After election victory, Meloni should change Italy’s migration policy

ROME — For years, Giorgia Meloni has railed against Italy’s migration policies, calling them too lenient and saying they risked turning the country into “Europe’s refugee camp”.

Now that she is Italy’s next presumptive prime minister, migration is one of the areas where Meloni can most easily make sweeping changes.

“The smart approach is this: you come to my house on my rules,” Meloni, of the far-right Fratelli d’Italia party, said earlier this month in an interview with The Washington Post.

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His ideas, taken together, seem to significantly tighten the doors of one of the European Union’s frontline destinations for undocumented immigrants.

While in other areas – like spending and foreign policy – Meloni would be more constrained by Europe, EU countries have a lot of leeway in managing their external borders, and she has long made it clear that the halting the flow of people across the Mediterranean is one of its priorities.

But that doesn’t mean it will be uncomplicated.

Efforts to block humanitarian rescue ships from docking in Italian ports could lead to legal challenges. And if Meloni chokes routes to Italy, the volume of crossings would likely increase to other Mediterranean countries like Spain – as happened three years ago when Italy was briefly ruled by a government anti-immigration populist.

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“You can do things pretty quickly [on migration] it’s draconian, symbolic and sends a clear message: we’re here, we’re doing something. But there are problems in store,” said Andrew Geddes, director of the Center for Migration Policy at the European University Institute in Florence.

“When you stop the level crossings and divert them [elsewhere], that’s where you come into conflict with the EU,” he said. “This will revive an old conflict.”

Meloni’s party received more support than any other group in Sunday’s national elections, securing a clear mandate to lead Italy’s next government and putting Meloni in a position to become prime minister. In the short campaign following the collapse of Mario Draghi’s unity government, immigration policy was not high on the agenda, given soaring energy bills, a looming recession in Europe and other acute problems arising from 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 to manage the burden of welcoming and integrating newcomers. A wave of asylum seekers and refugees in 2015 and 2016 turned migration for several years into a political touchstone and helped spark a nationalist movement across Europe. Although Meloni’s party did not immediately benefit from these sentiments, she later siphoned votes from a rival Italian far-right group, the League, which soared in part due to the backlash of the immigration.

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Although millions of Ukrainians have sought refuge in Europe this year, taking advantage of special residency and work rights, immigration across the Mediterranean is a far cry from the numbers of seven years ago. To the extent that it has increased, compared to rates just before and after the pandemic, politicians allied to Meloni blame lax policies under recent governments, including Draghi’s.

Jude Sunderland, associate director of Italy-based Human Rights Watch, said people were opting to travel for other reasons, including rising food prices and deteriorating conditions in their own countries.

Meloni’s and the other two parties in its coalition said in a jointly published platform that they wanted to block rescue ships from Italian ports in order to stop “human trafficking” from Africa. Such a move would be a throwback 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 decision was to close the ports to the multitude of non-governmental groups that sail around the Mediterranean and try to rescue immigrants from their fragile boats. His move led to protracted and risky clashes in which boats with hundreds of migrants on board could find nowhere to dock, and sometimes spent weeks at sea as European countries negotiated over how to distribute passengers .

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The practice has embroiled Salvini in four court cases – one of which is still ongoing, where he faces a sentence of up to 15 years if convicted of kidnapping by abuse of power. Two other cases were thrown out, and in one case the Italian senate used its power to prevent a trial. Meanwhile, the NGOs saw their boats confiscated and faced Italian legal challenges.

Some experts have said that crossing the Mediterranean became deadlier in the Salvini era: the number of arrivals in Italy fell, but the number of deaths did not fall proportionally.

“We know it will be more difficult [again]. We know it will be more difficult,” said Mattea Weihe, spokesperson for Berlin-based Sea-Watch, one of the NGOs dealing with rescue operations. Weihe said his group, in view of the far-right’s expected 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 spokesperson for Meloni said on Monday that such a move could only be carried out by Europe, and in cooperation with North African countries.

In his interview with The Post, Meloni said that “migrant flows must be managed”, because “nations only exist if there are borders and if these are defended”. She said Italy had given immigrants few legal avenues, while leaving migration dominated by “smugglers” and “slave drivers”.

“Is this a smart approach? No,” she said. “Letting in hundreds of thousands of people and then keeping them selling drugs or prostituting themselves on the fringes of our society is not solidarity.”

Interview of Giorgia Meloni with the Washington Post

She suggested that Italy, in cooperation with Europe, set up so-called hotspots outside the EU where asylum seekers and potential refugees can be screened, with only those approved being allowed to pass. Politicians on the left and right have long talked about such ideas, but the obstacles are many: few countries want to host such centers, and the possibility of abuse of rights is commonplace. Britain is pursuing a related plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, but its deployment has been complicated by legal challenges.

Within the EU, several countries over the years have taken significant steps to make it harder for undocumented immigrants to enter the bloc. Greece has been accused of intercepting migrants from Turkey and turning them back into international waters, a violation of international law. And Italy, in a policy supported by both left and right, has worked to strengthen and equip the Libyan coast guard to push back immigrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean.

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Even under Draghi, rescue groups faced obstacles, including delays at sea. But they were rarely denied port access.

Rossella Miccio, president of Emergency, an Italian NGO which plans to launch a search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean next month, said “there has been too much homogeneity in Italian politics” which puts aside “the priority of human rights.”

She thought the climate would deteriorate further.

“We are frankly worried, not for our business, but for the lives of people at sea who need to be rescued, rather than stopped in their tracks and sent back,” Miccio said.