Italy new chance for an humane migrant policy


THE political fall of Italy’s Matteo Salvini will be a cause for rejoicing in Brussels because of this populist leader’s promise to challenge the European Central Bank and the structure of the euro with a rule-busting budget. It will also come as a great relief to those who deplored Salvini’s racist and Islamophobic treatment of migrants. By effectively shutting Italian ports to a vessels carrying migrants rescued from flimsy craft in the Mediterranean, the fallen Italian leader was rejecting humanitarian norms and playing to the fear that Italy was being swamped with asylum-seeker arrivals.

Salivini’s main argument was that Italy should not be expected to shoulder the migrant burden by itself. If Brussels deplored his blockade of newcomers, then fellow EU states should be prepared to take their share of these people. Demonstrating extraordinary hypocrisy, French President Emmanuel Macron had lectured Salvini on his heartlessness. Yet in response Salvini could point out that, in defiance of EU Schengen open border rules, Macron had shut the French frontier with Italy against migrants. Macron chose to rely on the clearly unworkable rule that the country where refugees landed was obliged to offer them sanctuary. This had served to impose an unsustainable and unfair burden on both Greece — which had seen huge influxes, largely of Syrians, traveling via Turkey and also Italy.

Salvini’s other argument was that if migrants were stopped from landing anywhere in Europe, not just Italy, the flow of desperate people would eventually cease and with it the loss of thousands of lives at sea. He pointed out that previous Italian governments had sought to bribe Libyan politicians, and by extension the militias who run the people-smuggling operations, to stop what was for them the highly lucrative trade. Tragically, this had limited impact on migrants being smuggled across the Sahara into Libya. The result is that tens of thousands are now held in camps in what UN inspectors have called atrocious conditions.

It is unclear how the coalition government that, to Salvini’s surprise has been formed, thus avoiding the snap general election he wanted, will now handle the migrant issue. The great majority of those coming from sub-Saharan Africa are almost certainly economic migrants, who have a poor case for asylum. However, caught up in Salvini’s tough policies were many genuine refugees from the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Eritrea and Somalia, almost all of them Muslim. By refusing to differentiate between real and phony asylum seekers, the fallen Italian leader threw aside international law as well as the precepts of common humanity. He also pandered blatantly to and stoked up ugly Islamophobia.

If Salvini’s former partner, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and their long-standing political foes the Democratic Party can now form an effective coalition government, it must be hoped that the nationalist and xenophobic tendencies that Salvini and his League party fostered and exploited so deplorably will be reversed. Italian voters had allowed themselves to be lured down an unacceptable racist path that brought shame to one of the leading EU states. It must be hoped the new coalition government under the leadership of the previous Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte can work together effectively. With the vigorous support of Brussels it needs to produce an administration of which Italians can be proud, not embarrassed and ashamed.