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Fortress Europe’s Last Stand?

Italy has reversed its policy on Mediterranean migration, endangering the lives of those fleeing violence and civil war.

Migrants aboard an inflatable vessel in the Mediterranean Sea last summer. National Museum of the US Navy / Flickr

Since 2014, around half a million people have entered Fortress Europe through Italy. Over the past three weeks, however, the Italian state has adopted strong measures to stop African and Asian migrants from arriving. Attempting to dam the great breach in Fortress Europe’s battlements, Italy has put the full range of its resources into action: the military, the judiciary, the interior ministry, the diplomatic service, the right-wing press, private mercenaries, organized fascists, the church, and the secret service are now working together to shore up the Italian coastline.

A year of propaganda, criminalization, and skulduggery cleared the way for this final push, which handed the Italian government’s right wing control of international and Libyan waters. This Mediterranean coup has pushed humanitarian organizations out and empowered the Libyan militia. We can already see the disastrous results: whereas over five thousand people arrived in the first week of August 2016, only one thousand people have made it to Italy so far this month. There have been no landings for over a week. Zero boats.

The consequences will be painful, even fatal, for those African and Asian workers and families  trying to create a better future in Europe. Tens of thousands of migrants remain imprisoned in Libyan concentration camps, often subject to torture and slavery. Over the past week alone, the Libyan militia has captured over one thousand people and returned them to African ports.

The forces that aligned to take charge of the Mediterranean Sea, fortifying Europe and stemming immigration, also control the Italian government and media. The Italian left has failed to stand in solidarity with the migrants fighting for their lives at sea and for basic human rights on land. European and international socialists and progressives must take up this cause.

From Conspiracy Theory to Government Policy

After Italy’s Mare Nostrum rescue project ended in 2014, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) picked up the slack to slow the death toll at Europe’s maritime borders. Their rescue vessels edged closer and closer to the Libyan coast in hopes of saving migrants stranded at sea. The NGOs soon became the heroes of the story, just as the Lampedusan fishermen had been before: ordinary people trying to intervene in a horrific situation.

In the past year, however, the state and the right-wing press have completely reversed this narrative.

In November 2016, Gefira, a right-wing think tank, published a report claiming that Open Arms, one of the NGOs working in the Mediterranean, was participating in “a well-organized hazardous human trafficking operation.” The accusation that these groups were collaborating with Libyan traffickers spread quickly from conspiracy theorists to the far-right Northern League, to the popular press, and finally to the courts and government. In December, a report by Frontex added to the accusations, stressing that the NGO rescue operations create a “pull factor” for migrants.

In February 2017, Italy and Libya signed an agreement promising to halt the flow of migrants. It is no coincidence that this diplomacy came at the same time as ENI, the Italian oil-and-gas company, was trying to reopen its Libyan wells after a two-year hiatus. But the still-divided Libyan parliament left the deal unratified, and the practical steps for slowing immigration were left to the imagination.

In April, Catania’s public prosecutor opened an investigation into the NGO missions. He called the admiral of the European Union’s Mediterranean mission to testify against the captain of Open Arms. After public outcry, the prosecutor admitted that he had nothing he could use in court. The case seemed closed, but the conspiracy theory had already moved into the terrain of party politics.

In late April, the Five Star Movement continued its rightward drift when Beppe Grillo published an article on the “shadowy role of the NGOs.” The post-austerity populists’ anti-immigration stance reached its peak in a recent policy document that promised “zero boat landings within five years.”

Many now view the Five Star Movement as the next election’s kingmakers. After a 2016 dip in popularity, Grillo’s anti-establishment party turned to populist racism, pushing its ratings much higher. Speculations about possible alliances with either the ruling Democratic Party or the far-right Northern League now abound. As Grillo’s party has moved toward the Northern League on immigration, one tendency within the Democratic Party has attempted to keep up.

The Democratic Party’s Right Turn

The Democrats, who have been in power since 2013, now contain three tendencies.

Matteo Renzi leads its centrist, Blairite wing. Although he resigned after the failed constitutional referendum, Renzi’s move now looks like a bluff that will allow him to retake the premiership after the current prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, does some dirty work. Gentiloni also belongs to the party’s Blairite wing, and he’s continuing Renzi’s centrist project: representing business interests and working in a quiet alliance with Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia.

Since these Third Way politicians make up most of the Democrats’ left wing, the big trade unions and nominally leftist civil society organizations are tied to the politics of centrism and privatization, even while the economy continues to curdle and the welfare state withers away.

The centrists have also turned against the NGOs, with Renzi stating:

It’s right that people who are saved at sea are temporally hosted in Italy, but we can’t take everyone. And if one of the NGOs, who generally work well, has contact with the smugglers, as seems to be the case, then we must react with an iron fist to make them respect the rules.

The party’s Catholic left remains fundamentally opposed to this anti-immigration turn. Importantly, this group includes Graziano Delrio, the minister of transport who also controls the Italian Coast Guard, the body that coordinates rescue missions. Delrio knows that the NGOs have worked closely with Italian authorities against the spurious claims that they collude with Libyan human traffickers.

However, the final strand, the party’s old Stalinist left, led by Minister of the Interior Marco Minniti and Minister for Justice Andrea Orlando, controls migrant policy. Minniti has led the charge to turn the Italian state against immigration.

Earlier this year, Orlando and Minniti passed a series of laws designed to reject more asylum claims and speed up deportations. They also delegated new police powers to local mayors in an attempt to protect “urban decorum.” Finally, Minniti announced new so-called hotspots — prisons of first arrival for new immigrants — in order to facilitate the immediate deportation of Tunisians and Egyptians and fingerprint all new arrivals for the European database, which will keep billions of euros flowing into the Italian migrant housing business.

By speeding up deportations and restricting immigration, Minniti and Orlando have continued a Stalinist tradition: almost twenty years ago, two former Communist Party politicians, Napolitano and Turco, opened the first migrant detention centers in Italy.

Having modified the executive and judiciary at home and influenced emigration policies abroad, Minniti has finally turned to the NGOs. At the end of July, he asked them to sign a new set of rules that would allow armed police to board their ships and require rescue boats to take any migrants to the nearest port, rather than transferring them to other boats and returning to the rescue zone. Minniti said that if they don’t agree, they will not be allowed to land in Italian ports. Out of eight NGO missions, three signed. The others, including Doctors Without Borders, refused, arguing that the new rules will not save lives.

The Italian state has then taken out the rebellious NGOs one at a time. On August 1, Italian authorities seized the Iuventa, which belongs to a small German NGO. The judiciary claims it is a coincidence that their investigation, which started last year, seized the ship just two days after the NGO refused to sign the interior ministry’s new rules.

Subsequently, the Italian authorities ordered a Doctors Without Borders ship to return to port with only 127 people on board, despite a capacity of one thousand. The passengers then moved to the Italian Coast Guard ship, probably due to intervention from the left-leaning transportation minister.

Soon after, they announced the suspension of their rescue missions, in protest. An Open Arms ship was denied entry to Lampedusa and to Malta, then stranded at sea with three rescued passengers on board for forty-eight hours before being accepted in Sicily. The NGO signed Minniti’s new rules.

Meanwhile, parliament voted to allow Italian naval ships into Libyan waters, with acting Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj’s blessing. These naval missions are intended to support the Libyan Coast Guard, little more than a collection of aquatic militia with demonstrable ties to human traffickers and forces active in the civil war.

The Libyan Coast Guard is tasked with capturing migrant boats and delivering them to Libyan holding camps, where prisoners are ransomed, tortured, and often sold back to smugglers. Indeed, many migrants attempt the crossing three or more times before succeeding. Unable to operate in the search-and-rescue zone without directly confronting the Libyan militia, almost all NGOs have, as of August 16, suspended their rescue missions. Only MOAS, which has always collaborated the most with the European border agency, Frontex, remains.

The Italian state has thus effected a regime change in international waters, denying humanitarian NGOs access to Italian ports and supporting the vilest actors in the Libyan civil war. In the name of stopping human trafficking, Italy has lent military force to the real smugglers.

Actual Collusion

Simultaneously, a new political actor has arrived in the rescue zone: the fascist ship C-Star, funded and crewed by a cross-European group called the Identitarians, which holds very similar — if not identical — politics as Gefira.

The Identitarians entered the fray in January, when they took out a small tugboat in a symbolic attempt to block a rescue ship’s departure from Catania. Despite a series of setbacks, including having their PayPal account shut down, facing arrest for human trafficking in Turkey, and confronting protesters at at every port where they try to dock — including Cretan, Sicilian, and Tunisian ports — they have managed to reach the rescue zone. Their exact activities remain unclear, and they themselves revise their own mission statement regularly.

Having trailed two rescue boats and sent political messages through the emergency channel on intra-ship radio, in the last few days they have received official support from the Five Star Movement and announced their active collaboration with the Libyan Coast Guard in driving one of the final rescue vessels away from the search-and-rescue zone.

More worrying still, however, is the apparent connection between the C-Star and the Italian judiciary. A Catholic left newspaper, Famiglia Cristiana, obtained a copy of the documents relating to the Iuventa’s seizure, which show that the investigation started thanks to information passed onto the secret service by two security guards on board an NGO ship last October. The guards worked for IMI Security Group, a member of which is the leading technician on the C-Star.

This would not be the first time that the Italian secret service has worked with fascists to support the governing party and oppose the Left: the story eerily resembles the activities of Operation Gladio in the 1970s and beyond.

Drownings for Votes

The Five Star Movement might have promised “zero boat landings within five years,” but the Democratic Party’s right wing seems to be attempting to reach that goal within five weeks. If Minniti can achieve this, he may take the wind out of Beppe Grillo’s sails and win the election next year.

But why would the Italian electorate vote for the politician who will let more people drown at sea or be tortured in Libya instead of the politician who wants to save lives?

A few years ago, the public viewed the Coast Guard and other rescue agents as heroes, thanks in large part to the strong Christian ethic that cuts through much of Italian life. But the Right has instrumentalized other ideological tendencies against this.

First and foremost, decades of anti-immigration laws have prevented non-Europeans from getting papers. The Italian state has periodically granted the sans-papers mass amnesties, allowing tens of thousands of people to make their way to other European countries. This strategy allows the government to destabilize African and Asian communities’ attempts to set down roots and build autonomous lives in Italy.

Further, depriving documents to a section of the working class has propped up Italy’s lagging agricultural sector during a period of wage stagnation and recession — or, in the nation’s south, depression. This economic situation owes as much to the Mafia’s continued corruption as it does to any neoliberal policy.

Also, the precarity of the African and Asian population has created constant social tensions, many of which could be resolved by allowing immigrants greater access to the welfare state and labor laws. But the racialized division of labor and division of legal status inhibits worker organization: the unemployed and Italian youth don’t organize alongside the exploited African farmhands; they blame them for economic problems and, ironically, often emigrate themselves.

All of these underlying tendencies are now being expressed in the attack on NGOs. Instead of tackling the corruption that runs through Italian business life — including in the vast migrant hostel sector, all controlled by small private contractors — public opinion has focused on the baseless claim that NGOs collude with Libyan traffickers. Instead of attempting to intervene in European politics with other anti-austerity parties, the Five Star Movement has whipped up crude anti-German sentiment and associated this with “foreign” NGOs operating out of Italian waters.

Most importantly, the attack on the NGOs represents the Italian right wing’s final solution for African migration into Italy. The 150,000 people housed in the privately owned hostel system have staged a number of protests, peaceful and otherwise, over the past few years demanding a decent meal, hot water, access to reliable legal information, family contact, schooling, and basic identification documents.

Far too often, the media describes these basic necessities as luxuries that proletarian Africans and Asians should be ashamed to request. The Right and the business interests it represents remind these migrants that they are lucky to be alive, which often masks their true sentiment: “I’d rather you didn’t exist at all.”

And dehumanizing treatment on land assists the denial of human life at sea. The criminalization of the rescue missions allows more and more people to drown in the dark: at least 2,500 people have already died in 2017 alone, and 15,000 people since 2014.

What is to be done? Though there are exceptions, the radical non-parliamentary Italian left, composed of networks of squats and social centers, has rarely managed to work in solidarity with the African and Asian proletariat; some tendencies within it oppose immigration. Meanwhile, the traditional labor-movement left remains bound to the Democratic Party and its anti-immigrant turn.

This leaves the task of building an opposition to the Catholic left. The radical Catholics in Italy have provided the most direct and long-term support to arriving migrants, but their approach of extending charity rather than creating solidarity often inadvertently contributes to dehumanization.

The European and international left must stand with the African and Asian working people whose lives are threatened by Italy’s racist policy. We must speak out against the criminalization of solidarity, and against migration policies that have blocked visas and forced people to turn to human traffickers. We must support the rescue missions saving people from drowning and violence.