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Italy’s ‘push-back’ policy

An Italian government of populists has finally been sworn in from two parties: the right-wing Northern League and the left-wing Five Star Movement.

Italy’s new hard-line Home Affairs Minister, Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, flew to Sicily to inspect a refugee reception centre and prepare to deliver on his campaign promise of a mass expulsion of illegal migrants. Italy lacked homes and jobs for Italians, “let alone for half the African continent”, he said. “There is only one way to save these lives: fewer people leaving, more repatriations”.

The undercurrents driving the turmoil in Europe’s fourth biggest economy have channelled nationalist frustrations with Brussels. If not attended to, they could undermine the foundations of the euro and lead to the election of other anti-migrant protest parties and governments throughout Europe. Malta should view these developments with concern.

The issue is both international and national. From a narrow, national perspective, Malta cannot escape the realities of geography and its position on the direct migrant path in the Mediterranean from Libya to Europe.

In this regard, Mr Salvini made a very telling comment last week: “The Good Lord put Malta closer to African shores than Sicily. Malta cannot always say ‘no’ to any request to intervene.”

For the past four years – during which Italy has carried the overwhelming burden of coping with over 600,000 asylum-seekers, with 100,000 still in reception centres – Malta has largely been spared. But the pressures arising before 2013/14, when this country was coping (with difficulty) with an average of about 1,000 irregular migrants a year, may be set to return.

All the indications are that Malta is not ready for an influx on this scale.

NGOs working with migrants have highlighted that reception centres at Safi and Ħal Far have been progressively reduced in capacity and their infrastructure has been severely neglected.

The summer sailing season is already under way. On the day Mr Salvini made his declaration of intent in Sicily, more than 68 migrants drowned  just north of Libya and, soon after, at least 35 people lost their lives off Tunisia.

The need for the government to update its infrastructure, manpower resources and contingency plans for dealing with a huge influx of refugees is imperative. With Italy’s determination to reduce arrivals by boat, the consequences of not preparing for the worst case could be dire.

Moreover, as a member of the European Union, Malta will not be immune to the international repercussions. Although Mr Salvini has declared he did not intend to dismantle the measures put in place by his predecessor, who reduced migrant arrivals in the first half of this year by 75 per cent (to about 13,500), he said the rate of repatriations of only 7,000 a year was unacceptable.

He is determined to tackle other European countries he accuses of abandoning Italy to deal with the problem alone. Malta should support Italy in ensuring all member states face immigration challenges together.

Regrettably, the experience of the last few years offers little cause for optimism. Brussels and European leaders can no longer ignore the politics of immigration and the consequent tide of populism sweeping Europe.

The anti-government backlash in Italy and elsewhere against austerity and immigration is a reflection of citizens’ anger at the ineffectiveness of EU leaders asleep at the wheel.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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