Refugees arrive in Palermo, Italy, after their boat capsizes in the Mediterranean. Demotix/Antonio Melita. Some rights reserved.
The current debate on immigration in Europe seems to be marred by confusion and populist bias, which have forcefully come to the fore once again during the latest elections to the European parliament. This is especially true of Italy, whose long coastline has witnessed an increased number of arrivals in the first half of 2014.
A first inaccuracy in the debate can be found in the terminology. Migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are often referred to as illegal. However, a human being cannot be illegal: he/she may be undocumented or irregular. The Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants recently released a leaflet on the reasons why the term illegal is – inter alia – legally incorrect, misleading, dehumanizing, criminalizing and discriminatory. Instead, International law and the Italian Constitution guarantee protection to people fleeing their countries for a well-founded fear of persecution, as well as the right to receive the same treatment accorded to aliens, including access to employment, social security, education and the court system.
Specifically for refugees, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) clearly spells out the criteria for the determination of the status of refugee. Namely, a ‘person is a refugee within the meaning of the 1951 Convention as soon as he fulfills the criteria contained in the definition. This would necessarily occur prior to the time at which his refugee status is formally determined. Recognition of his refugee status does not therefore make him a refugee but declares him to be one. He does not become a refugee because of recognition, but is recognized because he is a refugee.’ Following this line of argument, criminalizing refugees by calling them illegal is not in compliance with international norms.
A second inaccuracy appears in the terms of the debate itself, which are severely skewed by the resurgence of right wing populism following the onset of the worst economic crisis since the 1929 Great Depression. In the case of Italy, the discussion suffers also from the fact that immigration is a very new phenomenon which started in earnest in the 1990s, when the country joined the European Union and the post-Cold War era witnessed the collapse of communist regimes in eastern and south-eastern Europe. As a result, populist positions have become commonplace, albeit inaccurate and, at times, incendiary.
The recently elected Secretary of the populist right-wing Northern League party, Matteo Salvini, never tires to express his staunch opposition to the Mare Nostrum (‘Our Sea’) operation set up by the Italian Navy in October 2013, when two ships replete with immigrants sank, killing hundreds. Both the Italian Government and the NGO community agree that Mare Nostrum has been critical in saving up to 20,000 lives over the last few months, adding that it should become part of a European concerted effort. At Year One, a program of political analysis hosted on La Sette TV station in Italy, Mr Salvini instead declared Mare Nostrum to be ‘an insane operation’ which sees Italy ‘as the only country spending tax-payers’ money to go and pick up immigrants in their countries of birth’, adding that it ‘increases departures and, if departures increase, so does the risk of death, which is why this operation is a folly.’ Mr Salvini seems to confuse cause and effect, in a peculiar inversion of consequentiality.
Such claims disregard the real causes behind immigration. According to official statistics produced in a 2014 report by the European border management agency, Frontex, the vast majority of recent arrivals to the Italian shores are from Syria, Somalia and Eritrea, namely war torn countries. This not only indicates that survival is the main factor motivating people to flee, but also that failure to provide due assistance and protection would be a clear violation of international law.
This does not deny the fact that a desire for a better future remains one of the main engines of migration. Nonetheless, even on this point, the debate in Europe in general and Italy in particular has been characterized by populist arguments that hold special appeal for voters at times of austerity, as demonstrated in the handsome gains right-wing parties garnered in the latest European elections.
In Italy, the Northern League stirs anti-immigrant sentiments by constantly underlining the 9.3 million euros per month Mare Nostrum costs to the state coffers. However, even if one adds all expenses associated with managing the immigration phenomenon, these figures pale in comparison to the country’s yearly tax evasion, estimated at a staggering 285 billion euros in 2012, or 18% of total GDP. Similarly, claims to the tune that ‘a billion people escaping Africa’ are descending on Italy and Europe – as hyperbolic as they may sound (the total population of Africa is estimated at 1.069 billion for 2014) – score cheap political points in a country plagued by double digit unemployment, which has surpassed 40% among the young.
Likewise, statements linking immigration to the collapse of the Italian welfare state are disingenuous. Decades of tax evasion and, more recently, cuts imposed by austerity have taken a huge toll on the system, one example being the health sector that underwent cuts for 25 billion euros in the last five years alone. This prompted the Council of Europe to reprimand the Italian authorities for failing to provide adequate universal health assistance in a 2014 report.
And here lies the contradiction at the heart of the political economic of austerity: on the one hand, economic orthodoxy requires states to impose cuts to balance accounts; on the other hand, such cuts undermine the ability of the state to provide basic services to its citizens, as well as to fulfill its international human rights obligations towards those in need of assistance. The result is a perfect breeding ground for populism to rear its ugly head.
Finally, slogans such as ‘help them help themselves’ – or, in Mr Salvini’s words, ‘instead of wasting money here, let’s spend it there, in [the immigrants’] own countries’ – obfuscate how the current economic system can be a primary cause of immigration. Italy, the third largest producer of tomato-based products in the world, is a case in point. As featured in a recent story, such pride of place has come at the expense of the Ghanaian market, which cannot compete with heavily subsidized tomato exports, particularly from Italy. Paradoxically, it is Ghanaian and other sub-Saharan migrant workers who labour in the Italian tomato fields for a pittance, contributing to the success of this export industry. This is but one example of the effects of dumping on developing nations, whereby the heavily subsidized EU agricultural sector (the US is no different) represent an unfair competitor that contradicts the very notion of a free market.
In Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s opening speech at the European Parliament on 2 July that marked the beginning of the Italian Presidency of the EU, migration featured as a central theme. Mr Renzi expressed confidence that the upcoming Frontex plus operation, in collaboration with EU member states and the EU Commission, will meet the future challenges of immigration. However, security solutions have already failed in the past and there is no reason to assume that more of the same will succeed.
In the words of the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau, ‘if countries continue to criminalize irregular migration, without adopting new legal channels for migration, especially for low-skilled migrants, thus limiting the possibilities for asylum seekers and migrants to securely and regularly reach safe destinations, the number of migrants risking their lives on dangerously overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels over perilous sea routes can only increase.’
Along these lines, it is hoped that Mr Renzi’s appeal to deal with the ‘human dimension’ of immigration, in a concerted European effort to ‘civilize globalization’, will open the door for a more informed and rights-based debate about challenges, opportunities and responses to immigration, in Italy and in the European Union.