What will Italy’s new government mean for migrants?

An anti-establishment, far-right government in Italy heralds even more controversy over how to deal with the flow of migrants as it raises the spectre of mass expulsions.

What will Italy's new government mean for migrants?
A woman aboard a rescue boat arrives in Messina, Sicily. Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP

With a coalition of the anti-system Five Star Movement (M5S) and the nationalist League party in power, the prospects for migrants reaching Italy after a hazardous sea crossing from Libya look even dimmer.

The previous centre-left government already all but closed the maritime border following controversial accords signed with the Libyan government as well as local authorities, including armed groups, in an effort to curb the migrant influx.

Nearly 700,000 people have landed on Italian shores since 2013.

Since the start of this year, Italy's interior ministry has tallied 7,100 arrivals via Libya and 3,500 more via Tunisia, Algeria or Greece. According to the UN migration agency IOM, the Libyans have themselves intercepted 6,500 people seeking to reach the southernmost tip of Europe.

Now the new, populist government has signalled it will push EU partners to shore up the bloc's external frontiers and accept an automatic and more equitable shareout of migrants across the continent. It also wants to speed up asylum procedures and repatriate those rejected and those from countries deemed “safe”.

To help fund the process the government would reallocate some of the budget – in 2017, €4.2 billion used in rescues, providing sanitary assistance and running reception centres.

READ ALSO: Here are the key proposals from the M5S-League government programme

M5S leader Luigi Di Maio and League leader Matteo Salvini. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

Arrivals down 'but not suffering'

Arrivals of migrants to Italy slowed by some 80 percent from July 2016 to July 2017 after Marco Minniti, a veteran secret services coordinator who became interior minister in December 2016, reached an accord with Tripoli to keep migrants in detention centres on Libyan soil.

Human rights groups and the United Nations have blasted most of the centres for their “inhuman” conditions.

The arrivals have fallen also due to a key change in procedure. Whereas previously the Italian coast guard coordinated rescue operations from Rome, operational authority now largely resides with Tripoli.

For the migrants, the difference is critical. Coordination by Rome means they are taken to Italy whereas Tripoli taking charge means they again are left at the mercy of a system stalked by violence and extortion as well as poor conditions.

“The arrivals have gone down but not the suffering,” says Carlotta Sami, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.


Migrants concur. “I was not afraid of the water, because God created the water. I'm not afraid of death. We all die one day. I'm more afraid if the Libyan police were to catch me again, because they are so wicked,” said Vitoria, a 21-year-old Nigerian who arrived in Sicily earlier this month after spending months, she told AFP, in terrible conditions in Libya.

She was taken aboard The Aquarius, a ship chartered by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders (MSF), after she was first picked up by a smaller boat run by a Spanish NGO following a call from the Italian coastguard.

The crew on the first boat had been told Libya was coordinating the rescue, but the North African country's coastguard did not appear. After a three-day delay, Italy eventually accepted their transfer.

Non-governmental organizations are hamstrung by Tripoli telling vessels to keep their distance – even in cases where the Libyans cannot intervene themselves owing to distance or lack of resources.

“This puts us in impossible situations,” says Ruben Neugebauer, spokesman for German NGO Sea-Watch. “If we obey, we are violating the obligation to rescue. If we do not obey, we risk not being able to bring the migrants to Italy or see our vessel seized by Italian authorities.”

'More dangerous than ever'

Recent weeks have also seen the Italians force NGO vessels from rescue zones for days at a time, a tactic which SOS Mediterranee director Frederic Penard says means that “the priority is no longer rescue effectiveness”.

“Crossings are today more dangerous than ever,” says IOM Mediterranean region director Federico Soda. His organization has registered 383 dead or disappeared off Libya so far this year – 2.8 percent of known departures, up from 2.2 percent in previous years.

Italy's new government hopes to pull from its sleeve another card, one which Minniti has already tried – in vain – to play. It would see Italy simply refuse to take in migrants picked up by European, military or humanitarian rescue vessels.

The populist MS5 and the hard right League hope to send home as quickly as possible the bulk of new arrivals by speeding asylum procedures and systematically kicking out those whose claims are rejected, as well as an estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants.

But at the current rate – just 6,514 official expulsions in 2017 amid opposition from countries of origin to take back their nationals – the process could take more than 75 years, Italian media say.

READ ALSO: Immigration in Italy: Fact-checking 5 common myths and assumptions

Photo: Piero Cruciatti/AFP

By Fanny Carrier


Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Italy’s government was plunged into turmoil on Tuesday as foreign minister Luigi Di Maio announced he was leaving his party to start a breakaway group.

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Di Maio said his decision to leave the Five Star Movement (M5S) – the party he once led – was due to its “ambiguity” over Italy’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

He accused the party’s current leader, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, of undermining the coalition government’s efforts to support Ukraine and weakening Italy’s position within the EU.

“Today’s is a difficult decision I never imagined I would have to take … but today I and lots of other colleagues and friends are leaving the Five Star Movement,” Di Maio told a press conference on Tuesday.

“We are leaving what tomorrow will no longer be the first political force in parliament.”

His announcement came after months of tensions within the party, which has lost most of the popular support that propelled it to power in 2018 and risks being wiped out in national elections due next year.

The split threatens to bring instability to Draghi’s multi-party government, formed in February 2021 after a political crisis toppled the previous coalition.

As many as 60 former Five Star lawmakers have already signed up to Di Maio’s new group, “Together for the Future”, media reports said.

Di Maio played a key role in the rise of the once anti-establishment M5S, but as Italy’s chief diplomat he has embraced Draghi’s more pro-European views.

READ ALSO: How the rebel Five Star Movement joined Italy’s establishment

Despite Italy’s long-standing political and economic ties with Russia, Draghi’s government has taken a strongly pro-NATO stance, sending weapons and cash to help Ukraine while supporting EU sanctions against Russia.

Di Maio backed the premier’s strong support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, including sending weapons for Kyiv to defend itself.

In this he has clashed with the head of Five Star, former premier Giuseppe Conte, who argues that Italy should focus on a diplomatic solution.

Di Maio attacked his former party without naming Conte, saying: “In these months, the main political force in parliament had the duty to support the diplomacy of the government and avoid ambiguity. But this was not the case,” he said.

Luigi Di Maio (R) applauds after Prime Minister Mario Draghi (L) addresses the Italian Senate on June 21st, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

“In this historic moment, support of European and Atlanticist values cannot be a mistake,” he added.

The Five Star Movement, he said, had risked the stability of the government “just to try to regain a few percentage points, without even succeeding”.

But a majority of lawmakers – including from the Five Star Movement – backed Draghi’s approach in March and again in a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Draghi earlier on Tuesday made clear his course was set.

“Italy will continue to work with the European Union and with our G7 partners to support Ukraine, to seek peace, to overcome this crisis,” he told the Senate, with Di Maio at his side.

“This is the mandate the government has received from parliament, from you. This is the guide for our action.”

The Five Star Movement stormed to power in 2018 general elections after winning a third of the vote on an anti-establishment ticket, and stayed in office even after Draghi was parachuted in to lead Italy in February 2021.

But while it once threatened to upend the political order in Italy, defections, policy U-turns and dismal polling have left it struggling for relevance.

“Today ends the story of the Five Star Movement,” tweeted former premier Matteo Renzi, who brought down the last Conte government by withdrawing his support.