sábado, 5 de agosto de 2017

Migration opens the door to Italy’s populists

Migration opens the door to Italy’s populists

Rome feels it has been abandoned by Europe over the migrant crisis just as a local backlash is boosting the opposition

AUGUST 1, 2017 by: James Politi in Salerno

Early on the morning of July 14, the Vos Prudence, a ship run by Médecins Sans Frontières, docked in the southern Italian city of Salerno, carrying 934 people rescued in the Mediterranean Sea near war-torn Libya. As she stepped on to European soil, one Nigerian woman began chanting a prayer, sparking applause in the port. Most of the survivors were quickly dispatched to reception centres across the country, with just 300 remaining in the region.

But even this relatively small group was enough to trigger the ire of Mariano Falcone, a local rightwing politician who has vowed to chain himself to the gates of the port in protest at the next disembarkation of migrants in his city.

“We cannot take on the burden of all these desperate people, Italy has its own problems,” he says sitting in a café along Salerno’s seafront. Mr Falcone has a dark view of migration to Italy. He speaks of “ethnic substitution”, “attempted Islamisation”, and the likelihood of “ferocious social clashes” between poor Italians and the growing immigrant population. He feels his side, the Eurosceptic Northern League led by Matteo Salvini — which has risen to third place in national polls — is winning the argument.

“People are finally understanding that this is a battle for legality, social justice, and freedom for our people,” he says. Advocates for migrants in Salerno believe it is a humanitarian duty to care for the new arrivals and argue that it offers an economic opportunity given the country’s demographic decline, but they concede their case is struggling.

 “The climate is not serene. What is emerging is the phenomenon of fear, of risk,” says Antonio Bonifacio, who heads the local Catholic Archdiocese’s migration office. “Things have become more complicated with these arrivals.”

Italy’s migration crisis, which has seen almost 95,000 people from South Asia, the Middle East and Africa being rescued in the central Mediterranean Sea this year, appears to have reached a political tipping point, after years of mounting pressure. With a general election expected in early 2018, the public backlash risks fuelling populist opposition parties in the eurozone’s third-largest economy, while weakening the pro-EU ruling centre-left Democratic party (PD) and its government led by Paolo Gentiloni, the prime minister.

It has also strained diplomatic relations between Italy and some EU member states — including France under Emmanuel Macron — at a time when the bloc is trying to regroup and press ahead with new forms of integration after the shock of the Brexit vote.

Compared with 2016, the rise in migrants to Italy has actually been small. As of Monday, arrivals by sea were just 1 per cent higher than in the same period last year, according to the Italian interior ministry, meaning the final tally for 2017 will not necessarily exceed last year’s record number of 181,000 migrants. But it is the accumulation of this year’s arriving migrants on top of more than 500,000 over the past three years that is causing strain, logistically and politically, say officials.

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has warned that reception centres are almost at capacity. “Close to 200,000 accommodation places are available for refugees and migrants across the country, but are nearly all full,” it says.

Compounding the problem for Italy is that its neighbours — France, Switzerland and Austria — have successfully tightened their border controls to prevent migrants from crossing the Alps, with police monitoring train, road and even foot traffic and promptly sending people back to Italy. It means Italy has shifted from being primarily a country of transit for many migrants wanting to travel north, to a country of settlement, worsening its predicament.

Nando Pagnoncelli, a pollster at Ipsos, says that in 2014, just 3 per cent of Italians cited immigration as a major concern. That has risen to 35 per cent this year. “The attention is rising sharply and it’s a very sensitive theme,” he says. “ The attitude is of closure [vis-à-vis the migrants] and the main reasons are worries about security, access to work, and access to public services.”

After more than 12,000 migrants were rescued and brought to Italian ports in a huge search-and-rescue operation in early June, the political environment became overheated. Mr Gentiloni and Matteo Renzi, the PD leader, delayed a parliamentary vote on a contentious citizenship law for the Italian-born children of immigrants after centrist members of the coalition balked, threatening the survival of the government. Mr Renzi called for a limit on new arrivals.

Officials are scrambling to manage the practical side of caring for and housing for those who have already arrived, arguing with regional governors who refuse to take their share of migrants. Internationally, much of the country’s diplomatic energy is being devoted to searching for short and long-term remedies to the flows.

One precondition is peace and stability in Libya. Last week Mr Gentiloni hosted Fayez al-Sarraj, prime minister in the UN-recognised Libyan government, to discuss a controversial plan to have the Italian navy operate in Libyan waters to help intercept migrant ships. But there are no guarantees this will succeed in practice, and if it does, it could raise concerns about the proper treatment of the migrants under international law since they would be returned to a place where they often suffer beatings, torture, rape and forced labour.

In recent years, Italy has dramatically increased its diplomatic focus on countries in Africa that are the main source and transit countries for migrants, including Nigeria, Senegal, Niger and Mali. The hope is to trade economic incentives for co-operation in stopping migrants from leaving and accepting their deportation back home.

“We have to intervene all together with great determination in Africa, without committing the errors of the past, otherwise in four to six years we will have millions of people moving towards Europe,” Antonio Tajani, the Rome-born president of the European Parliament, told Italian TV this week.

While Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has spoken of a “Marshall plan” for Africa, there are doubts about whether this can be mounted successfully. The EU has pledged €2.6bn in aid for African countries, but its request for matching funds from member states has largely been ignored: just €200m has been raised. The contrast with the alacrity with which the EU funded a €6bn deal with Turkey to stop migration flows along the so-called Balkan route in 2015 jars with many in Rome.

The EU has offered nearly €900m to help Italy manage the crisis, but this does not come close to covering the annual cost to Rome, estimated by the finance ministry to have been €3.6bn in 2016 and expected to top €4bn this year.

Meanwhile, EU countries are not fully implementing their pledges under an EU scheme to relocate refugees from Italy and Greece, and are ignoring Brussels’ call for an overhaul of asylum rules to take the pressure off front-line states. Other solutions, such as offering large-scale schemes for legal migration from Africa as an alternative to the illegal flows, have been proposed by the UN, but are unlikely to be taken up.

Italian officials, and the public, feel abandoned by their fellow Europeans on migration, adding to tension over economic policy that has dominated relations between Rome and Brussels since the financial crisis. “Europe seems deaf, deaf, to Italy’s requests on migration,” says Laura Boldrini, the speaker of the lower house of parliament and a former official at the UNHCR. “Many countries are not willing to co-operate in finding a solution, they are not taking on their responsibilities.”

The disappointment is mostly with EU member states, rather than the European Commission, which has, under the presidency of Jean-Claude Juncker, moved to address some of Italy’s demands for assistance, beginning in the spring 2015. “Migration has been the number-one priority,” says Natasha Bertaud, a spokeswoman for the commission. “We have done more on this issue in the past two years than was achieved in the past 20.”

Italian officials are now ramping up the rhetoric on migration in an attempt to pressure European countries to show more solidarity. For instance, they threatened to shut ports to foreign vessels carrying rescued migrants unless they took some home directly, but this tough talk is often dismissed or ignored.

Nathalie Tocci, director of the Rome-based Institute for International Affairs, says Italy has legitimate gripes with its European partners but the criticism often backfires. “Italy is completely incapable of putting itself in other people’s shoes. No one asks: ‘What are we ready to give?’ or “Why would the others accept this?’. This is how negotiating works,” Ms Tocci says.

The Italian despair often ignores the country’s shortcomings in handling the crisis. The pace of relocations from Italy is so slow partly because its own authorities are not processing enough Eritreans, who would be eligible for the asylum programme, swiftly enough. Asylum procedures are cumbersome, leading many migrants to stay in Italian cities, without an answer on their final legal status, for months. Among those ultimately denied the right to stay, deportation is rare: there were only 5,789 forced returns from Italy in 2016 and little more than 3,367 so far this year, says the European Commission.

It is not entirely clear how the politics will shake out. Recent polls have the PD neck-and-neck with the Eurosceptic, anti-establishment Five Star Movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo, with each supported by about 27 per cent of Italians. Both are suffering, however, while Mr Salvini’s Northern League appears to be gaining. In some national polls, it is recording 15 per cent support.

Along Salerno’s seafront, where 5,000 migrants have docked this year and residents are coping with the post-crisis legacy of 17.5 per cent unemployment, there is restlessness. Many do not accept that in an advanced economy already losing 150,000 residents annually to emigration, and whose population of 60m is expected to shrink by 7m people by 2065, it should be manageable to absorb newcomers.

 “I am not nasty, but there are too many of them, troppi immigrati,” says Giorgio Molino, a 69-year-old retired public sector worker. Miriam Gaudino, a 26-year-old student and Five Star voter, blames the EU. “This should be everyone’s responsibility. Italy is in crisis. Europe should help but they are not.”

Babacar, an 18-year-old migrant from Senegal who arrived by sea in January and sells sunglasses in Salerno, has noted a shift in the public mood. “I hear more Italians want to stop migration.”

For Mr Bonifacio, that would be tragic. “If people meet them, they will discover the beauty of their culture, and the importance of what they lived through to get here.” He adds that if integration fails, there could be trouble. “All these kids have expectations and dreams: if we don’t respond humanely and with dignity, they will be angry.”

Rescue operations: under-fire NGOs accused of driving migration
As the migration crisis escalated this year, Italian authorities raised their scrutiny of charitable organisations operating search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea.
Non-governmental organisations such as Save the Children, MSF, and SOS Méditerranée have their own boats that they send close to the Libyan coast to help save migrants as their rubber dinghies or ramshackle wooden vessels get into trouble. They insist they are simply fulfilling a humanitarian duty to save lives. More than 2,200 people have died on the sea journey this year alone according to the International Organisation for Migration.
Rome has become concerned that NGOs are acting as a “pull factor” in driving migration, since smugglers could nearly always count on a rescue shortly after departing north Africa.
The political pressure mounted after a prosecutor in Sicily began to investigate alleged collusion between the NGO boats and the human traffickers, though no charges were brought. Still, the Italian interior ministry drafted a “code of conduct” for the NGOs operating rescue boats who want to dock in Italian ports, which has split the charity groups.
This week, Save the Children and two other groups signed up to it, while MSF refused, arguing that some of the provisions in the code of conduct did not fit “fundamental humanitarian principles of independence, neutrality and impartiality”.

It also took issue with a ban on transferring migrants to other larger ships, which would imply that NGO ships would have to carry survivors directly to Italian ports. MSF warned that this would lead to more “mass drownings” as fewer rescue boats could be in the search-and-rescue area. Save the Children accepted the terms to help foster a “climate of trust and transparency” around its missions.

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