Italian island hits back at British anti-migrant headlines

Lurid headlines on global websites claim Sardinia has been 'taken hostage' by protesting migrants. But locals have poured scorn on the reports. We have definitely not been taken hostage, a local politician and journalist told The Local.

Italian island hits back at British anti-migrant headlines
The migrants staged a 'sit down' protest in Cagliari. Photo: Unione Sarda

On Monday, a group of migrants marched through Cagliari, before sitting down on one of the Sardinian capital's main streets, blocking traffic in a protest which local newspapers say lasted seven hours.

Their gripe? They don’t want to stay in Sardinia.

Amid all the wrangling over the tightening of borders to stem the flow of refugees towards northern Europe, the story was initially confined to the local press.

But the British version of Breitbart, an American right-wing website which has campaigned against immigration to Europe, soon picked up on the story, screaming in its headline that the ‘Italian vacation island' had been 'taken hostage by illegal immigrants’.

The Daily Mail ran the story too, a few hours later, citing the Breitbart version. The British newspaper instead went with 'Somali refugees bring Sardinian port of Cagliari to a standstill as they demand to be allowed to leave' as its headline.

The Breitbart story described how the migrants from Somalia and Eritrea “paralyzed” traffic.

Both articles, published on Tuesday, painted a picture of a Sardinia in which immigrants are running riot. 

The arresting headlines were backed up by comments from right-wing politicians in the local press.

“Cagliari is hostage to illegal immigrants,” Daniele Caruso, a local politician and coordinator for Noi con Salvini, a sister party founded by Matteo Salvini for the regions of Italy where his Northern League is not active, said.

He added that “the immigrants, or so-called refugees” were a threat to public security.

His party leader Salvini put it more bluntly: “I am sick and tired of these immigrants,” he said. “If they want to leave, let’s weigh them and ship them back home.”

But in fact, the island is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world – and not that many refugees. So before Sardinian authorities take Salvini seriously, let’s try and get an idea of what happened on Monday.

According to Enrico Lobina, a local councillor who is vying to become mayor of Cagliari for the left-wing Syndicalists, the migrants were protesting peacefully.

“There was certainly no violence on their part,” he told The Local.

“And to describe it as them taking the island ‘hostage’ is wrong – actually, there are very few refugees in Sardinia.”

Indeed, while Italy as a whole has taken in plenty of refugees and migrants, Sardinia's isolated position means it has not. 

In 2015, an estimated 153,000 boat migrants arrived in Italy, of which 53 percent sought asylum.

However, hardly any of those who remained are in Sardinia. As Sicily, the principle landing point for refugees in Italy, struggled to cope last year, some 4,000 were brought to Sardinia.

The protesters were among the 700 migrants who arrived at the port of Cagliari a few weeks ago – the first group to arrive in the island of 1.7 million people so far this year.

“We definitely haven’t been inundated,” Lobina said.

It is true, however, that the protest inconvenienced drivers in Cagliari.

The group, including women and children, starting walking from Pirri, where they have been staying in a hotel for the past two weeks, at about midday, before settling on via Roma.

According to local press reports, the group was made up of about 70 people, all asking to be able to leave Sardinia, so that they can make their way to other parts of Europe in order to seek asylum.

While the protest frustrated drivers, the situation only became fraught when baton-wielding police arrived, Lobina said.

Photo: Unione Sarda

“It’s incredible that the method used to respond to people who’ve known years of violence was to hit them with batons,” he added.

“There was certainly no threat to public order.”

Matteo Vercelli, a journalist with Unione Sarda, was at the scene.

“Yes, the protest did cause issues for Cagliari – it blocked traffic on a very busy street,” he told The Local.

“But to use the term ‘hostage’ for what was basically blocked traffic, is exaggerated.

“Immigrants are most definitely not taking Sardinia hostage,” he added.

“The response from Caruso, who tends to repeat what he hears from Salvini, came in a press release.”

Some of the protesters were rounded-up and taken to the police station, but by 7pm the fracas was over, with the remaining ones put on a bus and escorted back to their hotel.

It’s not the first time migrants in Italy have protested – whether it be over their refusal to be formally identified, their dislike of Italian food, or lack of Wifi.

Just a few weeks ago, some of the recent arrivals in Cagliari protested because they didn’t want to be fingerprinted. Similar scenes have played out on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa.

Again, the story didn’t reach beyond local news outlets.

But alongside that ran another story about how locals had rallied to offer clothes and food to the new arrivals, an echo of how people in one of the island's poorest regions responded when a group of refugees arrived last year. 

“The problem with Sardinia isn't a huge number of refugees,” Vercelli added.

“The problem is they're on an island, which is difficult to leave unless you fly or take the ferry – for which you need a ticket, and documents. The migrants want to get to northern Europe, but have no way to escape.”