Earlier this week, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, begrudgingly allowed 150 refugees to leave a rescue ship and enter the country. Prior to their disembarkment, the primarily Eritrean migrants were stranded in the port of Catania for nine days. Salvini initially refused to allow in the migrants at all until other members of the European Union (EU) agreed to accept some of them into their own countries. Ireland offered to take 20 to 25 refugees and Albania, a country close with Italy that is also aspiring to join the EU, also took 20. Amongst this five day period the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was urging Italy to allow the migrants off the boat as well as urging other EU members to take some of them in so as to get them off the boat sooner.
The UNHCR spoke out against Italy’s handling of the situation, noting that “frightened people who may be in need of international protection should not be caught in the maelstrom of politics,” according to Reuters. Following the incident, Salvini is now being investigated by a Sicilian magistrate for holding people against their will and alleged abuse of power. This prompted an unusual and somewhat disturbing support for Salvini’s actions among Italians, with Reuters mentioning that one older man claimed “we are not a rubbish bin for Africa.” In interviews Salvini began to suggest that the people migrating to his country were “fake refugees,” as opposed to “real refugees,” whom he claims are a minority. Seemingly ignorant to the plights of the refugees coming to his shore, Al Jazeera reported Salvini stating that “‘as ‘a minister and a father’ he did not want any more ‘women or babies to get into rubber dinghies … The goal is for those who come to Italy to arrive on planes, even first class.’”
While it is certainly positive that these refugees were let off the boat at all, Italy should have not hesitated to bring these people to shore, especially while awaiting the EU’s response for who might be able to take some of them in. That being said, the European Union should have recognized Italy’s reluctance and agreed to accept some of the refugees for their sake. Just as the UNHCR mentioned, their fate should not be put on hold for politics. Furthermore, the types of comments and support in defense of Salvini following the announcement of the investigation are also cause for concern. The questioning of their legitimacy as well as a lack of warmth to these refugees could result in future refugees remaining in dangerous situations due to feeling like they have no viable options.
Although refugee arrivals by boat are down 81 percent this year, Italy has still seen at least 640,000 refugees since 2014. Following these events, Salvini and Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, are vowing to crack down on immigration into Europe by land as well as sea, even for those seeking asylum. Luigi de Maio, the other Deputy Prime Minister of Italy, is now threatening to veto the EU seven-year budget plan until they agree to take in more of the refugees arriving on Italy’s shore. These issues should not be inhibiting asylum for the refugees, coming from very real dangers, however. Eritrea has a history of violating human rights by means of torture, extrajudicial executions, and forced labour, etc., as well as rape and sexual servitude by state officials, as described in a 500-page report by the UN Human Rights Committee in 2016.
By Salvini questioning their legitimacy as refugees, he is therefore delegitimizing the conflicts and human rights violations that they are fleeing. This ultimately condones these issues and therefore reduces the opportunities for peaceful resolution. If the investigation into Salvini is successful, however, that could bring about the opposite effect and help the world recognize what needs to be done. The European Union as a whole must act sooner next time, and must put pressure on Italy to not move forward with its anti-immigrant agenda.