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The New Old Italian Approach to Migration: Criminalisation of Everything

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Post by Diana Volpe. Diana is a DPhil Candidate in International Development and a Blog Editor at Border Criminologies. Her research focuses on the legitimation processes of migration policies in Italy with particular focus on the Italy-Libya cooperation agreements.

a football team holding a banner

On the 5th of March 2023, a football club in the Italian province of Bergamo was featured on national news, and, interestingly, not for its sporting successes. Members of the club had walked down to the pitch before a game carrying a banner that read: “Mediterranean Cemetery: stop deaths at sea”. In itself, perhaps, not news. However, as a result, the club was fined 500 euros for carrying an un-authorised banner and was disqualified for the season. While both the ban and the disqualification were later successfully appealed, they symbolise the wider hostile environment to acts of migrant solidarity in Italy. Criminalisation of solidarity is not a new phenomenon, nor one endemic to Italy (see here a blog post on the UK), but one that continues to find bolstering in right-wing nationalistic politics. In this blog post I analyse the action and response from the Italian government to the shipwrecks of late February and mid-March 2023, and how the narratives they put forth relate to recent decrees.

The banner referred to the events from a few days before, when on the 26th of February, at least 63 people died trying to reach the coast of Calabria. The boat, coming from Turkey, fell apart in a shipwreck about 100 metres from the shores of Cutro. Amidst the searches, news reports mention people on the move coming from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Syria.

What’s more, two weeks later, on the 12th of March, news of another shipwreck in the Mediterranean resonated across Italian newspapers: roughly 200km north of Benghazi, Libya, a boat capsized with 47 people on board. Alarm Phone had launched the alarm more than 24 hours beforehand. Several search and rescue NGOs spoke of deliberate delays in rescue, with Sea Watch accusing the Italian government of omitting rescue. These events are not new phenomena, but rather the latest examples of the consequences of Italian and European practices of non-assistance in the Mediterranean, for long now considered the deadliest border in the world.

However, the last time that a shipwreck caused such strong reactions across the Italian political sphere was a little under 10 years ago, on the 3rd of October 2013, when a boat capsized off the coast of Lampedusa, causing the tragic death of 400 people. As a result of the Lampedusa shipwreck, a short-lived government-sponsored mission of search and rescue, Mare Nostrum, was launched, before financial and supranational pressures put a stop to it within a year. Since then, the policies governing search and rescue in the Central  Mediterranean have followed a clear line: operations focused on pushbacks, criminalisation of search and rescue activities by NGOs, ‘closed ports’ policies.  

Responses in the aftermath of the recent Cutro shipwreck from Italian authorities and media reflects this policy line. The president of the Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella, called upon the European Union to finally take “concrete responsibility to govern the migration phenomenon and subtract it from human traffickers”, as well as addressing root causes: war, persecution, terrorism, poverty, territories made inhospitable and climate change. The right-wing government immediately turned towards talking about stopping departures. “No proposals for a European naval missions are on the table” for rescuing migrants, says a spokesperson for the European Commission speaking to Italian media, calling the event “another tragedy”.

The mediatic aftermath

The shipwreck received strong media attention due to its closeness to the Italian coast. A peaceful national protest followed these events in the coastal town of Cutro, which united different civil society groups, even featuring the famous previous mayor of Riace, Mimmo Lucano, sentenced to 13 years in prison for his model of migrant reception, by many defined to have been sentenced to ‘crimes of solidarity’.

In the face of a tragedy that seems to have shaken public interest in a way that had not happened since Mare Nostrum, the right-wing narratives briefly faltered. Statements from interior minister Piantedosi blaming the parents of the children drowned in the shipwreck stirred a mediatic storm that was met with less of the usual security framings and more humanitarian tones. ‘Let’s be a little serious”, said Meloni in an interview: “In conscience” - she repeats - “in good conscience, is there anyone who believes that the government would have deliberately let 60 people die?”.  The defensive tone was also required by the convenient timing of the opposition Democratic Party’s election of a new secretary, Elly Schlein, celebrated (perhaps prematurely) internationally as the embodiment of change in Italy since her election. Schlein immediately brought the issue forth in parliamentary discussions, calling for Piantedosi to resign, and many following along, with more than 55 thousand people signing a petition asking for his resignation.

The decree against search and rescue NGOs

While an investigation opened to look into the facts of the Cutro shipwreck, it is not difficult to find the building blocks in recent Italian legislation that have brought to this point. In January 2023, the government passed a decree on search and rescue (SAR) operations at sea: the ‘anti-rescue’ (already discussed by this blog, see here). This decree attempted to limit the realm of action of SAR NGOs, by prohibiting vessels from carrying out multiple instances of rescue within the same mission, and forcing them to immediately request a place of safety after a rescue ‘without delay’. This reduced rescue capacities at sea in a context where there is already a gap in services of rescue, with several organisations expressing their concerns.

In a context where independent actors are criminalised and severely limited in their realm of action, the Cutro shipwreck highlighted the limitations of the security-based missions Frontex has been leading in the Mediterranean since the end of Mare Nostrum. While investigations continue on the specifics of the Cutro case, the consequences of these policies appear evident: curtailing search and rescue operations brings more deaths.

The decree against boat drivers

The aftermath of the Cutro shipwreck and the public response required a strong reaction from the government, which re-hashed an old classic: stopping departures, traffickers, and boat drivers (scafisti). A new decree was proposed with harsher fines for traffickers and boat drivers, including up to 30 years in prison for anyone who ‘promotes, drivers, organises, finances or acts as transportation of foreigners in the State’s territory’ when transport happens through modes that expose people to vital dangers.

Of course, this decree achieves exactly what it aims to do: nothing substantial. The criminalisation of boat drivers has already been analysed by Arci Porco Rosso and Alarm Phone in their report From Sea To Prison (report available here), showing how boat drivers face unjust criminalisation and “extreme light-handedness in the attribution of responsibility”, now with even harsher penalties. On the other hand, the right-wing government gets to claim a strong-hand approach on migration control, as well as a semblance of power over current events. Record arrivals in Lampedusa continue to show how these policies are not only cruel and inhumane, but most importantly, ineffective.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

D. Volpe. (2023) The New Old Italian Approach to Migration: Criminalisation of Everything . Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/05/new-old-italian-approach-migration-criminalisation. Accessed on: 14/04/2024

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