'Italy should lead on saving refugees' lives'

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Pope Francis in Lampedusa today. Photo: AFP/Andreas Solaro. Inset, Sebastiano Sali.
15:13 CEST+02:00
As the Pope called for an end to global indifference to the plight of refugees on Lampedusa, Sebastiano Sali, a research fellow at the Department of War Studies, explains how Italy and the EU could mitigate the situation.

Italy’s problems with immigration are nothing new. Several migration waves have swept over different parts of the country. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, central Italy's Adriatic coast was the base for arrivals from an imploding Albania. Later, during the war that hit the former Yugoslavia, a myriad of persecuted Kosovaars, Macedonians and Muslim Serbs looked for shelter in Italy.

Then we have the usual 'summer' waves from Africa: the waters separating southern Italy's coast, in particular the island of Lampedusa, from the Maghreb are particularly calm and therefore more favourable for the long and dangerous crossing to the ‘promise land’. This is the time of year when most of the disasters happen and, sadly, people in search of a better future instead find a present even worse than their past.

In this respect, Italy could certainly do more, and some of the work could be done alone.

The long-standing flirtation Italy had in the past with some of the region's most powerful men, especially with Libya's former leader, Mohammar Qaddafi, cannot be overlooked.  Italy had a special relationship with Libya based on Qaddafi's leverage/threat on migration towards Italy, a policy which, in terms of ethics and human rights, should be seen as no longer acceptable. So Italy should take the lead now and engage the European Union on more careful controls of southern Mediterranean waters, with one major aim in mind: saving lives. 

On the other hand, Italy (and not France, which instead unilaterally suspended the Schengen agreement to preserve itself from further northern-African migrants), should also involve regional and supra-regional organizations like the Mediterranean Union, the Arab League and interested UN branches (for example, UNHCR). This would help adopt a harder stance towards those countries that use migration as political leverage to obtain a pass on their poor performances in terms of human rights, fundamental liberties, education and so on.

A complementary, although different matter, is what Italy must do on its own turf.

The Italian government should have a clear dialogue with its people, and explain how a country that is economically depressed, in constant recession, with one of the oldest populations and lowest fertility rates of Europe, could reap benefits from young immigrants to avoid complete collapse.

It seems Italian governments have been quiescent with the fact that the country is just a hub for migrants: they know most of the migrants are just in transition as to reach France, Germany and the UK, they must go through Italy. The government, therefore, hasn't bothered to elaborate its integration policy, which could have a real impact on Italy's social and economic situation. In a nutshell: we make sure the migrants do not die on our territory and then we set them free, because we know they are not going to stay. The outcome is revolt by seasonal workers, mostly from Africa, who pick tomatoes for €6/7 a day, working shifts of up to 12 hours. Such was the case in Calabria in 2010 and Puglia in 2011, when the army had to intervene. The revolts were a clear indication that Italy has no long-term integration policy and that the majority if migrants who do not manage to reach other European destinations only have temporary work to rely on.

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In short, Italy rightfully needs the aide of the EU, which must take a more incisive position on migrants' rights and security conditions, not only within its borders but also with the migrants' countries of origin. Italy must also take the lead with this initiative. But this will not happen until, internally, Italy decides what to do with its own immigrants and what kind of society the government wants for the future. Italy is already in economic mayhem and society at large is on the verge, but is still struggling to avoid the worst.

As another hot summer looms, it will be too difficult a challenge to keep all the pieces together. 

Sebastiano Sali is a research fellow at the Department of War Studies, part of King's College in London. He holds an MSc with merit in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and an MA with distinction in Political Science from La Sapienza-Rome university. He regularly contributes to several online magazines and newspapers, both in Italian and English, covering Turkish foreign policy, Middle Eastern security, Italian politics and football.

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