Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni urged its 193 member states to “wage a global war” against smugglers.
Giorgia Meloni urged UN to ‘wage a global war’ on human smugglers
Megan Williams · CBC News
Speaking for the first time in front of the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni urged its 193 member states to “wage a global war” against smugglers and said Italy would not be turned into “Europe’s refugee camp.”
At the same time, she spoke of the human need for a national “identity.”
The far-right leader of Italy’s coalition government was elected last October on a platform promoting so-called Christian European values and promising to defend Italy against European Union dictates and “invasions” of migrants coming on boats to Italy from North Africa.
Since the start of the year, though, some 130,000 people have crossed on boats from North Africa to Italy — double the number compared to the same period last year — prompting Meloni to turn to the EU and international community for help.
“Fighting criminal organizations should be a goal that unites us all,” she told the UN, referring to the smugglers who are ferrying migrants across the Mediterranean Ocean.
WATCH | Record number of migrants land on Italian island:
Record number of migrants overwhelm Italian island
This tiny Italian island isn’t equipped to keep up with the thousands of migrants arriving from North Africa. An estimated 8,000 people have flooded Lampedusa in the past week, doubling the island’s population and straining resources.
Observers say Meloni is walking a fine line between extolling nationalism and identity on the one hand and insisting on a multilateral, collective commitment against migratory flows on the other.
“She went to the UN trying to secure international support on the migration issue, because the discussion within the EU is at a stalemate,” said Raffele Marchetti, an international politics professor at Rome’s Luiss University and author of A Manual of Italian Politics, a textbook on the country’s foreign policy.
European engagement is crucial on the migration issues, however, and for now, Meloni has stayed away from some of the strong-arm tactics and escalation used in the past, Marchetti said.
Fighting off political challengers
European Union elections are coming up next June. Delivery on either migration or the economy — with billions in EU COVID-19 recovery funds flowing Italy’s way — will be crucial to Meloni’s political survival.
“She could be challenged from the right within her own coalition,” said Marchetti. “But also, a galaxy of other right-wing parties are already campaigning against her, saying she’s too soft on migration.”
In July, Meloni was among the EU leaders who pushed hardest for a contentious deal on migration with Tunisia, where most of the boats crossing to Italy now leave from.
The Tunisian government has cracked down on human rights and freedom of speech. The country’s economy is in freefall due to drought, corruption and the global surge in food prices.
The deal, similar to an earlier one with Libya, will inject the equivalent of $215 million Cdn into the country’s economy in exchange for Tunisia’s Coast Guard stopping migrant boats from leaving.
Since the accord was signed in July, though, boat crossings to Italy have increased by 70 per cent.
Landing on Lampedusa
Most arrive on the tiny southern Italian island of Lampedusa, which Meloni and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited earlier this week.
Almost 10,000 migrants crammed into makeshift boats arrived the week before. The island has a small reception centre that sleeps 400, so thousands — including women with babies and unaccompanied minors — were forced to sleep on cots or cardboard on the street and beg for food.
While on Lampedusa, the two leaders urged EU member states to make good on agreements to share the burden of people crossing to Italy, by voluntarily taking in new arrivals.
EU migrant-sharing schemes, which date back to 2015, have mostly failed.
Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister of France, the destination for many of those arriving in Italy, said France would help in deporting people back to their countries of origin, but “will not welcome” people arriving in Lampedusa, unless they were refugees.
France, along with Austria, has moved to tighten its borders with Italy.
Meloni and Von der Leyen also vowed asylum seekers whose requests for refugee status were rejected would be swiftly deported.
‘This just doesn’t reflect reality’
On Monday, Meloni’s government announced it would increase its maximum detention period for migrants to the limit of 18 months — something critics say is illegal — and intensify the repatriation of people whose asylum claims are rejected.
“This just doesn’t reflect reality,” said Arturo Salerni, president of the Italian Coalition for Freedom and Civil Rights.
He says keeping people in detention centres longer does not increase the chance their home country will agree to take them back, which is less than 50 per cent as it stands.
For those who fail to qualify for refugee status, repatriations “happen within weeks or don’t happen at all,” Salerni said. “So it makes no sense to hold people for longer in detention centres. It costs more and prolongs suffering and isolation. And then people are let out, still with no permit to be here, and have to fend for themselves in a legal limbo.”
Along with the thousands who have made it to Italy this year, more than 2,000 people have perished in the central Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration. That includes two babies who died last week.
Oct. 3 marks the 10th anniversary of a shipwreck just off the coast of Lampedusa that claimed the lives of 368 people, leading to the launch of the EU’s first search-and-rescue naval mission, Mare Nostrum, which was cancelled a year later.
This weekend, Pope Francis will travel to Marseille, France, where he will meet with migrant rescuers and call for solidarity with those who risk their lives at sea to make it to Europe.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Megan Williams has been covering all things Italian, from politics and the Vatican, to food and culture, to the plight of migrants in the Mediterranean, for more than two decades. Based in Rome, Megan has also told stories from other parts of Europe and the world and won many international prizes for her reporting, including a James Beard Award. Her radio documentaries can be heard on Ideas and The Current. Megan is also a regular guest host on CBC national radio shows.