The refusal by Italy’s new 'populist' coalition government of the alt-left Five Star Movement and the hard right Lega to allow an NGO vessel with 629 African migrants on board to dock in Italy is an historic moment.
The leader of the Lega Matteo Salvini, now Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, is determined to fulfil his campaign pledge. That is to say: I will stop any more migrants being ferried to Italy by sea from Libya and I will deport all of the 500,000 illegal migrants already arrived from Libya by sea who are not refugees – i.e the lot.
Since the first government in western Europe of what are popularly known as populists was installed in Italy 10 days ago, Salvini has talked about nothing else but the migrant crisis. The popularity of his party – the Lega (which got 17pc at the 4th March elections) – has as a result shot up in latest opinion polls to 27pc which is within touching distance of Five Star which got more votes than any other party at the elections - 32pc – but whose support has fallen to 30pc.
Salvini announced on Sunday that he had refused to allow the NGO vessel – the MV Aquarius operated by SOS Mediterranée and Médecins Sans Frontières and registered in Gibraltar – to dock in Italy. It is the first time that an Italian government has done such a thing since the start of the Mediterranean migrant crisis in 2013. Salvini said that the Aquarius should go as maritime law requires to the nearest safe port – i.e. Malta. But Malta – as Malta always does – refused.
Now Spain’s new Socialist government has agreed to allow Aquarius to dock in the port of Valencia. It will be interesting to see how many more migrants Spain is prepared to take in from Libya as the summer migrant season now begins to kick off in earnest. Maritime law stipulates that those rescued at sea should be taken to the nearest safe port which in the case of those rescued off the Libyan coast is either Tunisia, or else Malta. But it never happens.
The port city of Catania in south eastern Sicily where many of the migrant rescue vessels arrive may well be 335 miles from the Libyan coast – as far away for example as Quimper on the French Atlantic coast is from Calais on The English Channel. But it makes no difference. And so, since 2013 more than 700,000 migrants have been ferried to Italy either by NGO rescue ships or EU naval and coastguard vessels. Nearly all are young men from sub-Saharan Africa and so, even according to the UN, few are genuine refugees. But once on terra terma in Italy, fewer still ever get deported. Last year for example Italy deported 6,340.
At any one time, there are 180,000 migrants in Italy’s state-financed hostels who have applied for asylum. Their applications take at least two years to process. And if rejected they too just disappear. These hostels cost the Italian taxpayer 5 billion euro a year. The companies that run them receive 35 euro per day per migrant. It’s big business.
All other migrants just disappear. Nearly all want to get out of Italy where there is no work and no welfare – north – to EU countries like Britain, Germany and Sweden where there is. But in 2015 France abandoned Schengen at its frontier with Italy and will not let them through. So unless they can smuggle themselves out in a lorry or across the Alps they are stuck in Italy. The majority of Italians are no longer prepared any more to take in illegal migrants from Libya, or allow those already ferried to Italy to remain. Basta!
This is why Salvini is so popular in Italy. His refusal to allow the Aquarius to dock in Italy exposed at a stroke not just the couldn’t-give-a-damn attitude of Malta to the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean but more importantly the Pontius Pilate-like attitude of the EU. Today Salvini was triumphant.
'Evidently, politely raising one’s voice pays off and that’s something the Italian government has not done since time immemorial. We’ve started the discussion at the continental level,' he told a press conference. 'For the first time a ship which set off from Libya destined for Italy will dock in a different country to Italy. If there are other NGO ships in arrival flying foreign flags we will react using the same line of reasoning.'
Or as he put it more succinctly in a tweet hash-tagged #chiudiamoiporti (let’s close the ports): 'VITTORIA!' (VICTORY!)