Italian nationalists see increased support after new wave of migrants from Africa

ITAMatteoSalviniBy Eric J. Lyman

ROME – Weeks of civil war have destabilized the country that is the starting point for the bulk of Europe-bound migrants, setting the stage for a humanitarian crisis analysts said could play into the hands of Europe’s nationalist parties in the leadup to European elections.

Libya is in the midst of its bloodiest period since the ouster of Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011. A rebel group led by military officer Khalifa Haftar is threatening Tripoli, the capital, with the goal of toppling the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord. Among the targets of Haftar’s forces: migrant holding centers on the Libyan coast.

Matteo Villa, an analyst with the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, a think tank, said the violence in Libya may prove more effective at achieving the aim of the Italy’s previous strategies of closing ports to rescue ships and slashing spending on assimilation programs.

“Instability in Libya really plays into the hands of anti-migrant forces if they are somehow able to turn their backs on the humanitarian crisis brewing in the country,” Villa said.

The largest nationalist party in Italy, the League, has warned that the violence in Libya could trigger a massive new wave of migrants seeking refuge in Europe. Italy has deep ties to Libya, a former colony. The Italian government was one of only a handful to maintain diplomatic relations with the former regime of Moammar Gaddafi, ousted in 2011, and it has kept a significant commercial and diplomatic presence in the country since then.

Based on its own intelligence, Italy warned the European Union that as many as 800,000 refugees were preparing to set shore from Libya to Europe and it called for EU member states to take steps to confront the threat.

“We cannot allow Europe be overrun,” Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, head of the League, told the Italian media in late April. “We have to take action now to avoid disaster.”

But analysts said the League’s stance is most likely a scare tactic designed to shore up support from the party’s anti-migrant base ahead of the May 23-26 European vote.

“There is a kind of stability paradox in these situations,” Villa said. “It’s not true that the more unstable a country becomes the more refugees it produces. Yes, they have more reason to what to go. But below a certain level people lack the means and the assets needed to leave.”

Villa said the claim that there were 800,000 migrants preparing to leave was “ridiculous,” estimating there were a few tens of thousands of refugees in the country with few options to move on.

Andrea Torre, director of the MEDI Studies Center, which focuses on migration issues in the Mediterranean, noted that a minority of the migrants that departed Libya for Europe in recent years actually came from Libya.

“We will probably see fewer migrants arriving in Libya from Nigeria, Mali, Senegal, and elsewhere,” Torre said. “Some may try their luck in Morocco or Tunisia or Algeria, but those routes are far less defined and they all have their own problems. Those already in Libya will have a very difficult time.”

That crisis is likely to get worse before it gets better: in April, Amnesty International said an assault on the Qasr Ben Ghashir refugee center, home to nearly 1,000 asylum seekers, should be investigated as a war crime.

Meanwhile, networks that bring food and medicine to refugees in the country have been slowed or shut down by the violence. Most aid workers have been forced by now to flee, and Villa said that at least two ships Italy donated to the Libyan Coast Guard for the purpose of keeping patrolling the coastline for unsafe migrant ships have been commandeered by the government for the war effort.

But despite all that, the political benefits of the topic are measurable, according to Maria Rossi, co-director of the Rome polling company Opinioni. Rossi said despite reports on the humanitarian problems, warnings of migrant threats remain effective in Italy.

“Many League supporters blame migrants for the country’s economic problems, for crime rates, and for high unemployment levels,” Rossi said. She said the problems could be similar in other parts of Europe were nationalist sentiment is on the rise.

The League’s rapid rise to prominence in Italy has been built on its anti-migrant policies. And the party’s supporters say they want more of the same.

“I’m sorry to say it, but Italy has too many of its own problems to spend money on Africans or Muslims who come here,” said 29-year-old Italo Ricci, who works for Rome’s public transport system. “They should look out for themselves or look for help somewhere else.”

In the last round of elections for European Parliament five years ago, the League won just 6 percent of the vote in Italy, earning five of Italy’s 73 seats in the legislature.

But Opinioni’s latest poll predicts the party will win more than a third of the vote later this month, 10 points more than its nearest rival. If the poll is accurate, that would give the League around 25 of the country’s 76 seats, making it one of the largest single blocs in what will be a 751-member parliament.

Sandro d’Alessi, 49, who operates the cash register at a coffee bar, is illustrative of why the League will likely do well later this month.

“I talk to people all day and I think that people are getting tired of the way politicians misspend our money on programs that don’t help Italians,” d’Alessi said.

Photo: Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.
Credit: Courtesy of Matteo Salvini's official Twitter account. (2018)

Story/photo publish date: 05/19/2019

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
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