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What a far-right government in Italy means for asylum seekers and migrants

Beyond stoking racism and xenophobia, experts fear Meloni could double down on migration policies that lead to more deaths at sea.

Asylum seekers and migrants wait on the Italian island of Lampedusa to board a coast guard ship bound for Sicily. Sara Creta/TNH
Asylum seekers and migrants wait on the Italian island of Lampedusa to board a coast guard ship bound for Sicily in November 2020.

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Italy looks set for its first far-right government since World War II. Among other concerns, this is likely to be bad news for refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea in search of safety and opportunity in Europe. 

The Brothers of Italy party – which topped the polls with 26 percent of the vote on 25 September – has its roots in Italy’s post-war neo-fascist movement. The party’s head, Giorgia Meloni, is set to become Italy’s next leader – and its first female prime minister. She is looking to form a governing coalition with the far-right League party and the centre-right Forza Italia party of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. 

The main issues for voters in the election were rising energy prices, inflation, and Italy’s policy towards Russia and Ukraine. However, the winning coalition also campaigned on a hardline anti-migration platform, promising to implement a naval blockade to prevent asylum seekers and migrants from reaching Italian ports and to follow in the UK’s and Denmark’s footsteps by attempting to send asylum seekers outside Europe to have their claims processed. 

Migration and rights experts told The New Humanitarian they expect the new government to also crack down on NGOs and volunteers carrying out search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean and providing humanitarian support to refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in Italy. 

Read more → Interactive: The European approach to stopping Libya migration

In the lead-up to the election, there were several high-profile violent attacks against asylum seekers and migrants, including the killing of Alika Ogorchukwu, a 39-year-old Nigerian man who was beaten to death in broad daylight in the town of Civitanova Marche in July, which put a spotlight on racism in Italian society.

The leader of the League party is Matteo Salvini. His tenure as Italy’s interior minister from June 2018 to September 2019 provides a good indication of the policies a new, far-right government is likely to pursue, according to Carmine Conte, a legal policy analyst at the Brussels-based Migration Policy Group think tank. 

Salvini closed Italy’s ports to search and rescue NGOs, gutted the Italian asylum reception system, and made it more difficult for people to receive humanitarian protection in the country. Salvini – who remains on trial over charges stemming from his refusal to let rescued asylum seekers and migrants disembark in an Italian port in August 2019 – is unlikely to return as interior minister because his party performed poorly in this election. But “now we are going… towards hostile, anti-migrant policies on the same level as Salvini,” Conte said. 

Ukrainians who have escaped the Russian invasion will likely be exempt from this hardline approach, according to Conte, exemplifying a double standard seen across Europe in the treatment of Ukrainians and people from other parts of the world seeking safety.

“There’s also a very clear risk of this government really nurturing a climate in which xenophobia and racism and discrimination will blossom even further. And that’s terrifying.”

Around 150,000 Ukrainians have registered for temporary protection in Italy since the Russian invasion began at the end of February. Meanwhile, around 69,000 people from the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere have crossed the Mediterranean to Italy so far this year, and nearly 1,100 are known to have died or disappeared attempting the journey.

When it comes to non-Ukrainian asylum seekers and migrants, “there are very clear signs of this new government's willingness to implement abusive policies,” Judith Sunderland, Human Rights Watch’s associate director for Europe and Central Asia, told The New Humanitarian.

“There’s also a very clear risk of this government really nurturing a climate in which xenophobia and racism and discrimination will blossom even further. And that’s terrifying,” she added. 

What was the situation like in the central Mediterranean and in Italy prior to this election?

“For years, Italy has struggled – and largely failed – to implement rights respecting policies at its borders and inside its borders with respect to migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees,” Sunderland said. 

The country has long been a major arrival point for people crossing from North Africa to Europe along the central Mediterranean route. Those numbers peaked at over 150,000 per year between 2014 and 2016. They started dropping off in 2017 after Italy took a leading role in EU-backed efforts to provide equipment, training, and logistical support to the Libyan Coast to intercept asylum seekers and migrants at sea and return them to Libya.

These policies have been criticised for helping fuel a well-documented cycle of detention and abuse against asylum seekers and migrants in Libya.

Arrivals have been on the rise again over the past two years as the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic has overlapped with ongoing conflicts and political repression in the Middle East, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa – not to mention the ripple effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the global economy and food supplies. 

At the same time, nearly 20,000 people are known to have died or disappeared attempting to cross the central Mediterranean since 2014 – making it the deadliest migration route in the world over that time. 

Meanwhile, Italy and other EU countries have sought to minimise their responsibility for rescuing asylum seekers and migrants in distress – which is required by international law – and Italy has frequently obstructed the activities of search and rescue NGOs that have stepped in to try to fill the gap. 

 “Many asylum seekers remain destitute and homeless because of the lack of space and access to support.”

The outgoing government, led by Prime Minister Mario Draghi, continued many of these policies – including obstructing the work of search and rescue NGOs – but “they ultimately did allow rescue groups to operate and to disembark in Italy,” Sunderland said. 

The reception system for asylum seekers and migrants who do make it to Italy was underfunded and under-resourced even before it was decimated by Salvini when he was interior minister.

While some steps were taken to undo the damage done by Salvini, and more has been done to bolster it following the influx of Ukrainians, “it is nowhere near as strong as it needs to be to provide adequate reception conditions to asylum seekers who have reached Italy… [and] many remain destitute and homeless because of the lack of space and access to support,” Sunderland added. 

What can we expect from a new government? 

Once in office, it may be difficult for a Brothers of Italy, League, and Forza Italia coalition to actually implement some of the hardline migration policies it campaigned on. 

Establishing a naval blockade to prevent asylum seekers and migrants from reaching Italian ports would not be legally tenable, according to Sunderland, who added that the EU and Italy are already doing a lot to try to prevent boats crossing the Mediterranean to Europe.

Any further blockade would likely involve Italian Navy and Coast Guard ships pushing boats of asylum seekers and migrants back to Libya. In 2009, the European Court of Human Rights, an international court based in Strasbourg, France, condemned Italy for carrying out a similar policy because Libya is not considered a safe country for asylum seekers and migrants – the international legal principle of non-refoulement prohibits states from returning people to a country where they are at risk of experiencing serious human rights violations. 

The situation is different from the Aegean Sea, where journalists and watchdog groups have documented substantial evidence of Greek authorities pushing people back to Turkey, because the EU considers Turkey to be a safe third country – although human rights organisations have long argued that it is not. 

There are also concerns that Italy’s new government will pursue policies and agreements that make it easier to deport asylum seekers and migrants to their home countries or countries they transited through without adequate human rights safeguards. The coalition, according to Sunderland and Conte, has said it wants to condition development aid to other countries on their cooperation on restricting migration, and it could also implement policies that are hostile towards migrants and the children of migrants born in Italy, who currently face a difficult path to obtaining citizenship. 

“This is a hard-right nationalist government that’s coming in with a rhetoric that is very much about ‘the motherland’, about family, about Italian identity, about restoring pride to Italians, and it’s very much in line with the identity politics that nurtures a climate of xenophobia and racism,” Sunderland said. 

“Limiting or stopping the work of rescue groups will increase the loss of life at sea.”

The promise of sending asylum seekers outside the EU to have their claims processed “is something that we’ve already seen at the European level as a trend”, Conte said.

But it too could be difficult to fulfil. A similar effort by the UK – which signed an agreement earlier this year to send asylum seekers to Rwanda to have their cases assessed – has run into legal challenges that prevented the first deportation flight to the East African country from taking off in June. Denmark has also said it wants to send asylum seekers to Rwanda to have their cases processed, but the policy has yet to come to fruition. 

Past successful efforts to externalise asylum processing – particularly by Australia – have proven disastrous for people’s rights, according to Sunderland. 

Even if it struggles to establish a blockade or external asylum processing centres, a new government could make it difficult – if not impossible – for search and rescue NGOs to operate, Sunderland added.

This is important because – unlike merchant vessels or EU Coast Guard and Navy assets – NGOs concentrate their patrols in areas of the central Mediterranean where boats are most likely to be in distress, and they quickly respond to reports of boats that need to be rescued. 

Sunderland summed it up bluntly: “Limiting or stopping the work of rescue groups will increase the loss of life at sea.” 

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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