Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

On immigration, Britain’s Tories sound a lot like the Italian far Right

In both countries, popular language conceals seemingly racist ideologies while threat is manufactured for public consumption

Hsiao-Hung Pai
8 October 2021, 12.01am
Italian politicians, Giorgia Meloni, Matteo Salvini, Luciana Lamorgese and Mario Draghi, in a mural in Rome by street artist Harry Greb
Marilla Sicilia/Mondadori Portfolio/Sipa USA/Alamy

British home secretary Priti Patel reportedly wants to send migrants – the displaced people, Afghans included, who desperately attempt to cross the English Channel to seek protection and a new life in Britain – back to France.

Hearing Patel and Tory MPs’ demands for migrants’ forced return to France brought back memories of life under the far-Right-led government during my two years of research in Italy in 2018 and 2019. I was reminded of the frequent claim made by English expats (who, strangely, are not known as ‘immigrants’) when witnessing the end of Mediterranean Sea rescue and the criminalisation of non-government organisation (NGO) ships: “This would never happen in Britain.”

‘Sending migrants back’ was, for a long time, a task delegated and outsourced to the peripheral states of Europe. Now, post-Brexit, the British tabloid press again cries ‘migrant crisis’ and prime minister Boris Johnson pushes to deliver on the pledge of ‘keeping our borders under control’.

The rhetoric of British Conservatives and the Italian Right sound extremely similar. Threat is manufactured for public consumption. Despite reports of a ‘flood’ or ‘invasion’, the number of people who have so far this year reached Britain in small boats is around 13,000, while 40,830 have arrived by sea in Italy as of 2 September, according to the International Organisation for Migration. Both these figures pale in comparison with the millions of refugees hosted by countries such as Lebanon and Turkey.

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Strong politicians

Patel is creating a ‘strong politician’ image for herself at a time when the Tory government is desperate to divert attention away from the disaster of its COVID response and policies, which have caused the death of many people in Britain, and is equally keen to distract the public from the widespread criticism of its social care reforms, cronyism and incompetence.

In a similar vein, the leader of the far-Right Brothers of Italy party, Giorgia Meloni, who has for years called for a “naval blockade” in the Mediterranean Sea, successfully scapegoats migrants for the country’s long-term economic stagnation and failure to cope with COVID.

The Italian far-Right parties’ portrayal of migrants as a health threat wasn’t difficult to pull off, given that under the centrist Democratic Party (PD) coalition government a temporary decree issued in April 2020 declared Italy’s ports “unsafe” for ships carrying migrants rescued at sea, allegedly due to the pandemic. The decree, which lasted until 31 July, saw migrants, including minors, sent to overcrowded, poorly managed quarantine ships. Abou, a 15-year-old boy from Ivory Coast, died on one of these ships off Palermo in October last year. He had tested negative for COVID but was kept on the ship despite reportedly being very ill, malnourished and showing clear signs of torture on his body.

Immigration has never ceased to be a central focus for both the Tories in Britain and the far Right in Italy. Meloni has created for herself the image of a ‘strong woman in politics, and now has one of the highest approval ratings among Italy’s politicians: 44.4% in a recent poll.

Brothers of Italy, founded in 2012 by MPs and peopled by politicians who had been part of the neo-fascist group National Alliance (Aleanza Nazionale, 1995-2009), is the heir of Italy’s neo-fascist movement, which had the Italian Social Movement (MSI, 1946-1995) and the National Alliance as its mainstays. Meloni joined the youth front of MSI back in 1992, when she was 15.

I don’t think Salvini has ever set foot on a Sicilian farm, because no one who has would claim it is a ‘good time’

Despite differences between Italy's various far-Right parties, all are modernising their brands and tend to be ambiguous about their association with fascism, both in terms of history and official rhetoric – in the same way that France’s Marine le Pen keeps a careful distance from her father’s past. In Italy, both Brothers of Italy and the far-Right League party (Lega) use the popular language of ‘sovereignty’ – much like Boris Johnson and former UKIP and Brexit party leader Nigel Farage's ‘take back control’ slogan in the UK – behind which lie seemingly racist ideologies.

Alarmingly but not surprisingly, the latest opinion poll in September puts Brothers of Italy and the League as the two most popular parties in Italy, with 21% and 20% of the vote respectively. Brothers of Italy has said it would join the next general elections set for 2023 in partnership with the League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Go Italy). As Italian commentators have suggested that if Italy voted today, the coalition of these three would obtain a majority in Parliament and Meloni could be the next prime minister.

Meloni’s ‘strong politician’ image was preceded by that of ‘strongman’ Matteo Salvini of the League, who won substantial public backing throughout 2018-19 and is still popular today. On 2 June 2018, the day after Salvini was sworn in on as the country’s then deputy prime minister and interior minister in charge of immigration, Soumaila Sacko, a 29-year-old Malian worker and trade unionist who lived in the migrant encampment of San Ferdinando, in south-west Italy, was shot dead by a white Italian man. On the very same day, Italian Republic Day, Salvini announced that “the good time for illegal immigrants is over”. I remember that the murder and the announcement sent a chilling message to the migrant communities across Italy. This was summer, when migrant workers are depended on for harvesting. A farmworker from Gambia told me: “I don’t think Salvini has ever set foot on a Sicilian farm, because no one in their right mind would claim that toiling in the fields in Italy is a ‘good time’.”

Centrist predecessors

Soon after his announcement, Salvini paid a visit to the encampment in San Ferdinando as part of the PR campaign for his anti-migrant policies. He was escorted by police officers when he toured the camp. Many residents came out of their tents and shacks to see the deputy prime minister in real life. They wanted to see the man who was about to bring more misery to their lives. A Nigerian man in his thirties went up to within a few steps of Salvini, and said, “Tell me, minister, would you yourself live in a place like this?” The reporters turned off their cameras as Salvini refused to answer the question.

After seeing the camp, Salvini told the press, “Housing and work, Italians first.” Commenting on the conditions that he had witnessed, Salvini called for an end to migrant landings. “This tent city is a heavy inheritance and shows that out-of-control immigration leads only to chaos,” he said, in a similar vein to how Le Pen talked about La Linière camp in Dunkirk during her PR visit in 2017 and the way the Tory government continues to impose appalling housing conditions on asylum seekers while Patel punishes migrants for crossing the Channel.

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Salvini’s aggressive policy moves were made on the foundations laid by his centrist predecessors. The number of migrant arrivals in Italy had dropped sharply between July and September 2017 under the previous PD government, as a result of agreements signed between Italy and Libya that February. These agreements resulted in the trapping of tens of thousands of Africans in horrific conditions inside Libyan detention prisons where they were tortured, enslaved or killed. Based on PD interior minister Marco Minniti’s restrictive code of conduct for rescue ships, Salvini went further and adopted a policy of total closure of Italian ports to NGO rescue ships. The NGO Borderline Sicilia described the Salvini policy as being “in a perfect line of continuity” with that of the previous centrist administration.

Since then, after Salvini’s self-inflicted fall from power, under the new PD-coalition government, things were reversed only selectively under its new decree in 2020. That year, 11,265 migrants were intercepted by Libyan authorities and returned to Libya, where they continue to face torture and other abuse, according to Amnesty International. NGO rescue ships deemed to be operating illegally can still be punished with fines of up to €50,000 and up to two years in prison for crew members.

Salvini and his allies’ ultimate aim has always been clear: to reduce migration by creating maximum deterrents – not only closing seaports, banning rescues and criminalising NGO workers, but also targeting those who were already in the country and denying protection to the majority of them.

To achieve this, the Security Decree Law (decreto sicurezza) was introduced in late 2018, abolishing ‘humanitarian protection status’ for migrants, a form of protection for those not eligible for refugee status but who, for various reasons, cannot be sent home. Humanitarian protection status entitles people to a two-year, renewable residence permit and enables them to work. As only a small number of asylum seekers were granted refugee status, removing humanitarian protection effectively removed the main mechanism for granting any status to those claiming asylum.

Salvini’s reform of the reception system made a clear separation between asylum seekers in one group and refugees and unaccompanied minors in another. In the two parallel systems, asylum seekers were allowed only in first-line camps and were excluded from reception centres and from rights to accessing public services.

The PD-coalition’s new decree in autumn 2020, which partially reversed Salvini’s policies, has not managed to improve life for the migrants illegalised by the Salvini decree and already living on the edge of society before the decree. The profit-making reception system remains, as it has throughout successive governments, and continues to act as a reservoir for the country’s cheapest, most exploited agricultural labour.

A new far-Right government run by the Brothers of Italy would go further than Salvini. It wouldn’t stop at appeasing the electorate with the call to “end migrant landings” and leaving tens of thousands of migrants already in the country without legal status. In both Italy and Britain, we need to see civil society opposition to disgraceful anti-migrant measures.

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