I have never felt a greater need to speak out. I have never felt a greater need to try to explain why this new Italian government cannot be allowed to survive. Even before it has got down to real work, it has already done so much irreparable damage. The drama of the migrant rescue ship, Aquarius, which last week was denied permission to dock at Italian ports, drew everybody in — it seems there are those who, indifferent to the fate of 630 human beings at sea, think it was right to teach Europe a lesson on the migrant issue. Yet, of course, others think it preposterous to use 630 lives as bargaining chips. The trouble is that we have all lost sight of the bigger picture.
In today’s world, the notion of a “zero-landing” Mediterranean, where no migrants reach Europe, is nothing short of criminal propaganda. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s Interior Minister and leader of the League party, says he wants to prevent further tragedies happening at sea, and rescue migrants from the clutches of the human traffickers in Libya and criminal organisations in Italy. At the weekend, he used Facebook to make his contentious case again. “While the Aquarius is sailing towards Spain,” Salvini wrote, “two other Dutch NGO-operated vessels have arrived off the Libyan coast to wait for their human cargoes once the people smugglers abandon them. These people should know that Italy no longer wants to be any part of this business of clandestine immigration and they will have to look for other ports to go to.”
Propaganda is one thing, facts are another.
“Zero-landing” policies have been attempted by all of Salvini’s predecessors, using identical strategies and ending in identical failures, such as detaining migrants in Libya. The only difference is that Salvini is more flagrant in his nastiness and has allies in government who back him up. Over the years, Italy — and Europe — has shovelled money into unstable countries and bankrolled traffickers and criminals without solving anything. As long as there are folk who want to come from Africa to Europe, there will always be those who will be ready to bring them here for money.
The doors of Europe are officially closed to Africans. The only way in is undercover, and the Libyan mafias are ready to provide transit (to upwards of 100,000 Africans a year). There is a demand to be satisfied and no legal supply. The soft-soaping of the edicts of Salvini and his coalition partner — the Five Star leader, Luigi di Maio — is meaningless. They need to understand the most elementary law of the market: if there is a demand, there will be a supply, whether legal or illegal.
Can we take in everyone who wants to emigrate from Africa to Europe? No. But Italy has not earned the right to say: “Right, that’s enough.” I am often asked what the solution is, as if there were one available to resolve the whole migration issue. There is no definitive answer — only steps that have to be taken.
First, Italy needs to regularise all the illegal migrants in the country today. The former minister of labour, Roberto Maroni, did this in 2002, giving documents to 700,000 migrants who immediately became 700,000 taxpayers; this government can, and must, do the same.
Second, we should get to work on regulating visas and stop paying the Libyan mafias to be jailers patrolling squalid detention camps. This money is a burden on our pockets, but above all on our conscience, (though the consciences of many Italians seem to have gone into hibernation).
Third, we must seek agreements with the other countries of Europe to allow permits obtained in Italy to be valid for movement and jobs throughout the European Union. This means making real political progress, rather than just having a talking shop.
Unless all of this happens, it is easy to predict what we will live through during the coming months and years. The migrants on board the charity boat Aquarius were kept at sea for two days before heading to Spain. But those aboard the Italian coastguard vessel Diciotti have been put ashore in Catania, in Sicily. So do we have first-class migrants and second-class migrants now? On board the Aquarius there were migrants from rescue operations undertaken by the Italian coastguard. Next time no migrant will want to leave so-called official rescue vessels to be taken by boats belonging to NGOs — which could find European ports closed to them for goodness knows how many hours or even days.
Meanwhile, in Italy, a war is being silently waged between Italians and migrants, who — whether legal or illegal — now live and work in the country, often being underpaid and sometimes living in conditions of enslavement. Focusing our attention on those who are yet to arrive, we lose sight of the rights of others who are already here — rights that belong to every human being, irrespective of whether he or she is in possession of a residence permit.
The wave of hatred whipped up against Africans who haven’t yet even set foot in the country is being visited on the migrants who are already living here. Italians are going backwards, socially, amid an upsurge of nationalism that displays racist animus against anything perceived to be an alien body. The first official statement made by the League’s new minister for the family and disabled people was directed against gay families and abortion.
Minister of Family and Disability Lorenzo Fontana’s words were a bombshell in a country that has had to wait decades to get a law on civil unions, and where conscientious objection in public hospitals still betrays the referendum decision made on abortion in 1981.
The sad truth is that this government has many supporters and is popular because it identifies targets: Categories of individuals that people can unleash their frustration on; enemies to be stoned. Whether Italians like to hear that or not, that’s how it is. But the huge numbers of suffering and angry Italians will not better their own condition by mobilising against migrants. On the contrary, in countries where rights are guaranteed to everyone, including minorities, it is the entire community that enjoys the benefit. It has taken decades for communities to integrate, but very, very little time for everything to collapse like a sandcastle, destroyed by a nationalism that is making everyone the enemy of everyone else.
And if Europe fails in its mission to host and integrate migrants, those European leaders who can’t measure up to the situation would do better to hold their tongues, rather than go in for calculated insults. It is Italy’s duty to battle for change for the better, not to descend into the most boorish nativism. Human lives are at stake.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Roberto Saviano is the author of Gomorrah, a portrait of the Italian mafia.