Let Them Drown? Italy’s Trump Closes Ports to Refugees

Matteo Salvini
Italian deputy prime minister and minister of the interior, Matteo Salvini, speaking at Assemblea Confartigianato 2018. Photo credit: Confartigianato / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
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Channeling Donald Trump, Italy’s new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has proclaimed a “zero-landing” Mediterranean, where no one fleeing war, persecution, or famine will be allowed to reach Europe by sea.

In defiance of international law, he suddenly (with a tweet) closed Italy’s ports on June 10 to humanitarian rescue ships carrying refugees and migrants saved from drowning, many of them women and children. Since then, Italy’s anti-migrant naval blockade has sent shock waves across Europe.

According to the UN agency that tracks migration, deaths or disappearances at sea have soared: 629 people died crossing the central Mediterranean in June, the month Salvini took office. In May the number was only 48.

Salvini has also vowed to start the mass deportation of a half million unauthorized migrants already living in Italy. “With fewer foreigners…,” he recently told supporters at a rally on Italy’s east coast, “we will once again be the most beautiful country in the world.”

Italy’s most openly racist politician, Salvini is threatening to reshape the future of Europe, beginning with migration policies that resemble Trump’s.

“The trouble with the European Union,” writes Wolfgang Münchau in the Financial Times, “is that its stability depends on the likes of Mr. Salvini and Mr. Trump never coming to power.”

‘Italians First’

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Turning away rescue boats full of migrants and asylum seekers, under the Trump-inspired slogan “Italians First,” has made Salvini’s popularity soar in Italy.

It would be hard to exaggerate how far and how fast Salvini has come. Support for his party nearly doubled in his first month in office. If an election were held today, he would probably become prime minister. An anti-vaxxer, Euroskeptic, neo-fascist sloganeer, who earlier tried to take Lombardy out of Italy, he is now the country’s most powerful politician.

Salvini feels flattered by comparisons to Trump, who became his new best friend when the two met in 2016. As a former talk radio host, he also bears comparison to Rush Limbaugh.

“There has been a cold-blooded decision to leave men, women and children to drown in the Mediterranean Sea.”

He became interior minister and deputy prime minister on June 1, as part of a government coalition joining his far-right League (Lega Nord) party, and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. He now completely overshadows the weak new prime minister, Five Star‘s Giuseppe Conte, who met with Trump at the White House on July 28.

With its long coastline, Italy has struggled to cope with the flow of refugees and migrants from Africa and the Middle East over 600,000 in four years. The situation is complicated by the EU’s so-called Dublin rules, which require asylum seekers to apply for refugee status in the EU country where they first arrive. Many Italians, angry at the hypocrisy of their neighbors, France in particular, are turning against the European Union as well as migration. Polls show two-thirds support Salvini’s anti-migrant policy.

On the migration issue, Italy’s left-center Democratic Party is cowed by electoral defeat. So it has fallen to the Roman Catholic Church to be the main voice of Italian opposition to Salvini: the leading Catholic weekly, Famiglia Cristiana, compares him to Satan. On July 6, Pope Francis held a Mass for refugees, migrants, and rescue volunteers in St. Peter’s Basilica. From the altar, he thanked members of the rescue teams for “embodying the parable of the Good Samaritan,” warning against the “temptation … that takes the form of closing our hearts to those who have the right — just as we do — to security and dignified living conditions.”

Human trafficking has reached a massive scale in Libya since NATO forces helped in the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Salvini is perpetually campaigning, and bashing migrants, in rallies all over the country. A barrage of tweets and ongoing TV and Facebook Live appearances keeps him in the headlines. In the face of outrage at the illegality and cruelty of his policies, Salvini doubles down. He delivers at least one outrageous statement per day: demanding a census for all Roma people in Italy (an estimated 50% are Italian citizens); baiting the European Union — he calls it the “Fourth Reich” — or dissing the euro as a German “weapon of war;” and picking a fight with Italy’s Social Security chief, who says immigration is necessary to save Italy’s pension system (non-citizen immigrants pay into the system but don’t collect any benefits).

“It has taken very, very little time for everything to collapse like a sandcastle,” comments the anti-mafia writer Roberto Saviano, “destroyed by a nationalism that is making everyone the enemy of everyone else.”

More People Are Dying at Sea

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The UN Refugee Agency says the central Mediterranean, already the world’s most dangerous route for migrants, is now deadlier than ever: 1,110 refugees and migrants have died so far this year. One in seven of them setting out in a boat from Libya today, it estimates, will drown.

Human trafficking has reached a massive scale in Libya since NATO forces helped in the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Each year, thousands of asylum seekers and migrants journey across the 200-mile stretch of the Mediterranean between Libya and Italy in search of a new life in the European Union. They pay human smugglers up to several thousand dollars per person to be packed aboard overcrowded boats two-thirds of them are inflatable rubber dinghies without life vests.

But the soaring death toll is not due to a surge in sea crossings, which have fallen dramatically since 2015; there are 80 percent fewer migrants arriving by sea in Italy this year than last.

The rise in deaths at sea, according to Doctors Without Borders, is the result of “political decisions. … There has been a cold-blooded decision to leave men, women and children to drown in the Mediterranean Sea.”

Blocking rescue boats paid for and operated by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), humanitarian charities like Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders, was one of Salvini’s campaign promises. He compares them to a “taxi service” for people-smugglers and claims they are funded by George Soros.

Even though the EU officially recognizes that returning refugees and migrants to Libya is a breach of international law, EU member states are fully on board with the policy, quietly contributing military assets, personnel — and plenty of cash.

NGO search-and-rescue missions have saved tens of thousands of lives in the last three years, but at the time of writing only two of these rescue ships were at sea. The others are either banned, forced to dock their ships, or facing criminal prosecution.

“Victory!” tweeted Salvini on June 10 after he closed Italian ports to the Aquarius, a French rescue ship belonging to Doctors Without Borders. On board were 629 people, including 120 unaccompanied children. The Aquarius drifted in limbo off the Italian coast for days. Eventually, the new Socialist government in Spain offered to allow it to disembark in Valencia, 400 miles away.

Two weeks later, Italy announced it would seize the German-run charity ship Lifeline if it docked in an Italian port. In a video posted on Facebook, Salvini accused the crew of being “human traffickers and pirates,” describing the people rescued at sea as “human meat.”

The Maltese authorities have arrested the captain he is now standing trial and impounded his ship. He is charged with picking up migrants whom Italy’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Center had directed the Libyan Coast Guard to rescue.

Other humanitarian ships, Sea-Watch 3 and Seefuchs, are sitting idle in Malta, no longer able to answer distress calls because of questions over their legal status.

“There can be absolutely no doubt… no playing around with figures here… that pulling the vessels away, and stopping their operations, is at the cost of human life,” said human rights campaigner Maria Pisani in an interview with the Maltese Times. “If it had been anyone else, it would be 24/7 headline news globally. Yet somehow, we are now facing a discourse that justifies this loss of life.”

Libya’s Human-Trafficking Coast Guard

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Another reason for the soaring death toll in the Mediterranean is the EU’s increasing support for the Libyan Coast Guard, notorious for its links to militias and people-smuggling networks.

Italy has promised Libya billions of euros if it will intercept and return migrants to its shores. With help from Italy and the EU, Libyan ships are “pulling back” — i.e., forcibly returning — more and more migrants.

The Forensic Oceanography project at Goldsmiths, University of London, studied 17 cases of sea rescue and found a direct link between the Libyan Coast Guard’s increasing rate of interception and the rise in the mortality rate in the Mediterranean.

The Libyan patrol boats have also delayed or stopped the operation of humanitarian ships through the threat of violence. Already last summer, three out of eight nongovernmental organizations suspended rescue operations out of fear the Libyans would shoot at them.

Italy, which coordinates rescues off the Libyan coast, increasingly dispatches the Libyan Coast Guard to respond, handing over more and more sea rescues to Libya. Even though the EU officially recognizes that returning refugees and migrants to Libya is a breach of international law, EU member states are fully on board with the policy, quietly contributing military assets, personnel — and plenty of cash.

“European governments have not just been fully aware of these abuses; by actively supporting the Libyan authorities in stopping sea crossings and containing people in Libya, they are complicit in these crimes.”

According to the UN and human rights campaigners, tens of thousands of them are being held in an archipelago of detention camps in Libya, many of them run by criminal gangs that torture and sexually abuse detainees and extort their families for money. A CNN undercover report shows migrants being sold as slaves.

At a June 28 press conference, Salvini praised the Libyan Coast Guard while denouncing the likes of Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders (both NGOs that operate rescue ships) as human-traffickers. “Let the Libyan authorities do their work of rescue, recovery, and return (of migrants) to their country,” he said, “as they have been doing for some time, without the ships of the voracious NGOs disturbing them or causing trouble.”

It is illegal for European or any other non-Libyan ships to return people rescued at sea to Libya under international refugee law and maritime treaties. The country does not meet the legal definition of “physically and politically safe.” But on July 30, an Italian-flagged towboat, the Asso 28, rescued 108 people at sea and forced them back to Libya, their country of departure. The humanitarian ship Proactiva was nearby and (having overheard the ship’s radio communications) asserts the rescue took place in international waters.

refugees, migrants, Italy

Photo credit: F. Malavolta / UNHCR

“Not only is it a violation of the right of asylum, but it is an inhumane act toward those 108 people,” said Amnesty Italia in a tweet.

Details of a telephone conversation made available to WhoWhatWhy confirm the Italian-flagged tugboat’s Designated Person Ashore (DPA) was told repeatedly that the vessel was violating international law by heading to Libya. The reason given for its course was that members of the Libyan Coast Guard were on board and giving “instructions.”

If a single incident can reveal the risks of funding and “training” Libya’s Coast Guard, it is a disrupted rescue that left 20 people dead on November 6, 2017. Seventeen survivors have filed a lawsuit with the European Court of Human Rights, holding Italy responsible.

The Ras Jadir, a patrol boat donated to the Libyan Coast Guard by Italy (most of the crew had been trained by the EU anti-smuggling body EUNAVFOR MED), interfered with a rescue operation by the German humanitarian ship Sea-Watch 3, causing people to drown. An Italian naval vessel was nearby and the Ras Jadir was operating under the coordination of the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome. Sea-Watch 3 picked up 59 migrants (and 2 bodies). The Ras Jadir collected 47 and returned them to Libya.

Video taken at the scene shows the Libyans beating the migrants they brought on board and speeding off with a man dangling from the side of their boat. The survivors brought to Libya reported suffering beatings, torture, starvation and rape. Two of them say they were “sold.”

“The Libyan Coast Guard would not exist if it were not for Italian support. We argue that Italy is using it as a proxy to outsource their pushbacks to Libya. At the end of the day, you can trace back responsibility to Italy,” said Violeta Moreno-Lax, legal advisor to Global Legal Action Network, in a telephone interview with WhoWhatWhy.

If More People Drown, Will Fewer Come?

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Well before Salvini, EU nations had turned the central Mediterranean into a moral twilight zone through the practice of lethal non-assistance to refugee boats and by hindering or even criminalizing NGO’s humanitarian operations between Libya and Italy.

Many European policymakers have pushed the narrative that NGO rescue missions are a “pull factor” that unintentionally supports the human-smuggling “business model.” The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, recently echoed this meme in a letter to the Italian prime minister: “no one should contribute to keep alive the model of activities used by human smugglers and traffickers to exploit human misery.”

The “pull factor” theory has been rigorously researched, again and again, and found to have no basis in fact.

“Our humanity runs the risk of drowning in the Mediterranean.”

But in the wake of Salvini’s anti-NGO crusade in the Mediterranean and his “now not one more” anti-migrant pledge, this theory has found a second life. It is part of an intense media focus, some of it hostile, on the German, French, Dutch, and Spanish-backed rescue operations that are funded by charitable donations.

“Suddenly, there are two opinions as to whether people in danger [at sea] should be saved or allowed to die,” lamented Wolfgang Luef in Süddeutsche-Zeitung.

One of Germany’s most respected newspapers, Die Zeit, ran “for and against” editorials about NGO rescue ships under the title “Sea Rescue: Should We Just Stop?” Mariam Lau, a Zeit reporter who self-identifies as a migration specialist, is against.

The people-saviours have long since become part of the people-smuggling business and only make the problem worse,” she argues. “The more who are saved, the more boats will come — it’s that simple and deadly.”

Libya, Italy, refugees

Photo credit: Vania Turner / UNHCR

Tragically, four years ago, the EU disproved the “pull factor” theory, at a terrible cost in human lives. The Italian-led EU rescue mission, Mare Nostrum (set up in late 2013), covering most of the central Mediterranean, saved an estimated 150,000 people in a little over a year. But the Italian navy, like the NGO search-and-rescue boats today, was accused, in almost verbatim language, of encouraging refugees and migrants to take to sea. The operation became politically unpopular and the Italian government terminated it in the fall of 2014 — replacing it with low-budget EU sea patrols restricted to “30 miles from the Italian coast.”

Britain and its EU partners refused to support any future search-and-rescue operation in the Mediterranean (a decision backed by then–Home Secretary Theresa May) because, as Foreign Office Minister Lady Anelay explained, Mare Nostrum was “an unintended ‘pull factor,’ encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths.”

In the months that followed, refugees and migrants took to sea in greater numbers. And the death rate increased tenfold. Some 1,687 died in the first four months of 2015 compared to 60 in the first four months of 2014. In a single week in April 2015, one thousand people drowned.

British university researchers have dug up documents, and other evidence has been published by Wikileaks, showing that EU policymakers knew the consequences of canceling search and rescue during a refugee crisis. The EU border force Frontex admitted, in an internal assessment, it “would likely result in a higher number of fatalities.”

Libya, a ‘Safe’ Country

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In late June, while the Aquarius was drifting in limbo off the Italian coast, Salvini paid a surprise visit to the Libyan capital of Tripoli. He met with the Libyan Government of National Accord, one of the two factions that control Libya’s coastline.

The Libyan capital was a symbolic choice for his first official visit abroad and the moment was strategically timed.

A day before Salvini’s plane landed, 16 of the EU’s 28 leaders concluded an emergency summit in Brussels to address the political crisis over migration. In the summit communiqué, EU leaders laid out their vision for “breaking the business model of smugglers (and) preventing tragic loss of life.”

EU illegal border crossings

Photo credit: EU

The big idea is to lock up asylum seekers and migrants in “regional disembarkation platforms” outside EU borders or, if they make it to Europe, in “control centers” within the EU. Italy has yet to sign off on the agreement, saying it will no longer take in migrants rescued from the Mediterranean until other member states agree to accept some of them.

In Libya, Salvini added to the hardline disarray by claiming ownership of EU foreign policy and what has become its central goal: stopping migration. He announced he wants to push EU border control somewhere “south” of Libya — Niger, Chad, and Sudan? — to reduce the numbers of asylum seekers reaching Italy.

The final step would be to outsource EU human rights policy as well as border control. The EU wants the camps Salvini talks about “migrant processing centers” in as yet unnamed African countries to detain people who want to go to Europe and then process their asylum claims.

While in Libya, Salvini posted a Facebook video of his visit to a migrant reception center under construction. He was there, he said “to refute all the talk about torture.” The center, he enthused, is “state of the art.”

By mid-July, he was calling “to change the norms” and declare Libyan ports safe places for refugees and migrants.

Salvini is scoring points by mocking EU hypocrisy. The EU is as committed as he is to returning refugees and migrants rescued at sea to the country they embarked from, even if the destination is Libya and the policy is, according to the UN, “inhuman.”

EU leaders see Libya as their best hope for reducing the flow of migrants and appeasing right-wing populists like Salvini. The shores of Libya are the point of departure for 95 percent of asylum seekers and migrants crossing the central Mediterranean.

An Amnesty International report documents how far European governments have gone in tolerating a gulag in Libya where refugees and migrants are abused and exploited in order to prevent them from reaching EU shores.

“European governments have not just been fully aware of these abuses; by actively supporting the Libyan authorities in stopping sea crossings and containing people in Libya, they are complicit in these crimes,” says John Dalhuisen, Amnesty’s Europe director.

Claudia Roth, vice president of Germany’s parliament, says it might be time for the EU to give back the Nobel Peace Prize it won six years ago. “Our humanity runs the risk of drowning in the Mediterranean,” she told the Bild am Sonntag weekly. “It has become a sea of death.”


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from adrift (Alfredo D’Amato / UNHCR) and Trump and Salvini (Twitter).

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