Only days after coming to power, Italy’s new populist government has won in an early showdown with the European Union establishment over the contentious issue of migration.
This week, Italy refused to let a search-and-rescue ship dock in Sicily with over 600 refugees onboard. The stranded people mainly from Africa had been picked up in the coastal waters off Libya and were being transported to Italy.
Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini pointedly refused to let the ship disembark. He said: “Saving lives at sea is a duty, but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp is not… Italy is done bowing its head and obeying. This time there’s someone saying no.”
After a 24-hour period of uncertainty over the destiny of the wretched passengers – including pregnant women and children – the vessel was in the end agreed to be received by Spain at its port of Valencia. One may surmise that the European Union establishment in Brussels intervened hurriedly to avert a public relations disaster from a ship crowded with refugees being stranded on the high seas.
In that way, Salvini, the leader of the League party – which is a coalition partner in the new Italian government – was fulfilling one of its main election promises: ending the flow of migrants into Italy.
Since 2104, Italy has received some 600,000 refugees who have come to its shores from the Middle East and North Africa after making perilous journeys across the Mediterranean. Thousands have died from drowning while trying to make the crossing in overcrowded and leaky boats.
When Salvini refused the docking of the vessel this week in Sicily, media reports initially portrayed the response as heartless and a transgression of international maritime law. His party is routinely described as being “far-right” and “anti-immigrant”. It seems those sinister epithets are used in the media as a way to undermine Salvini and the new government in Rome from holding their objections to the influx of refugees.
But let’s look at the issue from a broader point of view as the Italian government seeks to do.
Salvini and his coalition partner Luigi Di Maio, of the Five Star Movement (M5S), contend that Italy is bearing the burden of receiving unprecedented numbers of migrants, numbers that are way beyond what other EU countries are accepting.
Geographically, Italy sits as a frontline state on the route for refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Under EU rules, the country which is the first point of arrival is obliged to accommodate the refugees. The Italian government argues that those rules are null and void given the unprecedented numbers, and given that the 28 EU member states should allocate a fairer distribution of refugees.
Also, and this point is badly overlooked in media coverage, the vast majority of migrants are the result of wars and conflicts that have been sponsored by NATO powers, either directly or covertly, as well as by illegal human trafficking networks which have metastasized out those wars.
The context is therefore not one of a simple humanitarian dislocation being met by a heartless “xenophobic” government. It is more a question of why one, or a few, European countries should be saddled with attending to such disproportionate human needs while other EU member states close their doors. Especially when those member states like Britain and France have taken such a prominent role in engaging in illegal US-led NATO wars that have led directly to the surge in refugees to Europe.
In other words, it seems grossly unfair, not to say futile, that some countries like Italy are being obliged to cope with a refugee crisis on a national basis when that crisis has been engendered on an international basis through NATO wars in Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
There is also a big unasked question about illegal human trafficking. We are dealing here with systematic collusion between human traffickers, governments and so-called humanitarian NGOs which are aiding and abetting the flow of migrants to European frontline states like Italy.