On June 11, Italy’s new Interior Minister Matteo Salvini blocked the Aquarius rescue ship carrying 629 refugees and migrants from docking at its ports.
The boat is operated by the European charity SOS Mediterranee. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have stated that the boat was also carrying 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women.
“From today, Italy will start to say no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration,” said Salvini, who also heads the far-right League party.
Italy’s new government – a coalition of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the far-right League party – seems intent on stopping the flow of refugees into the country, as promised on the campaign trail under the slogan “Italians first”. In fact, anti-immigrant sentiment was perhaps the most unifying rally cry for Salvini’s League party supporters.
Salvini’s decision does indeed constitute a drastic change of course, which set off days of diplomatic confrontation and provoked a wave of public indignation in some sectors of Italian society. However, it is also true that condemning Italy without placing this story in a broader context would serve no purpose in addressing growing populism in the European Union (EU).
Europe is facing the most significant displacement crisis since World War II. All attempts at dealing with the issue have fallen short, mostly because they have ignored the root causes of the problem.
Taking responsibility for European military adventures and political meddling could be a good first step towards developing a holistic strategy based on joint regional and international efforts to address the crisis.
Two seemingly contradicting approaches have thus far occupied the political space concerning the issue of refugees and immigrants in the EU. The first approach views the problem as entirely humanitarian, without addressing political issues that lead to its creation in the first place.
The second – a view that champions anti-immigration policies, led by populist right-wing parties – insists on devising provisional solutions with little or no humanitarian considerations whatsoever. This also fails to provide a structural and multi-dimensional solution to the crisis.
Legal frameworks which were established in Italy and the EU in the early 2000s reflected both approaches.
Ironically, between 2001 and 2005, Salvini’s party was actually a member of a coalition government – along with the National Alliance, the Union of Christian and Centre Democrats and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia – which forged crucial immigration legislation.
In 2002, for example, it passed the Bossi-Fini law, which restricted entry to asylum seekers and criminalised illegal immigration. It failed to curb the flow of immigrants.
In 2003, the so-called EU Dublin Regulation established a Europe-wide fingerprinting database through what became known as Eurodac. The new regulations dictated that entrants to the EU must be deported to the first EU country from which they entered to apply for asylum. Once more this placed more pressure on ‘front-line countries’, since most applicants arrived in Europe through Spain, Italy or Greece. In 2004, the same Italian government ratified two amendments to the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) and the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) conventions.
According to the amendments, those retrieved at sea must be taken to a port belonging to the country in which they were rescued. While Malta refused to sign the amendments, Italy did, leaving two countries with close proximity operating based on two different laws.
This particular contradiction represents part of the current dilemma concerning the Aquarius rescue ship, resulting in the diplomatic crisis between Italy and other EU countries.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘What is behind the Aquarius refugee ship crisis?’