Last week brought a startling report about what happens on boats transporting migrants or refugees across the Mediterranean.
Mixing among those on board – migrants, sailors, charity workers, and journalists – was another man. He was not as he seemed.
Claiming to be a deckhand, this man was, in fact, ‘an undercover agent working for the Italian authorities’. It was his job to gather information on potentially illicit connections between those on board and human traffickers against whom Italy, and its European allies, are so aggressively arrayed.
Such surveys are useful, even – from a European perspective – necessary. But the tactics employed demonstrate something else: more than inquiry, suspicion; beyond investigation, subterfuge.
The action, described by the foreign correspondent Richard Hall, occurred a year ago, but it has lasting relevance, especially as European leaders meet claiming to be on the verge of a settlement on the matter of migration.
In the last few years, Italian shores have seen many new arrivals. Its outlying coastlines and islands are the closest edges of Europe to the nations of North Africa which serve as a conduit for migrants.
Throughout this time, Italian governments have attempted to ease their burdens and reapportion responsibilities. Public opinion has been correspondingly hostile to new arrivals.
Agents on migrant boats are one thing; but rejecting those boats entirely is another. This is what the last months have seen.
A new drama began when Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister, blocked a boat, the Aquarius, which was carrying 600 migrants, from docking in Italian ports.
A little background is necessary.
After a general election in March, Italy experienced a hung parliament and political limbo. Last month, finally, two populist parties formed what they called a ‘government of change’, led by Giuseppe Conte. Those parties, the Lega and the Five Star Movement, one from the far-right and one from the hard-left, have both reacted troublingly to the refugee situation.
Salvini, mentioned above, is the leader of the Lega, and now deputy prime minister and at the head of the interior ministry. He is openly hostile to migrants of all kinds. Most alarmingly, before the election, Salvini claimed Italy was in need of a ‘mass cleaning’ – invoking migration and related matters, which he said justify such action.
Luigi Di Maio, the parliamentary of the Five Star Movement is less openly hostile to migrants. But both he and his party exhibit the prejudices of a populism rooted in the sense that Italian voters are being taken for a ride – notably by European ideas like the free movement of labour and Europe’s Schengen area. All this manifests itself, in the final calculation, in anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment.
Salvini’s rejection of the Aquarius was not, therefore, carried out on instinct and without thought. It was built upon years of active rhetoric from both governing parties, rhetoric now translated into policy.
This act was consequential. It not only signalled new and tougher policies – further demonstrated by two other boats bearing migrants which were also blocked days later. It also made clear the hostility of the Italian government to broadly accepted European aims on accepting migrants and refugees. And Europe as a whole has not been excessively generous; its policies are still opaque and self-interested. But this latest Italian action goes beyond even that.
More significant, however, than the above is the way other nations reacted to the Italian actions.
France initiated a minor diplomatic incident when the Aquarius was blocked from entering Italian ports. But since then, Conte, Italy’s new prime minister, has met the French president, Emmanuel Macron; and the two have called for ‘reform’ in Europe’s migration policies, including the establishment of new centres in Africa to process people rather than having them enter Europe.
This would not seem unreasonable if memories of what the migration situation now looks like in Libya, with European leaders paying local potentates to restrict the actions of traffickers, and generally turning a blind eye to the country’s real problems, were not so fresh.
It is vital to note that Europe’s inconsistency is long-standing, vacillating between the open arms of Angela Merkel in summer 2015 and a new conception of a ‘fortress Europe’ where outside entry is rendered almost impossible. Some nations, such as Hungary, enacted stringently tough immigration regimes many years before Italy.
But in any case, the Italian government appears to be enacting the hard-line policies its constituent parties promised, and European leaders, despite their ostensible opposition, are caving in and going along with it. This attitude does not serve migrants, or refugees, at all well. And this is not all. Events like this represent another instalment of Europe’s inconsistent and capricious handling of the migrant crisis – something which the continent’s ongoing flirtation with populism can only make worse.
This piece was originally published at TRT World.