Immigrants: the perfect scapegoats

By: Jose Nito Salvador

Last Sunday sixth of January, residents of Rome went out to the streets to protest against anti-immigration policies of current far-right government, which refused to accept boats with African refugees. Malta has accepted the ships, however the migration debate remains to be divisive.

It’s a cold morning in Rome. The sunrays start warming up the streets of the eternal city. It’s the Epiphany day, Sunday sixth of January 2019. While many gather in Saint Peter’s Basilica to listen to the Pope’s mass, another crowd starts to form in Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore. They are dressed with warm coats and jackets, but some are also wearing hoodies with the inscription “Let live”. A rainbow flag with the word “peace” can also be seen within the crowd. “What we’re trying to do this cold morning in Rome, is an attempt to protest against a very unacceptable politics of our country”, says participant Giampiero Obiso.

The stricter immigration policies of Italy and Malta have been causing serious trouble a thousand kilometers to the South, on the Mediterranean. Two boats with 49 migrants coming from Libya, have been adrift in the waters near Malta since late December. 32 of them were rescued by German NGO vessel “Sea Watch 3” on December 22. The other 17 were helped by another German civil association “Sea Eye” a week later. But the ships were not allowed to dock in the ports, and the reason was not unfavorable weather conditions.

Back in Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, the congregation of people protest against Italy’s involvement in the migration controversy. According to the protestors, the person behind the tough anti-immigration stance is Matteo Salvini, the new Interior Minister and also leader of far-right party Lega Nord. “Matteo Salvini is totally ignoring human rights. He is just using migrants to gain political consensus”, says Giampiero Obiso. He is part of the pan-European political movement DiEM25. He is also a volunteer in Baobab, an organization that helps refugees and migrants in Rome which was dismantled by Italian authorities last November.

Protesters in Rome who support the 49 migrants who are stuck on boats near Malta.

The reasons behind the Interior Minister decisions are political. “It is a very smart political move. His government can’t solve the problems of the country. So the easiest way to get approval is to find some kind of scapegoat. Europe and migrants are good targets,” he continues. Since Salvini took office last June, Italian coast guards have been ordered not to allow NGO ships carrying migrants to dock in the ports.

Salvini’s rise to power has similarities with the growth of other right-wing political parties in Europe. Like other populist movements, Lega Nord shares the same anti-immigration ideas. “This is the effect of what we have seen in the last years. People have no hope for the future. They are scared of losing their jobs and their wealth,” says Obiso.

The current administration stance has also ignited a wave of racist incidents. “The presence of racists and right-wing people in the government has allowed an increase of racism in Italy,” says Riccardo Carraro, another demonstrator. However, he adds that “there are also people that cannot accept this”. One of them is Simona Tedde, a doctor who works in a hospital in Rome. “They should be able to come to Italy for a safer future. People are scared of immigrants, but I don’t know why,” she says.

Another factor is Europe’s involvement in the matter. “Italy has done a lot for the refugees. It is Europe that has abandoned Italy, and left it to its own resources’, says Jawed Khan, a retired IT worker who takes part in the protest. ‘In spite of European laws saying that each country should take its share. Italy certainly has its problem, as it is the first port of call,”. Since 2014, Italy has received approximately 650,000 migrants coming from the Mediterranean. “The problem is not the number of immigrants, it’s the way that Europe is not handling the situation,” he adds.

On 9 January, after 19 days at sea, the migrants in the boats were allowed to dock by the Maltese authorities. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat reached an agreement with other EU members. A total of 298 migrants (249 were already in Malta) will be going to Germany, France, Portugal, Ireland, Romania, Luxemburg, The Netherlands and Italy.

But Italian minister Salvini responded on Twitter saying: “I am and will remain absolutely against new arrivals on Italy. To give in to pressure and threats from Europe and NGOs is a sign of weakness that Italians don’t deserve”. The percentage of immigrants returned by the Italian coastguard back to Libya went from 10% in 2017 to 50% in 2018 according to the New York Times. With Salvini’s government on charge, it seems this number will go higher.