As the European Union’s migrant strategy is suffering one setback after another, the new Italian populist government is seeking help from Russia in an attempt to stem the flow of refugees into the country.
More than 17,000 migrants arrived in Italy between January 1 and July 15 this year, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Even though the number has significantly decreased compared to the same period in 2017 when the arrivals stood at 93,192, the new Italian government has toughened its policies toward refugees.
“European countries have finally realized there is a government in Italy that it is dealing with national security,” Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said during a press conference in Moscow on July 16.
Salvini is the first politician of the new Italian government – formally sworn in on June 1 – who visited the Russian capital to strengthen relations between the two nations. Italy seeks to push the European Union to ease sanctions against Russia, and it also wants to have a dialogue with Moscow on the topic of international security.
“[I want to] counter illegal immigration by asking Russians for their support for missions in North Africa, Libya, Egypt and on the southern front where this Italian government has finally shown signs of existence,” Salvini said.
Eileen Quinn, a PhD student at the Department of Human Rights of the Università degli Studi di Palermo, who studies migrant smuggling from Africa to Europe, told The Globe Post that the current migrant strategy is an attempt to establish strong relations and reach bilateral agreements between Italy and Libya, something that has already happened before.
“The European governments are in fact aware that despite being ethically dubious to establish relations with dictatorial governments, it is a very effective way to prevent irregular and mass migratory flows such as those we are now experiencing,” Quinn said.
She added that with the collapse of the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, “Italy found itself without a solid interlocutor who had a very direct control of smuggling and irregular migration.”
“I think that the strategy Salvini is following now is in line with the one that [former Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi had already followed in Libya,” Quinn said. “It is not accidental that he [Salvini] has sought a relationship with Russia since it is well known that Russia has an evident deal of interest in establishing relations with Libya for economic reasons.”
During the Moscow press conference, Salvini, who supported the closure of Italian ports to migrants, stated that his country “is no longer Europes’ refugee camp.”
In Italy, his ideas have their share of supporters.
Emilio, a 17-year-old student from Milan, told The Globe Post that migrants have to earn their right to stay in the country. “[They should do] any kind of activity that is useful for them, and only then they can receive decent hospitality, but it has to be a step ahead of the living conditions of their countries of origin,” he argued.
It has proven to be hard to find a common sentiment among Italian citizens when it comes to the sensitive migration topic.
Roberta, a 57-year-old government employee, said “migration is not a crime.” “Everyone should have the right to move, but at the same time, I understand Italy does not have facilities to host everyone. We have to be human, and the European Union has to take its responsibilities, Italy cannot do everything by itself,” she told The Globe Post.
According to Salvini, however, the solution to the crisis lies not in dividing the share of migrant among European countries, but in blocking people’s departure in countries of their origin by helping Southern Mediterranean and North African nations to control harbors, beaches, borders and, especially, the sea.
“The only way to stop this business is to make the idea of leaving on a boat pointless because you will be sent back,” Salvini said.
Rossella Muroni, Free and Equal party’s deputy, told The Globe Post that for migrants in Libya “there is certainly only torture and desperation.”
“Salvini knows this but decides not to care as he does in his campaign of hatred and fear,” she said.
On Monday, European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud repeated that no European ship participating in a rescue mission can return migrants to Libya “because we don’t consider it a secure country.”
Some Italian citizens believe, however, that the new government’s tough stance toward migrants is nothing but propaganda.
“Migrants continue to arrive in Italy, but the government lets [us] believe the flow has stopped,” Alessandro, a 29-year-old journalist, told The Globe Post. “I would also add that Salvini is the Italian face of what other countries do. Look at [French President Emmanuel] Macron who closes the borders, [Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian] Kurz who does the same and [Germany’s Interior Minister Horst] Seehofer who wants to create transitional hotspots outside the German borders. We are playing with people’s lives.”
On Friday, the European Union’s migrant strategy suffered a major new setback, after Italy refused to freely accept people rescued at sea.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has previously written to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker saying his country would no longer take in migrants rescued from the Mediterranean until other member states accepted some of them.
In the past, the Italian coastguard would coordinate the rescue of migrants off the Libyan coast, but since June, they have been ordered to transfer calls for help and reports of boats in distress to the Libyan capital Tripoli.
“Italy does not want to be the only country where migrants saved at sea by its own naval units disembark,” Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi said on Friday.
At the same time, Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj rejected the E.U. proposal for asylum processing centers in his country.
“We are strictly against Europe officially placing illegal migrants who are no longer wanted in the E.U. in our country,” he said.
The E.U. has already approached Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia with the idea of such centers, but the proposals were rejected.