How Sicilians are responding to Salvini’s anti-migrant agenda

14 August 2018

Sitting in the beautiful Piazza della Repubblica, a pistachio ice cream in my hands melting faster than I can eat it, I’m enjoying a lazy Saturday in Marsala, a beach town on the west coast of Sicily. Everything moves slowly and I feel far removed from the ‘real’ world. For a second I start wondering “why did I leave this fairy-tale place to move to the UK?” Then about a thousand reasons come to mind.

As I look towards the main church something catches my eye. A colour theme seems to emerge from the masses of bodies moving across the square. In a few minutes the Duomo’s stairs are covered with people wearing red T-shirts, holding up banners, posing for the media. They are asking the government to ‘stop the bleeding of humanity’ – a symbolic action of solidarity with migrants and refugees and against the racist policies introduced by the new interior minister Matteo Salvini.  Some people start clapping and in a few seconds the whole square joins in, louder and louder, as if we’d all finally woken up from our lazy afternoon.

For a moment, I feel a glimpse of pride inside me. This is the Sicily that I like to see, that I’d forgotten. A Sicily that wants to stand up, organise, resist.

The action, I learn, was part of a nation-wide mobilisation organised by the anti-Mafia network Libera. It was just one of the many demonstrations called after Salvini’s decision to close all Italian ports to rescue boats carrying migrants and refugees in June.  

During my weeks in Sicily I learnt more about what’s happening at the grassroots level and across public opinion. What I found was a deeply split response.

On the one hand, there is widespread support for Salvini’s far-right Lega party – historically anti-south and separatist – coupled with a worrying rise in attacks against migrants. On the other, a growing movement in support of migrants’ rights and against the populist vision held by the new government.

From TV news and newspapers to social media feeds and the random chit-chat overheard at the post office, it feels as if the vocabulary of the entire country has been reset and polarised across these two lines.


A shift in policy and narrative

I spoke to Fausto Melluso, migration expert with Arci Sicily, about the situation in Italy before and after the latest elections.

“The rise of populism,” he explains, “has undoubtedly been favored by policies that, with the aim of restraining it, have ended up fostering it. I believe it has happened in many countries across Europe, in different forms. In Italy the phenomenon has developed slowly and has reached its first peak with the closure of the Mare Nostrum Mission (a rescue mission managed by Italy between 2013 and 2014). The policies implemented by the former Minister of the Interior Minniti then completely reframed the issue of migration.”

He’s referring to the agreements between Italy and Libya, signed in February 2017, aimed at stopping refugees and migrants travelling to Europe.

“Libya used to be portrayed in the media as a country run by bloody,  undemocratic leaders. Now, those same leaders are described as ‘mayors’ with whom it’s possible to make so-called ‘cooperation agreements’. In fact, those deals have ended up being a pure exchange of money and resources to stop migrants reaching our shores, with no guarantee in terms of human rights protection.”

The Lega’s populist far-right rhetoric, reframed by Salvini in recent years around the slogan ‘Italians first!”, has shifted public opinion even further in a vicious circle that justifies the most extreme anti-immigration sentiment (and policies).

We discuss how Italy, like other European states, has virtually shut down all legal access routes other than asylum, only to be shocked to see that the number of asylum applications has recently increased. Regular entry channels, Fausto suggests, should be reopened for job searches and secure access channels should be guaranteed for asylum seekers.

“It’s unacceptable that the right to asylum needs to imply the risk for one’s life in order to be exercised.  A risk that we have exponentially increased in the Mediterranean by outsourcing the means and instruments of control to Libya.”


A fragmented response

When I ask what people are doing to counteract the rise of populism and racism, Fausto tells me that there are many different groups actively fighting against it – “even too many”, he adds.

“The anti-racist movement shows a certain vitality and in many cities there have been great mobilisations against the closure of ports. There are very active national networks such as Libera and Arci, as well as many interesting local community projects and a constellation of small left-wing parties. The problem is the lack of organisation and coordination between these realities. This greatly undermines the effectiveness of the opposition, which is shattered into a thousand pieces, often engaged in quarreling against each other rather than uniting to join forces.”

Same old story, I think. So, what’s the shared vision, what’s the proposed alternative?

 “We need to stop talking about migrant ‘invasion’ and start accepting the inevitability of migration. We must also debunk the myth that the growth of inequality is caused by migrants, and reject the fixed classification between migrants seeking asylum and economic migrants.”

I can’t help but find the situation very ironic. Sicily, historically the crossroad of the Mediterranean, has always been an island of immigrants and, in 20th and 21st centuries, of ‘economic’ emigrants (within Italy and beyond). Sicilian people have always been at the receiving end of xenophobia, dismissed as scroungers and parasites by people from the north and parties like Lega. Now, we’ve been seduced by the same narrative that was once used against us and that just serves the interests of a few politicians.

“It won’t be easy to break this cultural hegemony that has been created,” Fausto tells me. “But we can and must organise as best as we can. It will take time, cooperation and, above all, the ability to put forward a different way of seeing things. We need to demand security in the form of human rights, rather than depriving ever-larger parts of the population of the possibility of trying to build a life for themselves.”

As I go back to the UK, where the hostile environment is reshaping the lives of migrants and fuelling a climate of hate, I feel the scale of the problem even more vividly.

As countries across Europe are taking part in a political race to the bottom, closing their borders and putting the lives of thousands of people at risk, organising and resisting at a local level has never been more crucial.



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