2017 06 – News From Italy

Listening to Italy

by Orecchiette


Ancient Rome colonised that part of northern Africa that is now Libya. The expansionist Italian governments of the first part of the 20th Century reinvaded and attempted, unsuccessfully and brutally, to recolonise the area. Now the invasion is working in reverse.

The UK press gives scant attention to the large numbers of migrants that continue to arrive in Italy across the Canale di Sicilia, from Libya. The Daily Express of 3 January actually used it to help its own anti-migrant stance. The headlines ran predictably: “ ‘ Time to Act’ Italy calls for mass migrant deportations ….Paolo Gentiloni wants to get tough….”.

On 23/4 May a boat overloaded with 500 migrants capsized. 34 were drowned when apparently its cargo of refugees moved en masse and destabilised the boat. Many children died and rescuers had to batter down the door to the hold which was tightly locked. Rescuers included two British naval vessels, a Spanish boat, and ships belonging to Moas (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) an NGO (non-governmental organisation). Moas’s “Phoenix” estimated the number on board to be as high as 750.

Moas was set up by Americans Christopher and Regina Caltrambone in 2013 following a large loss of life from two boats in this area. The Moas Foundation’s primary focus is “dedicated to mitigating the loss of life at sea” by providing professional search and rescue assistance. They work not only in the seaway between Libya and Italy but in other parts of the Mediterranean and further afield.

The EU has attempted to recognise, and thence stabilise, the Libyan Government of al-Sarraj as a strategy to curtail the refugees. The EU initiated a Memorandum of Understanding in January 2017 that was designed to increase cooperation against “irregular immigration”. The Italians supplied four boats to the Libyan coast guards in May with a further six to be delivered in June. Apparently about 90 officials have also received training  although La Repubblica (23.05.2017) doesn’t detail what this involved.

Immigration is a recent phenomenon in Italy because until the 1980s the country was accustomed to emigration and depopulation. Migrants started to arrive after this time and they were generally welcomed and given parity of employment rights. By 1990 the migration of non-Europeans into wider Europe, possible under the Schengen system of free movement, started to cause concern outside Italy. In 1990 Italy passed the Legge (Law) Martelli to set quotas for its immigrants, pinpointing skills shortages, or humane reasons such as joining family members. Deportations were planned for illegal migrants.

The 1998 Legge Turco-Napolitano modified that, to be superseded in 2002 by the Legge Bossi-Fini. Umberto Bossi led the Lega Nord (Northern League) until he was exposed for dishonestly using funds. Bossi and Gianfranco Fini are both far-right Northern politicians. This was followed by the Security Package of 2008 and 2009 and both include measures that are not only profoundly anti-humanitarian but almost impossible to enforce. Bossi-Fini includes the measure that migrant boats in international water can be sent back. This is contrary to Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that “Every man is free to leave his land”. The Geneva Convention also states that people in difficulties must be offered protection.

Other Bossi-Fini clauses state that no boat with visa-less passengers can dock at an Italian port. Another stipulated that the terms for employment be tightened so that employers were discouraged to employ migrants. All illegal migrants are to be repatriated. Repatriation of the unwilling becomes forced removal and it becomes brutal and brutalising to all parties involved. It has led to migrants deliberately frustrating the process by arriving without paperwork to identify either themselves or country of origin.

Figures for migration to Italy are climbing annually. Arrivals in the first part of 2017 have increased by 46% to 50,039. There have been 1,500 deaths in the whole Mediterranean area with 1,400 from the Libya/Italy crossing. There were 25,846 unaccompanied minors in 2016 and 6,642 in the first part of 2017. The main declared nationalities at the time of landing were: Nigeria (6,577), Bangladesh (5,702) Guinea (4,736), Ivory Coast (4,498), Gambia (3,341), Senegal (3,173) and Morocco (3,058). (Figures: Italian Ministry of Interior)

There have been two recent marches organised by the left in Milan and Bologna following the example of a similar one in Barcelona. Called “Together without Walls” the aim was anti-racist suggesting that more integration would actually enhance security. An important consideration following recent terrorist attacks in Europe and the UK. This brave initiative does fit with the generally inspiringly humane approach of Italians towards migrants. Refugees are dispersed and shared throughout the country. The expectation is that all areas will accept migrants and this is done as widely as communes allow. The Government supports this financially but there is resentment and some disagreement and there are protests about accepting yet more.

Matteo Renzi has pressed, unsuccessfully, for the resolution of Italy’s refugee difficulties with the EU. Other European countries largely hide behind an adherence to the Dublin agreements which place the responsibility with the migrant’s country of arrival, i.e. Italy. He has tried to resolve the lack of dispersal of migrants. By autumn 2016 an insignificant number of refugees, less than 1%, had been accepted by other countries. Renzi had spectacular heated exchanges with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán who stated that his country’s national identities and social cohesion would be threatened by taking refugees.

Pier Carlo Padoan the Minister of Finance estimated that Italy would need to spend 3.8 euros on supporting migrants in 2017 if numbers remained static. This amount and any increases will inflate the unacceptably high budget deficit and put it in breach of EU fiscal rules. Renzi has repeatedly questioned the glaring unfairness of financial support being given to Turkey in return for its reception of Syrian refugees, while nothing comes to Italy. He has threatened to stall on the acceptance of Euro budget-setting. He hears accusations that he is trying to manipulate the refugee crisis in order to get away with higher levels of debt. Euro Sympathy is limited. This stance is fostering and increasing Euroscepticism within Italy which is a clear threat to European unity.

Two developments colour resolution of Italy’s coping strategies. Carmelo Zuccaro, a Prosecutor from Catania in Sicily, has been investigating links between humanitarian NGOs (such as Moas) that rescue migrants at sea and Libya-based people smugglers. He said that he had a hypothesis that there was a connection although he had no proof that would stand in law. He questioned the sources of the large amounts of funding available to the NGOs and used this to point to what he believes might be clandestine alliances.

In theory European countries support the Libyan Government taking control. But on 10 May Libyan coastguards intervened in a rescue. They took charge, brutalising some of the migrants and returned with them to Libya. In 2012 Italy lost a case taken to the European Court of Human Rights whereby migrants and asylum seekers were intercepted at sea and returned to Libya. (Hirsi Jamaa and Others v Italy). “The Court found that Italy had violated the European Convention of Human Rights by exposing the migrants to the risk of ill-treatment in Libya…”. The detention centres are “hell” according to La Repubblica (24 May) “migrants and refugees… are sent to detention centres where they remain indefinitely under torture, exploitation and sexual assault by staff of government-controlled centres and militia members who are out of control.”

Appalling. But what is Italy supposed to do?