Thursday, 18 May 2017 17:14

Defending a Refugee's Right to Exist in Italy

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Photo: CAFOD Photo library(Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


On Sunday [14 May 2017] the Italian coast guard saved 484 people crossing the Mediterranean, whilst also finding 7 dead bodies. These 7 deaths, have meant that this year 1,222 people have died crossing the Mediterranean – a tragic new record. Yet these figures have not been met with grief by everyone. The news of this record was drowned out amongst criticisms of NGOs operating in the Mediterranean and of refugees as perpetrators of sexual violence. It seems impossible, but the discourse regarding refugees in Italy has taken an even darker turn. Italy’s geopolitical location has meant it has always been at the centre of debates surrounding the "European refugee crisis", especially regarding its rescue missions (or lack thereof, since the rescue mission Mare Nostrum was replaced with the significantly less resourceful Trident). What’s happened, and more importantly what impact will this have on the lives of asylum-seekers attempting to reach Europe and refugees seeking to integrate into an increasingly impermeable Europe?

Attacks on humanitarian NGOs

Accusations targeted NGOs carrying out rescue missions in the Mediterranean, more specifically Proactiva open arms, Medicins sans frontiers, Sos Méditerranée, Moas, Save the Children, Jugend rettet, Sea watch, Sea eye and Life boat.  These have been blamed for providing support too close to the Libyan border, thus a "pull factor" for migrants to come to Italy, being financed in opaque ways with possible links to human trafficking channels, providing a "taxi service" for migrants and that their activity in the Mediterranean has led to an increase in deaths in the Mediterranean. Accusations were led by Italian prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro, then followed by 5 Star Movement’s Luigi di Maio and Beppe Grillo along with the notorious xenophobe Matteo Salvini of Lega Nord. This is not the first time such accusations have been made against humanitarian workers, with accusations by Frontex in 2014, which were then found false. 

To begin with, there is no proof that rescue operations act as a "pull factor" for migrants. In fact, despite Mare Nostrum operations having been cancelled leaving a significant decrease in humanitarian aid in the Mediterranean there has been a sharp increase in migrants taking the perilous journey from north Africa. Moreover, amidst several reports shining light on west African migrants being sold into the slave trade alongside deplorable living conditions, it is a critical time to evaluate how much the push factors outweigh the pull. Despite horror stories of trips across the Mediterranean, statistical chances of death increasing every month, and terrible conditions even upon arrival, the choice to still embark on this journey really shows the agonising situations some people are escaping from. There seems to be an absolute inability to step out of one’s privileged mind-set and fathom this eventuality. Is knowing that maybe a humanitarian organisation can evacuate you from a war zone a pull factor for you to travel there for leisurely reasons? Didn’t think so. One doesn’t calmly enter a perilous, life-threatening situation because of the slight likelihood of being rescued if you are, in fact, about to die. 

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Photo: CAFOD Photo library(Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In addition to this, no proven links have been found between these humanitarian NGOs and traffickers. The Italian Ministry of the Interior has reconfirmed that these NGOs work exclusive with the Ministry and the Italian coast guard – with no such links to human traffickers. Moreover, Nicola Stalla, representative of the Aquarius boat of Sos Méditerranée, reaffirmed that they are financed 99% by private donations, and 1% from the commune of Paris. And most of the other NGOs disclosed that they too are are financed in similar manners. When approaching the Libyan coast, these NGOs are merely responding to emergency calls. In fact, they are only abiding to the law, as in Italy, and Europe in general, the law dictates that whilst one must not facilitate illegal immigration, when receiving a call for help saving human lives is an absolute priority. A law which the Italian coast guard has not always abided to, as was revealed following the news of the heart-breaking phone call released this week from an incident in 2013. In this instance a call came from a sinking boat to the Italian authorities which then lead to approximately 5 hours of inaction, which consequently led to the death of about 236 people, including 66 children. 

These criticisms have sparked an intense debate in Italy about the role of NGOs in the Mediterranean and the refugee crisis in Italy. It’s no longer a discourse between left and right, it’s almost a consensus spanning across the political spectrum propagating a hypernational notion of Italian identity emboldened in contrast to that of the intrusive migrant. And whilst politicians can rail against each-other discussing the matter, a cemetery is forming and expanding in the depths of the Mediterranean. The 5 Star Movement repeat over and over again that they made these statements not to coax the votes of those who fear a rise in migration in the run up to potential Italian elections, but merely want clarification on the occasion. So in true fashion of the 5 Star Movement’s politics of protest they are instigating unrest and useless debate, rather than offering concrete proposals. NGOs in the Mediterranean are filling the vacuum of inaction by Italy and the European Union. Unhappy with their work? Propose intensified national or international efforts to save lives at sea. Or better yet, challenge EU policies and create safe legal channels for migrants to cross into Europe.

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Photo: Revol Web (Flickr) ; Licence: CC-BY-SA 2.0



The cherry on the cake of this toxic debate – the Democratic Party’s Debora Serracchiani’s statement that sexual violence is a hateful and disgusting act, but is even more morally and social reprehensible when committed by someone that had been welcomed into this country. First of all, sexual violence is always a hateful and disgusting act – no ifs, no buts. She then went on to defend herself to state that the pact of loyalty and gratitude made when you greet someone into your country is broken. Is no pact of loyalty broken when a girl or woman is raped by a family member? Or an acquaintance or friend? Or when a female refugee is attacked by an Italian man? All these still are the likeliest scenarios of sexual violence in Italy today. In no way would this be considered an acceptable statement if it was made about the Italian migrant communities in Germany, Belgium or the UK – all countries with significantly large Italian migrant communities. Just another divisive statement contributing to this bipolar discourse which only sees white Italian nationals as victims and black migrants as outsiders and perpetrators of hate crimes. This also goes to show that for migrants approaching Italy after having beaten the odds and successfully making it their troubles do not end there, making integration a distant dream. 

These two debates do not stand alone; they are part of a larger trend of a generally unconducive discourse taking place in Europe about migration. A discourse that focusses on these polarised and exclusive perceptions of nationhood that can be seen in Italy and in wider Europe that have been putting up metaphorical, alongside the very literal walls outside "Fortress Europe". A discourse focussed on fear-mongering, which in turn steers clear of concrete action and revising policy. Instead European countries continue detaining migrants, criminalising them just for being Other, depriving them of basic rights. We shouldn't forget also by depriving a migrant facilitated social and economic integration into society, we’re not only missing out on valuable contributions that could stimulate economic growth, something vital for Italy today, but depriving them of livelihood - leaving migrants in a limbo and prone to sustained psychological turmoil. We need to confront these attitudes for what they really are and call politicians and policy-makers out on their dangerous rhetoric. We need to break this polarised discourse and understand that this rhetoric of the victimised white Italian and the criminal black migrant is false and dangerous. Because these positions deprive people of their most fundamental human right – the right to life.

What can you do? Challenge these stereotypes and call people out. Not just your friends, write to your local MPs and politicians and policy-makers. On top of this consider supporting the fantastic work of these NGOs which have been actively saving lives in the Mediterranean: Proactiva open arms, Medicins Sans Frontiers, Sos Méditerranée, Moas, Save the Children, Jugend rettet, Sea watch, Sea eye and Life boat



Nicoletta Photo NEWNicoletta Enria is Italian, originally from La Spezia, but grew up in London, Rome and Frankfurt. She graduated from University College London studying Language and Culture, with a focus on German and Arabic.  She is currently working at the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. Follow her on twitter at @NicolettaEnria


Last modified on Friday, 19 May 2017 07:06
Nicoletta Enria

Nicoletta Enria is Italian, originally from La Spezia, grew up in Rome, London and Frankfurt. She graduated from University College London, studying Language and Cullture and now works as Project Assistant and Social Media Assistant at the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO). Follow her on twitter: @NicolettaEnria or her blog.

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