The Consequences Of Populism: Italy’s Failed Role In The European Migration Crisis

Populism seems to become the dominant ideology across Europe. This ideology carries far-right notions of anti-immigration which continue to divide The European Union (EU). As the European Migration Crisis continues, with large numbers of migrants seeking refuge from conflicts in Asia and Africa, the actions EU takes are vital to the protection of migrants and their rights to seek asylum. However, countries such as Italy are failing to fulfill their international obligations to protect these migrants. The rise of populism in Italy, led by prominent political figures, such as Matteo Salvini, has created obstacles to the EU’s attempt to generate a unified Migration Plan. The closure of Italy’s borders and its growing hostility towards migrants further deteriorates the effectiveness of the European Union and its members in managing the European Migration Crisis.


The prevalence of populism in Italy escalated when two populist political parties: The Five-Star Movement and The League won the Italian general election in March of this year. Since these parties joined their powers, policies, related to immigration and maintaining international standards, have come under attack. For example, Reuters reports that the head of The League and Italy’s Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, is Europe’s equivalent to Donald Trump. This is accentuated by Salvini’s nationalistic “Italy first” mentality. In the six months since the populist government has taken power in Italy, the treatment of migrants has dramatically shifted. For example, Reuters reports that the country has continuously denied entry to migrant rescue boats, and the most recent decree from September 24th  has reduced the number of migrants that can be granted entry to Italy, thus minimizing Italy’s humanitarian and international obligations. Populism in Italy has pushed the country to only pursue its own interests. Such a decision is making it extremely difficult for the European Union to manage the migration crisis. Indeed, populism of such countries as Italy continues to divide Europe, as its ideologies oppose the global and unified approach needed to overcome the transnational challenges of migration.


As one of the few entry points into Europe, Italy’s closed borders place the rights and safety of migrants at serious risk. The Local reports that between January and June of this year, migration into Italy dropped by 84 percent. Moreover, The International Organization for Migration revealed that 120,000 migrants arrived at Italy’s shores in 2017, and only 13,808 as of June 8th, 2018. These migration numbers continue to decline since the new populist government has taken power. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) states that only 2,416 asylum applications were processed in August of 2018, compared to 10,070 the year before. This significant decline in migration to Italy reflects Italy’s hardline policies to prevent and deter migrants from entering Italian shores. For example, The Local Italy reports that the government recently denied the privately run rescue boat, Aquarius, safe entry. This occurred despite the boat carrying 11 migrants who were saved from a sinking boat off the coast of Libya. According to the source, Salvini later tweeted, “Now it’s floating in the Mediterranean. I say it again and again: go wherever you want, but not to Italy.” Human Rights Watch reports that in this instance, Italy moved beyond simply rejecting the Aquarius by later pressuring the Panama government to revoke the boat’s license on September 23rd.


Italy’s immigration policies are therefore alarming, and fears for the safety of migrants remain high. On August 3rd, The UNHCR reported that in the first seven months of this year over 1,500 migrants had perished crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Additionally, it reported that while fewer people are crossing the sea, the death toll is increasing. These statistics indicate the need for humanitarian rescue ships, such as Aquarius, to save the lives of migrants. Writer for Human Rights Watch, Judith Sunderland, argues that Italy’s desire to stop the Aquarius will only increase the death toll.


Populism which plagues Italy has also affected the role of the European Union in this crisis. Italy’s new government is not only against immigration but is also against the European Union as a whole. The National Interest argues that Italy could be Europe’s next crisis. For example, as Europe’s third largest economy, Italy is slowly diverging from common EU policies and standards. This is accentuated by its opposition to the EU’s Dublin Convention, which states that migrants should be processed in their country of entry. Italy has also tested its international humanitarian responsibilities in recent months through its introduction of the “Salvini Decree.” Al Jazeera reports that this decree will restrict those who gain entry on humanitarian reasons, despite Italy’s Prime Minister arguing that the decree still upholds international human rights standards.


Populism has created various issues in the European Migration Crisis. If one thing can be gathered from Italy’s mistakes, it is that solutions to migration come from European cooperation and cohesion, rather than division. Closed borders and the strict anti-immigration policies of one nation will not create an easy fix to the issue at hand. As one of the wealthiest and most peaceful continents on earth, Europe has a responsibility to provide asylum to migrants seeking refuge. On a focused analysis of Italy, many policies must change if The European Migration Crisis is to be better managed. Firstly, Italy should allow humanitarian rescue ships into its ports, as it remains to be a close key point of entry for migrants who cross the Mediterranean Sea from Africa. If it allows this to happen and promotes, rather than obstructs the efforts of rescue ships, countless lives can be saved. Even though Italy argues that it has received a disproportionate number of migrants in the past few years,  it should be more open with the European Union. For example, rather than being Eurosceptic, Italy should advocate for more effective EU policies. This could be achieved by advocating a reform to the Dublin Convention, as mentioned previously, which would allow more nations to process migrant’s applications. Additionally, Italy could advocate for more EU members to share responsibility and resources in managing the crisis and work on strengthening a unified EU migration plan.


However, Italy cannot be solely blamed for flaws in the protection of migrants in Europe. The European Union in many respects has failed to create a unified plan where its members can effectively cooperate in the management of the migration crisis. Current EU policies, including the Dublin Convention and past EU-Turkey Action Plan, have disproportionately affected select nations. The EU must create fair policies for its members as this would increase the chances of a cohesive migration policy being formed. Individual nations too must be willing to cooperate and disregard populist ideals of state-centrism if migrants are to be better protected. Populism is dwindling the role of European nations in managing the European Migration Crisis.


Particularly in the past few months, Italy has failed to protect the lives and rights of migrants. Its failed role could have devastating effects for those who flee from ongoing conflicts around the world. Populism and its ideologies of anti-immigration and hardline nationalism are closing borders and offering short-term solutions to issues that will be ongoing for years to come. This is particularly devastating when the need for global cooperation and cohesion is more than ever.