When people rescued from the Mediterranean reach a European port, once they have been screened for security threats and communicable diseases, their own medical needs are at last attended to. Those who flee Libya, have effects on the body and the mind regardless of whether the person experiencing them made their journey because of war, or because they were duped into it by traffickers, or because they were looking for work.
Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, is currently treating these people like chess pieces, by refusing permission for NGO rescue boats to dock at Italian ports, even though they are the nearest safe havens. He is doing so for specious and self-serving reasons. One of his first acts as minister was to visit Sicily and declare that the island “cannot become Europe’s refugee camp”; no matter that Salvini is leader of a party — the Lega — that until recently wanted independence for northern Italy partly on the grounds that Sicilians and southern Italians, terroni, were no better than the African migrants he currently heaps opprobrium on. Then, in creating a European political row over the fate of the Aquarius rescue ship, forced to wait at sea for days before making a choppy journey to Spain, he was trying to strengthen his country’s negotiating hand in the last weeks’s EU summit on migration policy.
What is new about this? We have known for years how migrants in Libya are treated: there have been constant accounts of torture and enslavement of black people since 2011, if we care to look. And as far back as 2005, an Italian parliamentary inquiry heard that people in immigration detention centres built at Europe’s request by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi were being caught “like dogs”. As war and instability in regions neighbouring Europe, in which European powers were often intimately involved, led to a spike in the number of refugees trying to reach the continent, the overall direction of EU policy has been to try to push people back where possible, closing down safe and legal routes to asylum. Governments failed to create a common asylum policy that would have helped front line nations such as Italy and Greece deal with the impact of the crisis. And the Italian government in power immediately before Salvini’s coalition, run by the centre-left, cut deals with militias in Libya and cracked down on NGO rescues, in order to keep migrants from leaving North Africa.
Now, as far-right politicians reach positions of power in several countries, their influence is coming to bear. Their aim, rather than to make a perceived problem go away, is to deliberately stoke a sense of crisis and panic, to frame this form of migration as an existential threat to Europe. Salvini has picked this fight and called for reception centres to be set up on Libya’s southern borders, even though crossings from Libya have dropped significantly, and when arrivals of rescued migrants are roughly evenly spread between Spain, Italy and Greece. In doing so, he has sought to align himself with other anti-immigrant demagogues such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and perhaps some conservatives too, such as Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, who recently called for “an axis of willing against illegal migration” between Italy, Germany and his own country.
This has implications not only for the rights of migrants, but for the shape that our politics will take in years to come. The most extreme of these leaders are trying to use the issue of migration to push a vision of the nation based on ethnic privilege and defined in opposition to racialised outsiders, be they Muslims, or unspecified dark-skinned “migrants” or indeed Roma.
European summit on refugees is a crucial turning point, as it will determine who gets to set the future direction of Europe’s policy: will conservatives and populists coalesce into an anti-immigrant bloc, or will liberal centrists such as Macron and Merkel take the lead? It’s vital that the likes of Salvini are defeated, and this is entirely possible, since those nationalists making the loudest noises about migration want contradictory things: Italy wants the EU to adopt a quota system for refugee settlement, while Austria is dead against it; politicians who threaten to close Schengen borders would likely change their tune if the next country along an irregular migration route did it to them, and thousands of people were trapped in their country instead.
But the trouble is that all sides continue to propose policies of containment that treat migrants as undesirable, and in which rights and safety come second. One much-discussed proposal has been the establishment of asylum “processing centres” in North Africa, which would separate the genuine refugees from the others without them having to make boat journeys to Europe. Macron proposes “closed centres”, which people would not be able to leave, within Europe — but there is little detail on how these would be any better than the failed “hotspots” system the EU announced in 2015. These proposals are not a substitute for a well-funded, Europe-wide asylum system in which claims are processed quickly and fairly, and all member states do their fair share of the work.
In formal politics, this is usually treated as an outlandish claim, but the proposition is being made every time we do what is within our power to save lives, to push back against the “hostile environments” created by border control, and to find ways to make our communities work together. This needs a political voice too, because if we stick with what’s currently on offer we are left with the choice of repeating past mistakes or taking an even more deadly path.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Daniel Trilling is the author of Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe.