Italy: Migration & Political Instrumentalization
In 2015 I was sixteen years and the migration crisis in the Mediterranean reached its peak of deaths and horror. In Italy, where I’m from, it was all over the news: thousands of bodies in the Mediterranean waters, as if it were the biggest floating cemetery on earth. While having dinner, I remember watching the news with a growing feeling of uncomfortableness, a feeling of profound irritation. That feeling became the norm, for months. Body after body, the broadcasting of suffering, of desperation, and despair became standardized. I remember the discussions at the table with my parents: no-one had the courage to stare at the tv for too long, some images you just don’t want to watch, watching is the first step towards acknowledging, and once you acknowledge you cannot stay silent, and you cannot stay still.
Images of NGOs rescuing migrants at sea were always present. Maybe to “sedate” the Italian population, maybe to show them that something was done, that some lives were saved, and that Lampedusa, the ever-distant dream of migrants, wasn’t a utopia. But the death toll was always high, no amount of rescuing boats until today can stop so much suffering. No amount of rescuing boats can equalize the number of migrants leaving their country of origin out of fear, out of misery, out of hope.
Such images weren’t enough. They weren’t enough because the power of political instrumentalization is tempting, and it often does not leave enough space for a (proper) reply. Far-right populism in Italy grew stronger and stronger, having “illegal” immigration as the target par excellence. Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Italian extreme right populist movement, The League, vowed to “protect” the country’s border, to “prevent” loss of lives, often holding a Christian cross in his hands while giving electoral speeches. Borders, sovereignty, and control became the core of the party’s rhetoric. But instrumentalization does not have borders, it does not stop. From “theoretical instrumentalization”, instrumentalization became more and more pragmatic with a real securitization approach, based on the criminalization of NGOs rescuing migrants at sea (under the Security Decree II). For months, under the leadership of Matteo Salvini as Minister of Interior, anyone rescuing migrants would have received severe fines because of infringing national law. Search and Rescue operations were not allowed. Luigi di Maio, from the anti-establishment populist party Five Star Movement, defined NGOs as “sea taxis” in 2017, while being Minister of Foreign Affairs.
The discussion between “porti aperti o porti chiusi” (“open ports or closed ports”) for migrants was at its peak, with public opinion increasingly polarized. In contexts such as the Italian one, where immigrants’ socio-economic integration is not comprehensive, with little actual support from institutions, critical thinking is not the norm, and it is not necessarily encouraged through mainstream media, or educational settings.
Under the leadership of Matteo Salvini as the Ministry of Interior, in October 2018, in the so-called Security Package, the humanitarian protection status was erased. The consequences on migrants’ possibility to stay in the country drastically reduced. In fact, migrants who were not eligible for international protection or refugee status were left with little legislative tools addressing their claims. I am thinking, for instance, about economic migrants. The differentiation between refugees and economic migrants became clearer and clearer as the first ones were entitled to some sort of dignity and safety, while the second ones had no rights to claim for.
Salvini’s slogan “the party is over” (when referring to illegal migration), has always resonated in my head not only as a lack of the aforementioned critical thinking, but also, and especially, as a lack of humanness, replaced by a mask such as that of the joker, who laughs no matter what. What “party”? Whose “party”? In this “party” no one is having fun.