What’s next for Italy’s immigrants under the populist government?

Italy’s anti-immigrant interior minister will likely run into obstacles, but his party is less constrained than before.

Italy Migrants
Italy's government contract calls for the deportation of an estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants [File: Carmelo Imbesi/AP]

In his first weekend as Italy‘s minister of interior, Matteo Salvini travelled to Pozzallo, Sicily, a harbour town that has become a main port of arrival for migrants and refugees saved by NGO vessels as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

The leader of the far-right political party, the League, campaigned on a staunchly anti-immigrant platform, vowing to “put Italians first” and send half a million undocumented migrants “home”.

Salvini’s decision to travel to Sicily on Sunday, his second full day as interior minister, indicated he will push the anti-immigration line as much in government as on the campaign trail. 

The 45-year-old politician kept up his fiery rhetoric in the days before and after his swearing in.

On Thursday, while he was finishing up negotiations about who would be part of a coalition government made up of members from League and populist party Five Star Movement, Salvini tweeted a video depicting an immigrant plucking a pigeon on a busy street.

“Go home!” the tweet said.

That same day, Salvini told a rally in Sondrio, Lombardy: “Open doors in Italy for good people and a one-way ticket for those who come to Italy to create commotion and think they will be taken care of. ‘Send them home’ will be one of our top priorities.”

Salvini added he wants to see cuts in what he claimed was the annual five billion euros ($5.8bn) spent on “maintaining immigrants”. In 2017, the government allocated about 4.2 billion euros ($4.9bn) for migrants and refugees arriving via Libya, nearly two-thirds of which went to reception centres.

Expulsion a priority

Salvini’s stance on immigration has been enshrined in the 57-page government contract it agreed to with coalition partner Five Star Movement. The government, headed by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, was inaugurated on Friday. 

The immigration section of the policy document calls for the deportation of Italy’s estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants “as a priority”, building more detention centres and a review of the European Union’s Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that migrants and refugees apply for asylum in the first EU country they reach.

While the leader of Five Star Movement Luigi Di Maio is much less outspoken on immigration than Salvini, he has also referred to rescue NGO vessels as “sea taxis”.

Andrew Geddes, director of the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Florence, said the coalition partners are bound to run into some practical and legal obstacles when it comes to realising their policy plans.

“If you want to expel people, you’ve got to have somewhere that’s willing to take them,” he told Al Jazeera.

Countries of origin or countries that migrants move through are “very reluctant” to take people back, Geddes said.

“And if they do, they want compensation for doing that.”

A government that wants “a mass roundup of foreigners and seeks a rather swift expulsion” is also likely to run into legal obstacles, Geddes said.


“Anything that is seen as arbitrary and not following the rules of the Constitution and protections would likely encounter difficulties.”

But Geddes added that despite these constraints, the League also has newfound political freedom of movement.

“In the past, [the League’s] rhetoric was always tempered by the realities of being in complex coalitions, but this time around there’s less in political terms to hold them back,” he said.

Going underground

Arrivals by sea in Italy have decreased since last summer. The number of migrants in May was 83 percent lower than the same month last year.

A substantial drop in arrivals happened after Italy, with the backing of the EU, made a deal with the Libyan coastguard to intercept boats and take them back to Libya where those on board are detained – an agreement that UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called “inhuman”.

Still, 13,521 migrants and refugees have arrived in Italy by sea this year, according to the UN human rights agency, adding to the more than 600,000 who came ashore since the start of 2014.

One-hundred and fifty-eight arrived last Friday in Pozzallo after they were rescued from an overcrowded dinghy. The group included nine children and 36 unaccompanied minors.

The conditions in reception centres where migrants end up have been scrutinised by rights groups. In late 25, Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials, MSF) ended its medical activities in two Italian reception centres where it said people were living in “all-around precarious and undignified conditions”.

Now, Salvini has pledged to cut their funding.

Andrea Menapace, director of the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights, expressed concern for the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who are already in the country.

Irregular migrants in the country struggle with accessing lawyers, he said, at least in part because they fear being returned to where they came from.

“If there is a police hunt for [undocumented migrants] it’s going to be extremely difficult to support them, because they are too scared,” Menapace told Al Jazeera.

“They are going to be underground. And we are talking about thousands and thousands of people – that’s my fear. Even if they have a right to apply for asylum, even if they have the right to obtain a visa.”

Populism in Europe

Beyond Italy, Andrew Geddes said the new Italian coalition could have an effect on policy at the European level as well. 

The ideas put forward by populist parties “have become much more mainstream”, he said.

“I think that government parties at the centre are quite concerned about the growth of these movements like [League] and are looking at elections in their own countries.”

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz will assume the EU’s presidency in July and has said he will aim to shift the focus of the bloc’s immigration policy.

“In Europe, there should not only be a dispute over redistribution [of refugees], but also at last a shift of focus towards securing external borders,” Kurz told a March news conference.

With the growth of parties who express anti-immigrant sentiment, Geddes said mainstream parties could become more likely to “adapt or try to respond” to populist ideas.

Kurz’s position “could carry quite a lot of critical weight”, he said.

Source: Al Jazeera