages to become prime minister, it will only get worse.

An Italian Guardia di Finanza ship sails towards the Spanish migrant rescue NGO ship Open Arms to retrieve 27 unaccompanied minors and take them to the Italian island of Lampedusa on August 17, 2019.
An Italian Guardia di Finanza ship sails towards the Spanish migrant rescue NGO ship Open Arms to retrieve 27 unaccompanied minors and take them to the Italian island of Lampedusa on August 17, 2019. ALESSANDRO SERRANO/AFP/Getty Images

TREVISO, Italy—The day after Italy’s coalition government was formed in June 2018, Matteo Salvini, the deputy prime minister, interior minister, and leader of the far-right League party, announced that the good times were over for immigrants living illegally in Italy—and that they should get ready to pack up and leave. He added that under his ministry, no people smuggler would be allowed to dock in Italian ports. The reference wasn’t to smugglers as they are commonly known but to the nongovernmental organization ships that patrol the Mediterranean Sea in search of boats in distress.

One year later, just before the government crisis he himself provoked, Salvini has managed to make good on his promise, getting the Senate to pass his signature security decree. Under this law, which was approved this month with 160 votes in favor and 57 against, private vessels carrying migrants that cross into Italian territorial waters will face fines of up to 1 million euros, the arrest of the captain, and confiscation and possible destruction of the ship. The law deals with immigration as part of a larger package of internal security measures, which also includes reform of some articles of the criminal code.

Under Salvini’s law, private vessels carrying migrants that cross into Italian territorial waters will face fines of up to 1 million euros, the arrest of the captain, and confiscation and possible destruction of the ship.

Passed only days after 150 migrants died as the boats they were traveling on capsized off the coast of Libya, the law has sparked outrage among Italy’s opposition parties and humanitarian organizations. It comes roughly nine months after another Salvini decree abolished humanitarian protection for refugees and toughened the rules around repatriations.

As Salvini’s law passed the Senate, a ship belonging to the Spanish NGO Open Arms was stranded at sea with more than 100 rescued migrants on board, unable to dock in Italy or Malta, which also closed its ports to charity rescue ships. The ship—which was at sea for about three weeks before it was allowed to dock in Lampedusa on Tuesday—has become the center of a row extending beyond Italian borders in an already chaotic summer for the Italian government.

“Why doesn’t the Open Arms go to Spain?” Salvini tweeted on Monday. “During these 18 days, they could have gone to Ibiza or Formentera three times. Theirs is a political battle.”

Salvini has been invoking the possibility of getting “full powers” since he provoked a government crisis by pulling the plug on his party’s alliance with the populist Five Star Movement this month. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned on Tuesday as a result of the crisis. In his speech before the Senate, Conte lashed out at Salvini and his party for their irresponsibility in triggering the crisis and for acting out of personal rather than national interest throughout the government’s brief tenure.

Conte’s criticism touched on almost all aspects of Salvini’s work but the security decree, which was hardly mentioned. In his response speech, Salvini made sure he highlighted his signature immigration policy once again, saying that he will “close ports all over again, if God and the Italian people give me the chance to be in government again.” Salvini’s role in the next government is not yet certain, though his intentions to lead it seem clear. If an election is not called in the coming months, the impending reshuffling of the cabinet could mean a review of existing laws, including Salvini’s security decree.

Consultations to form a new government start today. The outcome remains highly uncertain but those who voted against Salvini’s security decree have already made their voices heard. During Tuesday’s Senate hearing, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of the Democratic Party called on Salvini to demonstrate his very publicly professed Christian faith and show mercy to the migrants stranded off Lampedusa. “If you believe in those values, let those people go who are hostage of that shameful policy,” shouted Renzi at the top of his lungs.

If Salvini wins a new election, and goes on to govern with the backing of Giorgia Meloni and her far-right Brothers of Italy, his stance on immigration would become even tougherIf a new coalition is formed between the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement and the law is revised, Renzi’s party would have another chance to express its opposition to Salvini’s principles. But if Salvini wins a new election, and goes on to govern with the backing of Giorgia Meloni and her far-right Brothers of Italy, his stance on immigration would become even tougher.

For now, though, Salvini’s harsh calls to send the stranded migrants aboard the Open Arms to Spain seem to have hit their target. As the Italian parliament experienced what has been described as one of its most chaotic days in decades, the situation on the ship was reaching its tipping point. Hours later, Spain announced its decision to bring all the migrants aboard the ship to safety to the Spanish island of Mallorca.

But as a Spanish warship sailed toward Lampedusa, local prosecutors in Sicily ruled that the migrants on the Open Arms ship could disembark in Lampedusa due to deteriorating health conditions on board that led more than a dozen migrants to jump overboard. They have now sequestered the ship as mandated by the law. Salvini’s campaign-ready response was the same line he has trotted out in the past: If courts decide to prosecute him for kidnapping the people on board the ship, they should go ahead and do it. “As long as I live, it is my duty to defend the borders, the dignity and the sovereignty of my country,” Salvini wrote on Facebook, after hearing Tuesday’s news from Sicily.

It is a continuation of Salvini’s biggest political battle since he took office in June 2018. Immigrants and NGOs operating in the Mediterranean have long been a scapegoat, even though they help only a fraction of migrants leaving North Africa for Italy, most of whom make it ashore on small boats and dinghies.

Since Salvini became interior minister, he has denied docking to at least five humanitarian ships carrying rescued migrants, making a show of force against the various NGOs and leaving the migrants at sea for days or weeks at a time. With the new security decree, many believe things can only get worse.

“The situation is very worrying,” said Barbara Molinario, a spokeswoman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “NGOs and private ships are doing a very important job, yet the number of deaths at sea tells us it is not enough. And now the worry is that with this law, private ships will stop responding to distress calls to avoid sanctions and will bring migrants back to Libya.” There is also a financial risk. Veronica Alfonsi, the Italy coordinator for Open Arms, said: “There is a big difference between the kind of fines you faced before and what you face now.”

Before Tuesday’s dramatic events, Open Arms had sued and obtained permission to enter Italian waters, in compliance with international laws, but the court didn’t give permission for the ship to dock for another week. According to Massimo Frigo, a senior international lawyer at the International Commission of Jurists, “The law was made to scare and discourage NGOs.”

“It is possible to deny a ship access to territorial waters but only if there is suspicion of serious violations of laws around customs, trade, the environment, or immigration. Rescuing people at sea is mandated by international law. Here we are completely lacking a motive for denying access,” said Gianfranco Schiavone, the vice president of ASGI, the Italian association of legal studies on migration. “The motive cannot be political or arbitrary.”

According to UNHCR data, 1 in 14 migrants who attempt to cross the Mediterranean en route to Europe die during the journey. But the deaths of those who try to reach Italy in often desperate conditions don’t seem to have dented Salvini’s tough stance against immigrants and the rescue charities, which he often sums up in mottos that translate loosely as “I don’t give up,” or “I carry on my way.”

The contempt Salvini has for NGOs may be just as high as that he has for the European Union, the entity that in his view allows Italy to be “invaded” by refusing to redistribute incoming migrants among all countries, as he often tells it. So when in 2017 a Sicilian prosecutor in Catania alleged for the first time that NGOs in the Mediterranean collaborated with human traffickers to bring people to Italy illegally, Salvini—then a member of the European Parliament —jumped right in, tweeting that Europe was complicit in the financing of the “migrant invasion” orchestrated by NGOs.

“Stop those who are complicit with smugglers and traffickers,” Salvini said in June of this year, as he signed an order that forbade docking to the Sea-Watch 3 ship. Its captain, the German Carola Rackete, was arrested when she steered around an Italian Coast Guard ship and docked in Lampedusa on June 26. A judge eventually cleared Rackete of her charges on grounds that she complied with the duty to save lives at sea. But a similar case in the wake of Salvini’s security decree could have more serious consequences.

For those who rescue migrants in the Mediterranean, then, the options seem equally unappealing: Face arrest, confiscation, and fines—or hope that somebody else might rescue drowning people. This “somebody else” being the Libyan Coast Guard, which was boosted as a result of agreements between the European Union and the U.N.-backed Libyan Government of National Accord of Fayez al-Sarraj. The force is mandated to patrol Libyan search and rescue areas and to bring migrant boats back to Libyan shores—to a country where egregious human rights violations take place on a regular basis.

It’s a far cry from early 2018 when the Italian Coast Guard was still in charge of operations. “If people call us in distress, we have to call the Libyan Coast Guard, but most times they are not reachable,” said Britta Rabe, a worker at the international NGO Alarm Phone. “And people who call us say, ‘Anything but don’t bring us back to Libya.’”

The Italian photojournalist Valerio Nicolosi—who started embedding with rescue vessels at a time when a coordinated system of coast guard missions in the Mediterranean was still in place—has seen the shift up close. “When you get rid of rescue missions by coast guards, a void is created, and that is when people die at sea.” That is why NGOs are important, Nicolosi said. He isn’t hopeful about what will happen with Salvini’s new law in place.

“The truth is, without NGOs at sea, people die.”

Cecilia Butini is a freelance journalist based in Germany and Italy. She covers migration, politics, the environment, and nationalist movements for a variety of publications. Twitter: @ButiniCecilia

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