“The smart approach is: you come to my house by my rules,” Meloni, of the far-right Fratelli d’Italia party, said in an interview with The Washington Post earlier this month.
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Her ideas, taken together, appear to significantly close the doors to one of the European Union’s frontline destinations for undocumented immigrants.
While Meloni is more constrained by Europe in other areas, such as spending and foreign policy, EU countries have ample leeway to manage their external borders, and she has long made it clear that stopping the flows of people across the Mediterranean is one of her tasks. is. priorities.
But that doesn’t mean it will be without complications.
Attempts to prevent humanitarian rescue ships from docking in Italian ports could cause legal problems. And if Meloni blocks roads to Italy, crossings would likely increase to other Mediterranean countries like Spain — as happened three years ago when Italy was briefly run by an anti-immigration, populist government.
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“You can do things relatively quickly [on migration] that is draconian, symbolic and sends a clear message: we are here, we are doing something. But problems are coming,” said Andrew Geddes, director of the Migration Policy Center at the European University Institute in Florence.
“If you stop and divert the crosswalks [elsewhere], that’s where you come into conflict with the EU,” he said. “It will breathe new life into an old conflict.”
Meloni’s party gained more support than any other group in national elections on Sunday, was given a clear mandate to lead Italy’s next government and placed Meloni in the position of prime minister. During the brief campaign, which followed the collapse of Mario Draghi’s unity government, immigration policy was low on the list of priorities amid rising energy bills, a looming recession in Europe and other acute problems caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
But immigration still strikes a chord with many right-wing voters in Italy, who feel their country has received little help from Europe in receiving and integrating newcomers. A wave of asylum seekers and refugees in 2015 and 2016 made migration a political touchstone for several years and helped spark a nationalist movement across Europe. While Meloni’s party didn’t immediately capitalize on those sentiments, it later siphoned votes from a rival Italian far-right group, the League, which was booming in part due to immigration backlash.
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Although millions of Ukrainians have sought refuge in Europe this year, taking advantage of special residence and work rights, immigration across the Mediterranean is nowhere near the number seven years ago. To the extent it has risen, compared to rates just before and after the pandemic, politicians associated with Meloni are blaming lax policies under recent governments, including Draghi’s.
Jude Sunderland, an Italy-based associate director at Human Rights Watch, said people chose the trip for other reasons, including rising food prices and deteriorating conditions in their own countries.
Meloni’s and the two other parties in her coalition said in a jointly released platform they want to block rescue ships from Italian ports as a way to stop “human trafficking” from Africa. Such a move would be a return to the period of 2018 and 2019, when Italian politics was dominated by then Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who vowed to stop the “invasion”.
Salvini’s first step was to close ports to the many non-governmental groups that sail around the Mediterranean, trying to rescue immigrants from their flimsy boats. His move led to protracted and risky standoffs where boats carrying hundreds of migrants had nowhere to dock and sometimes spent weeks at sea as European countries negotiated passenger distribution.
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The practice brought Salvini into four lawsuits, one of which is still pending, in which he faces up to 15 years in prison if found guilty of kidnapping for abuse of office. Two other cases were dropped, and in one case, the Italian Senate used its power to avoid a trial. Meanwhile, NGOs saw their boats impound and faced Italian legal challenges.
Some experts said crossing the Mediterranean became more deadly during Salvini’s time: the number of arrivals in Italy fell, but the number of deaths did not fall proportionately.
“We know it will be harder” [again]. We know it’s going to get harder,” said Mattea Weihe, a spokeswoman for the Berlin-based Sea-Watch, one of the NGOs handling rescue work. Weihe said her group, in view of the expected far-right victory in Italy, had bought a new rescue ship as a “way to bring a different game to the table”.
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Meloni has also repeatedly called for a “naval blockade” of the Mediterranean. A Meloni spokesperson said on Monday that such a move can only be led by Europe and in cooperation with North African countries.
In her interview with The Post, Meloni said “migrant flows need to be managed” because “nations only exist if there are borders and if they are defended.” She said Italy had offered few legal options to immigrants, instead allowing migration to be dominated by ‘smugglers’ and ‘slave drivers’.
“Is it a smart approach? No,” she said. “Letting hundreds of thousands of people in and then having them push drugs or be forced to prostitute themselves on the fringes of our society is not solidarity.”
Giorgia Meloni’s interview with The Washington Post
She has suggested that Italy, in partnership with Europe, should set up so-called hotspots outside the EU where asylum seekers and refugees can be screened, with only those who have been approved getting through. Politicians on the left and right have long talked about such ideas, but the obstacles are many: few countries want to accommodate such centers, and the possibility of human rights violations is rife. Britain is pushing for a related plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, but its rollout has been hampered by legal proceedings.
Within the EU, several countries have taken major steps over the years to make it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to reach the bloc. Greece has been accused of intercepting migrants crossing from Turkey and pushing them back into international waters – a violation of international law. And Italy, in a policy supported by both the left and right, has been building and equipping the Libyan coastguard to withdraw immigrants who want to cross the Mediterranean.
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Even under Draghi, rescue groups faced obstacles, including delays at sea. But it was rare that they were refused entry to the port.
Rossella Miccio, the president of Emergency, an Italian NGO that plans to launch a Mediterranean search and rescue mission next month, said that “there has been too much general homogeneity in Italian politics” making “human rights priority.”
She thought the climate would deteriorate further.
“We are frankly concerned, not about our activities, but about the lives of people at sea who need to be saved, rather than being stopped and sent back,” Miccio said.