Can Europe Make It?

An ill wind: weathering the impact of far-right government in Italy

Sarah Walker
Sarah Walker
26 June 2019, 8.00am
Italian Minister of Internal Affairs, Salvini, on a tv show, January 2019.
Insidefoto/PA. All rights reserved.

While in Italy for my PhD fieldwork examining the interaction between separated children and the Italian migration regime as they transition to adulthood, the far-right coalition government was elected. Wide-ranging changes were made to immigration law via the so-called Decreto-Salvini, named after the Interior Minister who drafted it.

An Italian friend once commented that in Italy discussing the negative impact that migrants have on society has become so commonplace as to ‘be like discussing the weather’. Other friends have recounted stories of overhearing conversations in the post office queue, the doctor’s surgery, where the sheer wait, the difficulties were all blamed on ‘the immigrants’. Etienne Balibar refers to this as an “immigration complex”, which induces “a transformation of every social ‘problem’ into a problem which is regarded as being posed by the fact of the presence of ‘immigrants’ or, at least, as being aggravated by their presence”—regardless of the problem in question.

The number of racially motivated attacks in Italy has surged since the far-right Lega election campaign. Salvini utilises social media effectively as a campaign tool, adopting the hashtag #closedports [portichiusi] referring to his ruling that Italy’s ports would not allow migrant boats to dock, as a result of which, many migrants have been held at sea for days (a horrific situation still continuing today). The division in deserving between those who belong and those who do not is made clear as Salvini states: “We will use the money that we save to help Italians or whoever else is in need”, thereby enhancing the border between ‘them’ and ‘us’ and reinforcing the ‘immigration complex’.

Salvini has been most effective at employing the power of spectacle. In reality, the previous Centre-Left government under Marco Minniti, the then interior minister, already dramatically reduced arrivals to Italy via Libya. An agreement signed by Minniti with the Libyan authorities in May 2017 to intercept migrant boats led to a fall of around 80% in migrants arriving via this route. Yet with his ‘hard man’ posturing and social media campaigns construed within the ongoing narrative of ‘crisis’, it is Salvini who is portrayed as cutting irregular migration to Italy.

Shifting the borders

I am struck by a physical manifestation of the effects of the ill wind shortly after my return to Blu in October 2018, after the Decreto-Salvini has been passed, when I unexpectedly bump into Amadou, an eighteen-year old Gambian who was granted Humanitarian Protection. A status now abolished by the Decreto-Salvini. He looked grey, thin and drawn, and had lost weight. When I told him this, he replied that he was having trouble eating. He was anxious and upset about the political situation and the negative impact on him and his fellow brothers. He was too stressed and upset to eat. Plus, he said, the anxiety he felt about Salvini and the right-wing government was making Italy a place he no longer wished to be, “it is racist, it is against us”, he says. I ask whether he feels like this because of perceived or actual experience of racism in Blu. Both is his dejected reply.

Whilst there is little research in this area, a recent study led by anthropologist Leo Chavez and psychologist Belinda Campos found that negative political rhetoric during the 2016 election campaign adversely affected the mental health and physical well-being of its targets – Mexican Americans in this case. As they conclude: “[t]his doesn’t seem unreasonable. After all, their new president came to power by denigrating and stigmatizing people like them”. Just like Salvini. This is border-work together with fear-mongering security politics to separate out those who belong from those who do not.

A focus on the Lega provides a clear example of how the borders of inclusion shift and change. Salvini’s Lega was originally the ‘Lega Nord’ (Northern League) an anti-Southern Italian political party focused on separating the (richer) North off from the (poorer) South. Yet now Salvini has dropped the ‘northern’ moniker and garnered support from Southern Italians, construing the Italians as a cohesive national identity, despite the fact that he himself previously referred to Southern Italians as ‘parasites’. Salvini has shifted the boundaries of the ‘us’ of the Lega to the ‘us’ of Italians (Italians first!), effectively turning a movement of regional separatism into a nationalist party. Now, the whiteness and Europeanness of ‘Italians’ is ahistorically counteracted against the blackness and unbelonging of the migrants arriving via sea.

The negative changes and embodied anxiety and distress I saw in the young men, such as Amadou, in Giallo shortly after the election was very evident. The new law and accompanying rhetoric portray these young men as a threat. Producing an ontological insecurity, at least momentarily, detrimental to their well-being. The changes involve a reduction in support available to separated children after they turn eighteen and are legally considered adults; signifying a return for the Italian migration regime to rigid age binaries, undone by the previous Zampa Law which provided for additional post-eighteen support. The new law enhances the vulnerabilities and insecurity of young migrants as they transition to adulthood, as human rights organisations have argued. This is clear evidence of the racism and moralistic constructs of deservingness at the heart of Italy’s, and the European, migration regime, which tellingly reveals the contention of my research, that age is a rigid border, that is then worsened by race.


Balibar, E., 1991. Racism and Crisis, in: Wallerstein, I.M., Balibar, E. (Eds.), Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. Verso, pp. 217–227.

Chavez, L.R., Campos, B., Corona, K., Sanchez, D., Ruiz, C.B., 2019. Words hurt: Political rhetoric, emotions/affect, and psychological well-being among Mexican-origin youth. Soc. Sci. Med. 228, 240–251.

Cusumano, E., Gombeer, K., 2018. In deep waters: The legal, humanitarian and political implications of closing Italian ports to migrant rescuers. Mediterr. Polit. 0, 1–9.

Lentin, A., Titley, G., 2011. The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age, 1 edition. ed. Zed Books, London ; New York.

Sharpe, C., 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press

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