Undeterred by a deadly sea crossing, African migrants fleeing war, poverty, climate change and rights abuses are testing the will of Italy and the international community.

Migrants being rescued in the Mediterranean sea off the Italian coast, 29 April 2014. (EPA/Giuseppe Lami)
Migrants being rescued in the Mediterranean sea off the Italian coast, 29 April 2014. (EPA/Giuseppe Lami)

By Tania Bagan

The Mediterranean Sea is the most traveled, deadliest migration route on Earth.

Last year, 5,079 migrants lost their lives trying to cross the world’s third-largest sea — 34 percent more than in 2015, according to the Missing Migrants Project.

Since 2011, when Libya’s former strongman Muammar Gaddafi was ousted and killed, and his tacit agreement with then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to control migration from Libya to Italy collapsed, Italy’s refugee crisis has deepened.

Between 2011 and 2016, the number of foreign residents in Italy surged by 24 percent to more than 5 million, according to the Italian National Institute of Statistics.

Today, northern Italian cities where racial and cultural diversity were once unfamiliar concepts are crowded with African newcomers.

Terrorist attacks in Europe have stirred animosity towards Muslims.

Italy is not the ideal final destination for most migrants: 11.6 percent of its workforce was unemployed in October 2016, compared to 4.1 percent in Germany and 8.3 percent in the European Union as a whole, according to Eurostat.

But the EU’s Dublin Regulation demands that asylum seekers be detained and processed in the first member state they enter. Since Italy is the gateway to Europe for almost all African people departing from nearby Libya, migrants face obstacles if they try to leave Italy, before winning asylum, to seek refuge elsewhere in Europe.

migrants
An “anti-fascist” slogan against right-wing political parties on a wall in Venice.
(Photo by Tania Bagan)

The rising numbers of economic migrants and asylum seekers, trapped in Italy’s stagnant economy, have fueled xenophobia and nationalism. Some Italians are hesitant to welcome or support the incoming masses, which include migrants who are looking for better living conditions but who do not fit the Geneva Convention’s definition of political refugee.

The anti-immigrant Lega Nord party is now supported by more than 12 percent of the electorate, up from around 4 percent four years ago, according to polls.

Recent terrorist attacks elsewhere in Europe have stirred animosity, particularly towards Muslims. It was not lost on Italians that the recent attack at a Christmas market in Berlin in which a dozen people died was committed by a young Tunisian migrant who was first admitted to the Italian island of Lampedusa and who had a history of crime in the country.

Intolerance and ethnocentrism have a long history in Italy.

Such tragedies have underscored perceived threats to safety and are prodding some Italians to call for more restrictive immigration laws and a revision of open-door policies.

After the Berlin attack, Lega Nord leader Matteo Salvini said in a tweet that if Germany had been on a war footing, German Chancellor Angela Merkel would be tried for “high treason” for her open-border policy:

Prof. Bruce Leimsidor of Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University believes that Italians have no real cause to be concerned about terrorism. Growing xenophobia stems from a refusal to embrace diversity, for fear that integration will lead to “cultural pollution,” he said.

Still, intolerance and ethnocentrism have a long history in Italy, which has had a number of right-wing leaders including Benito Mussolini and, more recently, Berlusconi.

“The xenophobia cultivated by Berlusconi has been carried over to subsequent governments,” Leimsidor said.

Consider, for example, that racist hate crimes in Italy surged to 555 in 2015 from 56 in 2010, rising in line with concerns over national identity and homogeneity.

A solution depends not only on Italy’s good will.

Growing up in Venice, a city split between strong defenders of tradition and national pride on the one hand, and a younger generation of leftists and advocates for social change on the other, I was exposed to contrasting political viewpoints.

Some believe it is the legal and moral duty of the Western world — historical oppressor and colonizer — to accommodate those pursuing freedom and safety. Many elders maintain that the cultural clash brought about by the merging of different worlds can lead to social, economic and political degradation.

In the long run, the flow of migrants will swell as Africans flee a continent that is ravaged by war and struggling with both explosive population growth and the effects of climate change, which is already destroying crops in some regions.

The roots of the problem lie outside of Italy, which nonetheless bears a heavy burden as the first EU destination for thousands of Africans crossing the Mediterranean.

A solution to the migration crisis depends not only on Italy’s good will — now being stretched to the limits — but also on the willingness of the rest of Europe and the international community to tackle the armed conflicts, poverty and human rights abuses that stir so many Africans to attempt the perilous Mediterranean crossing.


Tania Bagan grew up in Venice, Italy, and now attends Haverford College in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. She is in her third year, studying Comparative Literature. She spent a summer studying in Avignon and is fluent in French. She writes for a school-led publication, The Margin.

 

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