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This past weekend brought an auspicious turn of events in the continuing European refugee crisis, as the Italian government eased its anti-refugee policy, allowing a vessel operated by the human rights organizations SOS Mediterranean and Mediciens Sans Frontieres, carrying dozens of North African refugees, to dock at the Italian port of Lampedusa. The Guardian reports that this was a reversal of the hard line taken towards migrants by the previous Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right League Party, who was ousted as the newly elected government, a coalition between the leftist Democratic Party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, and survived confidence votes in the Italian Parliament.
Nicola Zingeretti, head of the Democratic Party stated that the new government “intends to put an end to the season of hatred, rancor, and fear,” according to the Independent. French Interior Minister Christophe Castner, tweeted that “we now need to agree on a genuine temporary European mechanism,” referring to the fact that this new arrangement is as of yet temporary, and involves other European nations taking in a portion of migrants that land on Italian shores, so as not to overwhelm Italy. Castner’s German counterpart, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, stated that Germany would take in twenty-five percent of these migrants, remarking in the Independent that “this won’t be too much for [Germany’] immigration policy.” According to Japan’s NHK News, Filipo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, praised Italy’s new policy, calling it a “positive development.” However, Mateo Salvini stated in the Guardian that “the new ministers must hate [Italy]. Italy is back to being Europe’s refugee camp.
Italy’s change in policy toward refugees is a definite step in the right direction that deserves to be commended. Once again, Italy has agreed to act as a gateway to a better life for the most desperate among humanity. And once again, Europe places humanity and human interests above national boundaries. Italy’s reopening to refugee vessels signals that it has overcome populist fears about migrants; specifically that migrants bring crime and compromise the societal integrity of the country.
Since the start of the Arab Spring in Tunisia in 2011, and the turmoil of subsequent regime changes in Algeria, Libya, and Egypt, migrants began to cross the Mediterranean Sea in huge numbers, fleeing the instability and violence. As the decade went on, the influx of migrants grew ever larger, with Germany alone accepting more than two million arrivals in 2015, according to Deutsche Welle. All the while, many of these migrants died attempting to cross the sea, their overcrowded boats capsizing in the ocean swell, with more than three thousand people drowning trying to get to Europe in 2017, according to a UN report cited by National Public Radio. The wave of migration also caused a surge in right-wing nativist sentiment, with populist leaders warning that allowing migrants in was akin to invasion, and calling for strict border controls. In response, the European Union cracked down on migrants, establishing a multinational naval force in 2015 to interdict known smuggling paths from North Africa, under the code name Operation: Sophia, according to Politico. At the same time, the EU also began to rely on North African nations, chiefly Libya, for assistance in dealing with the refugees. But according to the Independent, the situation in the Libyan refugee camps quickly became untenable, with numerous and horrific human rights abuses being alleged. In Italy itself, the situation reached a head in June of 2019, where according to EuroNews, the far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini moved to block all Italian ports to ships carrying refugees, igniting large scale protests from human rights organizations. With a new government instituted in Italy that is more supportive of refugees, the European Union has planned a meeting on Malta for September 23 in order to create a temporary deal for distribution of refugees, ahead of a summit in Luxembourg, scheduled for next October, according to the Guardian.
This development is an undeniable improvement for the situation of refugees and human rights in Europe. The interior and foreign ministries of Europe will have much work to do at their summits in Malta and Luxembourg. Whatever happens, the nations of the EU must find a way to allocate resources to refugees, and facilitate as seamless an integration process as possible for the migrants as they settle in a given country. Additionally, the naval forces marshaled for Operation: Sophia must be re-organized to coordinate rescue and recovery, should more refugee boats run into trouble. With these actions taken, the EU can more fully realize its vision of itself as a defender of human rights.