GP Insights # 393, 2 August 2020
The Senate in on 30 July voted to lift the immunity of former interior minister and the leader of the opposition Matteo Salvini, thereby initiating a possible trial against the minister for refusing to let a ship carrying 150 migrants dock in Italy in 2019. The prosecutors initiated the charge against the minister, in Sicily. They have sought to bring accountability to Salvini's policy to illegally detain the migrants on a ship operated by a Spanish charity. The trial could start later this year in Sicily, the place where the boat eventually docked after almost three weeks at sea in 2019.
What is the background?
First, Italy is in the front line of two overlapping crises- migration and pandemic. The initiation of the trial against Salvini comes at a time when the country is facing a dual crisis of incoming migrants and the pandemic. Italy has been one of the southern European countries in the front line of Europe's migration crisis from 2014 to 2017, with thousands of migrants and refugees arriving by boat from Libya. In the first quarter of 2020, ever since the pandemic started, about 12,500 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea. As the migrants keep arriving, the country has an added burden of screening a larger number of people. Also, with a dozen of Bangladeshis migrants (who have arrived in Italy legally) testing positive for the virus, Italy is grappling with imposing the quarantine rules. The migrant centres are filled beyond their capacity with a risk of contagion. In order to stop the spread of the virus, the government has continued to impose strictest initial quarantine rules in the migrant centres leading many to break out. The Italian government had to deploy soldiers in one of the migrant centres in Sicily to stop the breakouts.
Second, the trial is politically motivated but first to bring to justice an anti-immigration policy. As an interior minister from 2018 to 2019, Salvini pursued an anti-immigration policy that drew both criticism and applause. While he was globally criticized for his pushback and denying entry to migrants, domestically, he had the public support who continues to view the migrant influx as a reason for an economic burden. In his tenure, Salvini refused docking rights to several ships captained by Spanish charity non-governmental organizations.
The present trial charge follows another trial he was slated to face for one of the other ships he declined entry to. The Senate, however, upheld his immunity, in that case, thereby making this case the first when Salvini will have to justify his policy in court. The Senate's decision to lift Salvini's immunity this time is also because his anti-immigration policy had led to a split in the ruling coalition. As he left the government in 2019 to join the Opposition, the ruling coalition has since grappled with falling approval ratings but still remains one of the strongest political alliance in the country.
What does it mean?
First, once Matini faces the trial in court, it is likely to open the debate on the sharing of the refugees and the migrants in the region between the north and the south European countries. Italy is not the only country that has followed a strong anti-immigration policy. Greece also follows a similar policy where the Coast Guard is seen restricting the rafts full of migrants coming to its shores. For the migrants, Italy and Greece are the first stops in their journey. Several looks to move to the Scandinavian or the Northern European countries and frequent breakouts have been reported where the migrants have taken to travel to Stockholm or Berlin but have been sent back to the landing countries of Italy and Greece. Italy has long wanted a dialogue over the migrant sharing, and the reason for Salvini in 2019 to continue stopping the migrants at sea is to pressurize for a deal with the EU countries to take them in.
Second, this will be the first time a populist far-right leader riding on the anti-immigrant sentiment is going to face a trial. But putting the leader on trial will definitely humanize the issue but not solve it. Around 39 per cent of the people have miffed sentiments towards the immigrants. During the pandemic, when the economy is in a recession, the immigration issue will open the social fault lines where the people will fault the migrants for being a burden on their falling economy.