With a tweet, Italy’s new interior minister conveyed the words with which Europe today sends hundreds of people to the modern concentration camps. On June 24, the newly appointed minister Matteo Salvini, who is also leader of the hard-right Lega, tweeted that “From the bottom of my heart, as a Minister and a father, I would like to thank the Libyan Coast Guard for rescuing 820 immigrants today and taking them back to Libya. They have thwarted the smugglers’ ‘work’ and avoided wrongful interventions by NGOs.”
The recent Italian elections put the country’s best-known racist in charge of public security and immigration. Salvini’s rise has brought a constant stream of racist rhetoric and, indirectly, a spate of racist attacks. But it has also driven a murderous escalation of Europe’s moves to lock down its Mediterranean frontier. On June 23, Italy announced that its coast guard will no longer assist boats in distress off Libya’s coast, reversing a policy that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives in recent years. Boats in distress must instead turn for help to the Libyan Coast Guard, an entity whose crews are little more than uniformed human smugglers and whose equipment is paid for by Italy and the EU. Handing control of rescue operations to them means shutting down migrants’ escape route out of the nightmare of Libya’s crowded and violent holding centers.
It’s not just immigrants that Salvini has in his crosshairs. His Lega, today in government with the Five Star Movement, has discussed closing down many of Italy’s mosques, and his ministry has announced plans for a census of Roma camp sites throughout the country. He has also set his sights on immigration lawyers, liberal journalists, and NGO volunteers, claiming that they peddle fake news and engage in humanitarian activity for profit. The attack on perceived “foreigners” also targets NGO missions as representative of foreign capital: “foreign ships with foreign money.”
In doing so, the Italian state is now repeating the classic tropes of antisemitism and conspiracy theories. Salvini focuses his rage on the evils of money, the media, and the hidden enemy within. Referring to Roma people who do have Italian citizenship, Salvini publicly declared, “Unfortunately, we have to keep them.”
From the Arab Spring to the New European Right
In 2011, the death of Colonel Gaddafi and the collapse of his regime marked the reopening of the Libyan “back door” from the Middle East into Europe. The chink in Europe’s armor was now pried open. Proletarians, whether dispossessed by war or land-grabbing multinationals or impoverished by colonialism and their own countries’ mafia bourgeoisie, amassed in Libya to make their way into the promised land of European salaries, welfare, and peace. That same year saw the end of Silvio Berlusconi’s career and his deals with Gaddafi to suppress migration. The EU technocrat Mario Monti was brought in not only to oversee Italy’s state finances but also to manage the mass protests of Tunisians fleeing the crackdown on their revolution and the large-scale opening of hostels for asylum seekers.
By 2013, the route proved so deadly that large numbers of Syrians refused to take it, preferring to wait in North Africa, the Middle East, and Turkey for other routes to open. Under Matteo Renzi’s center-left government, the Italian state’s own Mare Nostrum rescue operation was axed. As the state left people to drown, humanitarian maritime missions run by NGOs tried to save them. Even so, as deaths at sea mounted during 2014 and 2015, this did not deter hundreds of thousands from daring the route: indeed, more than 150,000 made the crossing each year between 2014 and 2016.
But it was the bursting of Fortress Europe’s eastern defense frontier in the summer of 2015 that mobilized forces across the political spectrum. The masses of working-class Arabs and Africans crossing Europe’s maritime frontiers and internal territorial borders were met with expressions of solidarity from across civil society, but they also accelerated the closure of the frontiers. By autumn 2015, the so-called “hot spot” approach (ultimately inspired by New York’s “zero-tolerance” policing of young black men) had been installed to enforce control of Europe’s internal borders. By spring 2016, the Turkey-Greece deal, infamously, attempted to close the eastern frontier, roping the Syriza government in Athens into a human rights atrocity.
In spring 2017, Italy’s center-left government, led by Paolo Gentiloni and then-interior minister Marco Minniti, fleshed out a deal with the Serraj government in Libya to effectively arm and fund Libyan militia to seize departing migrant boats. The plan was finally implemented at the end of the summer. By the time of the march 2018 elections, there had already been a 75 percent drop in the number of migrant landings, and a campaign of racist rhetoric and violence outran the efforts of the progressive left-wing and Catholic forces, which had previously sustained rescue operations.
Closed Ports, Shootings, and Shipwrecks
The past two weeks have seen the rapid implementation of a plan to completely close Italy’s maritime borders and strike fear into a section of Italy’s working class.
Much as in the first days of Donald Trump’s presidency, the new Italian government began with a shock policy, an act of that might be called “vice signaling,” to win the hearts and minds of its most racist voters. Two weeks ago, it announced that it would not allow the docking of the Aquarius, a ship belonging to a Médecins Sans Frontières rescue mission. Despite protests across the country by local politicians and activists, the ports remained closed. After days of wrangling among the European powers, the Aquarius was welcomed by Spain’s new center-left Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez.
The 600 migrants spent over a week at sea before they finally reached Valencia. Yet as the Aquarius was arriving in Spain, the Italian government announced that the ports would also be closed to two further rescue ships, the Lifeline and the Seefuchs. For lack of safe harbor, the latter ship transferred more than 100 people to a merchant vessel. The Italian transport minister (a member of the Five Star Movement) declared that since the Seefuchs carries the Dutch flag, the Netherlands should accept any migrants it rescued. On Thursday, the Netherlands removed the Seefuchs‘s legal protection, forcing it to return to Valletta, Malta with an empty berth, even as traffickers pushed more boats into the Mediterranean waters. At the same time, the Lifeline picked up over 200 people in distress, refusing to hand them over to the nearby Libyan Coast Guard. The Italian state continues to refuse entrance to its ports, even though its demands on Malta — to disembark the migrants and seize the Lifeline‘s ship — have been rejected. Five days later, the 230 passengers remain at sea.
For the first ten days, as NGO ships were diverted and threatened, the Italian Coast Guard continued to rescue and land people in Sicilian ports. Over the past fortnight, the Italian Coast Guard vessel the Diciotti has brought 900 people in to the port of Catania and another 500 to Pozzallo. Yet not even the USNS Trenton, an American navy vessel, was allowed to dock in Italy, after it rescued forty-one people from drowning. The passengers spent more than a week at sea awaiting a solution. Twelve corpses among them had been recovered when they were rescued; after two days the US navy vessel — a ship belonging to the greatest military power ever known — claimed that it lacked refrigeration on board, and without the political or moral will to do otherwise, dumped the twelve bodies in the sea. The forty-one survivors were eventually transferred to the Diciotti.
Violence at sea has been paralleled by violence on land. This year’s election campaign was marked by a fascist shooting in Macerata, as well as the racist killing of a Senegalese man, Idy Diene, in Florence, the day after votes were counted. Three months later, when the Five Star-Lega government was finally announced, a farm laborer and trade union activist in Calabria, Soumaila Sacko (originally from Mali) was assassinated. These attacks have accelerated over the past two weeks. The same day that the mayor of Naples announced (symbolically) that his port was ready to welcome the Aquarius’s 600 migrants, two young Malian men were shot with an air rifle in nearby Caserta. The shooter cried out, “Salvini! Salvini!” Two days later, two Italians armed with a gun and knives broke into a migrant hostel in Sulmona. When the Aquarius finally landed in Valencia, a Senegalese man, Assan Diallo, was shot dead in Milan. Two days later, a young black activist in Naples was shot at in the street with a pellet gun. Every act of rescue at sea seems to be matched by an act of violence on land.
The deaths on land and at sea are part of a single tendency towards devaluing black life in Italy (with a significant effect on intensifying conditions for labor exploitation). This year alone at least 1,000 people have died crossing the sea, murdered by Europe’s frontiers — 300 in just the past two weeks. We know about these shipwrecks mainly from the survivors; the forty passengers of the US Trenton report having watched at least sixty people drown, including a pregnant mother. Between June 18 and June 20, there were at least four shipwrecks, counting the more than 200 dead and roughly 200 survivors who were captured by the Libyan Coast Guard. On Sunday, June 24, more than 800 people were captured by the Libyan Coast Guard while the Open Arms rescue mission waited nearby, unable to intervene.
Cut-Cost Border Deaths
There are at least three reasons for the Italian state’s change of strategy. First, the Salvini Plan — in theory at least — allows Italy to extract concessions from the EU in exchange for managing the main access point on Europe’s southern frontier. Such a negotiation would in itself be no bad thing if it came with greater freedom of movement for migrants within Europe (i.e., relaxing internal border controls and allowing arriving migrants to claim asylum in a country of their choice). Any such agreement would have to happen on a state-by-state basis given the EU’s vast political heterogeneity in the current moment. For example, it would be easier for the Italian and French states to reach an accord on greater freedom of movement (for citizens and non-citizens alike) on a bilateral basis, rather than wait for the extreme-right governments in central and eastern Europe to agree. Italy’s bilateral approach can also be seen in its courting of Egyptian and Libyan states. Matteo Salvini even openly dismissed the need to investigate Egypt’s murder of the Italian academic Giulio Regeni, given the need to curry favor with that country’s government. Yet there can be few better examples of the callousness of capitalist powers than hundreds of people being left to drown for the sake of bargaining chips.
The Salvini Plan might also be designed to break the Five Star Movement’s own coalition of support and consolidate the Lega’s power, both through ongoing local votes and any snap general election that might be called. Recent local elections have indeed seen the center-right win mayoral seats across Italy, often with 60 percent of the vote. The Five Star Movement, which came in first across the South in March’s general election, no longer seems to be polling well after allying with the Lega, whose anti-migrant rhetoric used to be matched by hatred for Southerners (it only recently dropped the name “Northern League” from its propaganda at the national level). A fresh election, likely resulting in gains for the Lega, would allow Salvini’s party greater control of state finances and satisfy the conservative capitalist interests that stand behind it, without having to give in to some of the Five Star’s (limited) demands for welfare reform.
Last but certainly not least, the Salvini Plan is cheaper. The Minniti Plan under the previous center-left government was complicated and expensive: it relied on marshaling a series of different tactics under the aegis of various state and para-state agencies. It relied on the Libyan Coast Guard (smugglers in uniform) to patrol the southern maritime border and capture departing migrants; on Libyan local political leaders to maneuver human smugglers into this role; on the Italian Coast Guard and Frontex (the European border agency) to carry out rescue operations and police the landings; on Italian NGOs to support aid work in Libyan detention centers to ameliorate the human catastrophe caused by blocking the escape route; and, in practice, on state security services and fascists (“Identitarians”) to spy on humanitarian organizations, as well as the courts to criminalize them. It has, nevertheless, been effective: over the course of summer 2017, half of the humanitarian campaigns were directly or indirectly forced to abandon the Mediterranean, and arrivals from Libya were reduced by 75 percent. The Salvini Plan is much simpler: it pushes all the responsibility and costs for the bourgeoisie’s offensive onto other actors, whether Spanish, French, or Libyan.
Another major threat the new government made during its election campaign was to deport half a million people (a vague estimate of the number of non-Europeans in Italy without papers). This policy is politically and economically expensive for three reasons.
(a) The construction of deportation centers has been consistently blocked by both the right and left wings of Italian politics and the grassroots activity of migrants themselves. The “hot spot” in Palermo (in all likelihood intended primarily as a deportation center) has so far been blocked by progressive forces. Plans for some centers have been blocked by right-wing forces who refuse to have a holding pen in their neighborhood. Most importantly, existing detention centers in Lampedusa are barely functioning due to arson and vandalism instigated by the Tunisian migrants imprisoned there. This has cut short previous state plans (proposed by all of Salvini’s forerunners) to expand the detention program.
(b) Mass deportations are blocked by the electoral importance of diaspora Italian communities outside of Italy. If the Italian state deports or indirectly forces out its unauthorized workforce, young Italian workers may find themselves forced to return or various sectors of the Italian economy (logistics, agriculture) will come under serious threat. The threat of deportation might make for powerful rhetoric, but in practice it would cost the government some of its support not only from the Five Star Movement but also from young voters who do not want to return from Northern Europe, and, importantly, capitalists who rely on “migrant labor.” Mass deportation of undocumented migrants would mean raiding farmland in Southern Italy and removing its workforce, doubtless a disastrous policy.
(c) Mass deportations are also blocked by the electoral importance of diaspora African and Asian communities in Italy. In order for deportations to take place, African and Asian politicians must sign agreements with Italy, agreements which would be vehemently opposed by the diaspora. Although many immigrants in Italy do not vote remotely, they exercise important influence over the voting decisions of their families and friends back home. For example, the fall of Abdoulaye Wade’s government in Senegal was partly due to his loss of popularity after signing a deportation agreement with the Spanish government.
Whereas deportations are costly, politically and economically, closing the ports and withdrawing the Italian Coast Guard is costless.
The Spell of Migration
In Italy today, migration has become the privileged and almost exclusive topic of political debate. Migration has cast a spell over the country. Social issues that affect all of its population — citizens and non-citizens alike — such as housing, labor rights, and gender equality, manage to emerge only sporadically above the political waves left by the wake of the rubber boats.
Countering the Italian state’s new extremist rhetoric is not easy. In fact, attacks on right-wing “radicalism” have often backfired. Criticisms of irrational speech or illegal policies merely encourage the affirmation of a series of counter-truths: everyone has their own YouTube video and factoid to which to point. And any interpretation of the world based solely on the invocation of international rules and regulations fails to confront the patent need for change.
Yet the power of the extreme-right hate speech does not only draw from its radicalism or the leverage of the capitalist powers financing it. Matteo Salvini is not only a result of the Left’s failure, but ironically, the success of past revolt. The fear he stirs up is based on very real acts of resistance against the border regime. Without the mass breakthrough of 2015, in which migrants scaled and dissolved Europe’s eastern and southern borders, the new European right would not have had the basic material from which to construct its hatred and lies.
The right wing is today weaponizing the results of these migrants’ hard-won breakthrough. Italy now fears the migrant more than anything else — more than fascists or terrorists or invading armies. This is not romanticism or, indeed, celebration: it is the most basic recognition of the sheer hunger and determination of the migrants’ resistance, which continues despite the death and suffering in the desert and the sea.
In response, the Italian state under the Lega-Five Star government is now attempting to entirely close its frontiers. If it succeeds, it will condemn many in Libya to torture, deformity, and even extermination. But there is hope. Closing people out also highlights the value of the labor of those who are already here. Even in its attempts to limit fresh arrivals, the Italian state is granting a section of the existing migrant and Italian-born working class a more concrete form.
Aboubakar Soumahoro — a leading figure in the USB union, in which murdered farm worker Soumaila Sacko was also active — has strongly asserted this class interest. In his words, “Solidarity means bringing humanity and social justice together, beginning with people’s needs inasmuch as we are human beings and not goods for exchange. Solidarity means farmhands and couriers marching side by side, public employers and private sector workers, the unemployed with the precarious, brought together by the common need for equal pay for equal work — independently of the color of your skin or which part of the world you come from.”
The Salvini plan thus might force open not just the European question, but an even more global issue. For, despite its intentions, it raises the issue of a truly international class unity.