A Dangerous Result: How Italy’s New Government may Threaten Migrants’ Human Rights

By Reza Majd, on 30 March 2018

Written by: Serena Cavasin

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

A boat with immigrants aboard arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa | Credit: ANSA

 

In line with poll predictions, on March 4th, the recent Italian general election delivered a hung parliament. Although no absolute winners emerged, Italian voters flocked to anti-establishment M5S and anti-immigration Northern League, which secured respectively a record 32.5% and 17% of the vote (the highest percentage among the three-party centre-right coalition led by Berlusconi, which secured a total 36%), as Renzi’s centre-left coalition gathered the lowest support ever gained by the left since 1913.

 

An election dominated by the topic of migration:

Both the M5S and the centre-right coalition ran on manifestos pledging to stop boats landing on Italian shores, and in the case of the Northern League – rebranded ‘League’ before the election in a bid to increase support amongst Southern Italians, once demonised by the party – to put an end to the migrant “invasion” through a combination of systematic deportations and policies shaped to put “Italians first”.

The M5S and centre-right also offered as part of their programmes fiscal measures, such as the roll-out of a universal basic income (M5S) and a flat income tax of 15% (centre-right), of unquestionable appeal to a country with some of the highest level of youth unemployment and taxation in the European Union. And currently, the latter appears to be the decisive factor to whether the two forces will be able to reach the agreement necessary to form a new government.

In light of this last point, it may seem excessively reductive to consider migration as the issue central to the election’s results. However, it is precisely when the record number of migrant arrivals Italy has experienced in the last three years is understood in context with the other challenges and problems the country faces, that we can see how the migration was able to act as such a significant pull factor shifting consensus towards Eurosceptic and sovereigntist forces.

In fact, these forces were particularly effective at bolstering support for their once derided proposals by capitalising on the deep disillusionment felt by Italians towards European neighbours who closed their borders, leaving Italy to perform the lion’s share of rescue, identification, and accommodation operations largely on its own, thus putting at further strain the already over-stretched resources of a debt-stricken country with a fragile economy barely recovering after suffering half a decade of austerity measures.

Yet, not only did the M5S and centre-right coalition channel the rancour harboured by large parts of the Italian population, but they often actively worked towards fuelling it. This is most evident in the hostile, graphic, aggressively racist and xenophobic rhetoric employed during the campaign by the leaders, as well as supporters, of the League and of fellow centre-right coalition member Brothers of Italy, a far-right party with ties to neo-fascist movements. A toxic use of language that Amnesty International’s annual rapport, in February, marked to be deeply pervasive on social media, with damning figures indicating 95% of discriminatory and racist hate speech as coming from right wing accounts, and over 50% from League leader Matteo Salvini.

 

The Increased Risk of Human Rights Violations against Migrants:

Amnesty’s warning that this anti-migrant sentiment if left uncurbed may turn Italy into a country steeped in racism, was unfortunately followed by shocking episodes of racist violence, including the deliberate targeting and wounding of 6 African migrants in a shooting by a neo-Nazi former member of the League and the killing of two Senegalese street traders in Florence.

While the attacks prompted a series of protests and displays of solidarity across the country, condemnation from the centre-right was lukewarm at best and victim-blaming at worst. As a result, many migrants living in the country, as well as minority ethnic Italians and Italy-born children of immigrants, have reported fearing for their safety and their ability to remain in the country. In interviews gathered by mainstream national and international news outlets, they cite as the main reason for these feelings the hostile social climate, the record rise in hate crimes reported since the beginning of Summer 2017, as well as the increased delays of processes attributing citizenship and residence permits, and the deferral of the vote on the ius soli bill set to extend Italian citizenship to non-Italian children born and educated in the country.

In terms of the latter, campaigners now despair that a bill that took years to even be drafted and introduced will be one of the first items to be struck down by a potential M5S – centre-right coalition, thus leaving many children and young adults potentially at risk of deportation and at significant disadvantage with regards to access to services and opportunities.

While this is certainly likely to happen given the opposition to the bill openly declared by both forces, other concerning aspects of the migration policy advocated by the M5S and the League (who now leads the centre-right coalition) may not that easily materialise, regardless of the two parties’ hell-bent alignment on curbing migration.

For instance, the League’s plan to remove 600,000 undocumented immigrants living in the country, while not in contrast with the law (which prohibits clandestine migration), would still prove to be a logistic nightmare and an incredibly expensive endeavour that a flat tax of 15% would by no means be able to subsidise. On the other hand, the plan to close ports and trigger forced returns of ships crossing the Mediterranean is a much more worrying possibility, despite the illegality of similar practices under International Law which maintains the principle of non-refoulment.

However, should a potential coalition government choose to go down this path (as the Berlusconi government did in 2009, violating European Human Rights Law as found by the Strasbourg Court in Hirsi v Italy) they would likely risk incurring into sanctions. So, they may instead choose to continue following the route set by former Democratic minister Minniti of engaging in bilateral agreements, such as the infamous deal reached with Libya, with the states where flows originate from and traffickers operate.

 

A Ray of Hope within the Bleakness of the Picture:

 

Fortunately, the League and M5S, like other populist movements, have a history of ‘sloppy’ politics and scarce competence which may lead to a failure to implement their manifesto pledges and even produce opposite results, as seen in 2003 when the League’s General Secretary and then Minister for Social Policy Roberto Maroni signed the Dublin Agreement (thus accepting that all undocumented migrants arriving on Italian shores would have to petition for asylum in Italy and remain in the country until the end of the process).

Moreover, considering that negotiations for a coalition are still being undertaken, anything could happen – and a government may not be formed at all. Or, Italy may live up to its reputation of the country with 63 governments in 70 years and any newly formed executive may collapse in a matter of months.

So, perhaps, as famously said by writer Ennio Flaiano: “the political situation in Italy is grave, but not serious”.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the hateful xenophobic rhetoric of the campaign has worked to deeply damage the social tissue of the country, legitimising dangerously violent racist attitudes and behaviours that will not disappear quickly nor easily. And thus, for migrants and their rights, the situation in Italy is certainly both grave and serious.