“Italy is saving Europe’s honour in the Mediterranean,” declared European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at his annual State of the Union address in mid-September. In addition to its long-standing efforts to rescue migrants at sea, the Italian government had also succeeded – with EU support – in bringing migrant crossings from Libya down dramatically. This, Juncker added, meant that fewer people were dying on the route to Europe.

 

BBC fact checkers were quick to point out, soon after Juncker’s speech, that the risk of dying in the Mediterranean has actually risen (one in 50 migrants attempting to cross has perished this year, com- pared to one in 70 in 2016). And many more men, women and children are reportedly dying in the desert before they reach Libya, following EU pressure on the government in Niger to close the traditional route.

But the problems with Juncker’s upbeat message are far greater than the issue of whether the data he used is correct.

Limiting migrant arrivals in Europe simply means more people locked up in Libya in horriffic detention centres where they face abuse, slavery, sexual violence and torture.

Problems with Juncker’s upbeat message

Limiting migrant arrivals in Europe simply means more people locked up in Libya in horriffic detention centres where they face abuse, slavery, sexual violence and torture. And fewer people are arriving because Italy and the EU have decided to outsource migration control to the various actors vying for power in war-torn Libya: the fragile UN-backed government and assorted militias, many of which were previously involved in the smuggling trade.

Italy’s Interior Minister Marco Minniti – who hails from the center-left Democratic Party – in particular has moved aggressively, saying that outsourcing migrant interceptions to Libya, which he claims are solely about “saving lives at sea”, is necessary to avoid threatening Italy’s “social stability and democracy.” His rhetoric echoes similar arguments put forward by mainstream politicians veering to the right across Europe in a bid to outflank the populists – we must limit migration, regardless of whether our economies and societies need it, or we will be swept away by the far-right. Yet effective, sustainable migration and economic policies would be a better bet.

In the absence of legal routes, all irregular migrants arriving in Italy are channelled into the asylum system, whether or not they are actually refugees.

Four reasons for Italy’s migrant crisis

Last year, migrant arrivals in Italy peaked at 180,000. In a G7 country with a population of 60 million, this should not have become a ‘crisis’. If it has, though, it is through a combination of four elements. The rest is a long-running strategy to dump arrivals in large ‘emergency’ shelters in mostly under-privileged areas. The second is the decision to close virtually all legal channels for labour migrants and to put an end to periodic amnesties to regularise undocumented migrants. The third is the Italian illegal economy’s considerable need for hundreds of thousands of exploitable, low-cost workers, who form the backbone of the country’s agricultural and construction sectors. The fourth relates to the border closures in Austria, France and Switzerland, which have put an end to Italy’s de facto wave-through policy, whereby most migrants and refugees arriving in the country were not identified and could proceed to northern Europe.

In the absence of legal routes, all irregular migrants arriving in Italy are channelled into the asylum system, whether or not they are actually refugees. The awed basis of the EU’s theoretically common asylum system, the Dublin Regulation, stipulates that asylum seekers must stay in the rest European country they enter, overburdening countries like Italy and Greece. Attempts to reform it have stalled, while a temporary responsibility-sharing mechanism to distribute 160,000 asylum seekers across the bloc has mostly been a failure.

Learning from Germany’s experience

Faced with a vote in early 2018, Italian government representatives point to the loss of support for German Chancellor Merkel’s centre right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU) party and the centre left Social Democrats as well as the strong showing from the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in the recent election as vindication of their decision to keep migrants out regardless of the cost.

But they are ignoring the other factors beyond migration that have turned voters away from Merkel. Under successive Merkel governments, the number of working poor has doubled, public investment has shrunk dramatically and social inequality has risen to such an extent that it almost parallels the United States. Italy’s problems are worse and more deep-rooted: growth remains sluggish and youth unemployment still hovers around 40% – so much so that more Italians than ever since the 1960s (250,000 in 2016) are becoming migrants themselves, seeking a better future elsewhere. Simply cracking down on migration to the country will not stop the rise of the far-right – and will further entrench its influence over the mainstream.

If progressive parties across the continent want to implement lessons learned from the German election, they would do well not to pander to the right on immigration – and not to replicate conservative economic policies which feed into the dangerous spiral of discontent that is driving the rise in xenophobia.