Italy’s New “Pro-European” Government Is Intensifying the War on Migrants

When former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi was appointed Italy’s prime minister, he was widely hailed as a pro-European bulwark against the populist right. Yet the first weeks of his government have seen a wave of attacks against migrant rescue NGOs and refugees.

Rescue mission by a European NGO of about ninety migrants in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya, 2020. (Pablo Garcia / AFP via Getty Images)

Police raids, seizures of phones and laptops, ships impounded. Extensive wiretappings of activists, lawyers, journalists, and campaigners. Criminal investigations threatening decades of prison sentences. Italy’s government is deadly serious about stopping people from acting as if Black Lives Matter.

Since the pandemic took over the world, governments have fallen, risen, and fallen again. When contagion struck Italy one year ago, the new center-left coalition was already treading on thin ice. In February, the ice cracked and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was deposed. In his place, former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi was installed at the head of a new administration, promising over €10 billion in giveaways to businesses but little in the way of direct support to workers.

Ostensibly this is a “technical” government, transcending party-political divides and marshaled by an elder statesman of the supposedly liberal EU. In reality Draghi’s cross-party coalition heralds the return of the Right to high office: the Islamophobic, racist, right-wing Lega has been brought back into the fold, legitimized by the emergency. While Trump has been dethroned on one side of the Atlantic, in Europe the Right has gained strength from the health crisis. The one major party that has not joined Draghi’s government, the post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia, is now gaining speedily in the polls, on a dangerous mix of COVID-19 conspiracy theories, lobbying for small business owners and xenophobic delirium.

What does the tolerance of these openly racist politicians mean for Europe’s plan for the crisis? The pandemic has accelerated a range of transformations in the mode of production (digitalization, the gig economy) while relegating others (just-in-time supply chains, long-distance air travel). But capital’s project for the international crisis is another matter. The ruling class’s method of dealing with the shock forms part of a long-term undertaking, a counterrevolution against labor that attempts to complete the response to the financial crisis a decade earlier: transfer capital from the state to the private sector, keep wages down, and push democratic structures aside.

Border control — that mixture of logistics and policing, enforcing global inequalities along localized flash points — is no exception to this ideological wave. Indeed, the Mediterranean arguably represents a paramount example of this, as an undemocratic no-man’s-land of technocracy and markets.

The questions facing the anti-racist movement now are: What new technologies of policing will be introduced to maintain our planetary apartheid? What logistical devices are being adapted, invented, or accelerated by our present crisis? In an age when new borders are being imposed around and within continents, countries, and even cities, what innovations are being prepared for expansion within empire’s experimental laboratories between Europe and Africa?

Storming the Lifeguards

In an extreme demonstration of synchronicity between the judicial and political spheres, the first weeks of Italy’s new “technical” government have seen a series of attacks against the NGO rescue missions acting in solidarity with people attempting the crossing from war-torn Libya to Europe. These both complete investigations begun under the previous government following the “Summer of Migration,” and usher in a new chapter of criminalization.

At 5 AM on March 1, a hundred police officers stormed homes and offices across Italy, seizing activists’ computers, telephones, and files. The accused are, simply put, targeted under suspicion of the crime of saving lives.

The Italian NGO mission Mediterranea Saving Humans, launched two years ago by a network of activists from across Italy, has been under investigation in connection with an operation from late 2020, when the boat rescued twenty-seven people who had been marooned on an oil tanker for over a month in desperate conditions. Both Malta and Italy refused to offer a humanitarian intervention.

Refugees and migrants after being rescued at sea on June 10, 2017 off Lampedusa, Italy. (Chris McGrath / Getty)

Italian prosecutors claim that Mediterranea rescued the migrants for financial gain, as months later the company owning the merchant vessel made a donation to the NGO. These claims of profiteering have swept across the front pages of the gutter press, smearing the anti-racist movement as con men and fraudsters. What is clear is that the Italian government is infuriated by a confrontational NGO effectively — in the prosecutors’ words — “attempting to replace the state.”

Internal papers show that the criminal investigation into Mediterranea have included wiretapping of activists since September 2020 under Conte’s government — but it seems that Draghi’s arrival has catalyzed the process of criminalization. Furthermore, Mediterranea is not the only mission in the new government’s crosshairs.

The investigation into the German NGO Jugend Rettet — which began at the end of 2016 under the Democratic-led government — has now been formally closed and a range of charges have been leveled against the crew and captain, as well as against the NGOs Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders. As with many other cases against rescue missions, the criminal charges include “aiding and abetting illegal immigration” — an offense that can lead to lengthy jail sentences and equates these lifesavers to human traffickers.

We have now learned that the investigation involved extensive wiretapping, including spying on defense lawyers — a deeply worrying breach of client privacy by the state — and investigative journalists. The wiretapping of these journalists amounts to an act of intimidation against vital campaigners such as Francesca Mannocchi and Nancy Porsia who have spent years unveiling the Italian government’s close collaboration with Libyan militias since 2017, when it paid off armed groups to transform themselves from people traffickers into violent border control.

Simultaneously, a different investigation has moved ahead with formal charges against another of Doctors Without Borders’s rescue ships, this time for international trafficking of waste material, in connection to incorrect disposal of migrants’ sea-drenched clothes. The rescue ship “Sea Watch 3” has been impounded once more, on administrative grounds. A pair of elderly activists in Trieste, on Italy’s northeastern border, have been helping Central Asian migrants for years, curing the feet of people who have walked thousands of miles to access Europe’s wealth and peace. They, too, have been charged with “human trafficking”… the list goes on.

The European Way

Even though some of these are investigations that began years ago, it seems as if the installation of Mario Draghi the technocrat has sped up the process of criminalization. The message being implicitly broadcast is not only that Black Lives do not Matter, but that acting as if they did is, in itself, a criminal activity. How does this chime with the installation of a new, “pro-European” government? Or with Draghi’s image as the arch-representative of the liberal EU and constraint on wayward “populism”?

Draghi might appear to be a world away from the populist right. But on closer inspection, the differences are closing in. Last year, from Hungary to Sicily, right-wing politicians attempted to conflate the war on migration with the war on the virus, trading on xenophobic rhetoric. Draghi makes no such declarations: he swept into power without any announced program, dropping hints as to his policies. His scattered references to border policy have been few but clear: new deals with countries of departure to broker externalized border controls, and EU-backed deportations for people in Italy without documents.

Today it has been ten years since the Arab Spring broke apart Europe’s deal with Gaddafi and opened up new waves of immigration; five years since the deal between the EU and Turkey shut the door to Syrian, Afghan, and Iranian refugees; and four years since the murderous agreement between Italy’s Democrats and Libyan militias. This is the real European way, which Draghi represents.

The attacks on the NGOs began seriously at the end of 2016, with a collusion between Trumpist blogs, Five Star (M5S) populists, Northern League racists, and anti-Mafia judiciary flailing about for a new target. This included a group of ex–police officers who embarked with the Save the Children rescue ship, under cover as members of a private security firm, who then passed recordings to Matteo Salvini and the Italian secret services, who in turn forwarded the dossier on to the Sicilian courts. The main ex-officer involved now claims to regret his actions: “[E]very time I hear of hundreds of migrants dying at sea, I feel responsible.” He is.

As we now know for certain, thanks to newly released investigation files, it was the Democratic interior minister of the time, Marco Minniti, who pushed for the NGOs to be investigated by the courts, building on this web of espionage; and throughout 2017 the center-left succeeded in criminalizing the NGOs, pushing them out of the sea, and financing Libyan militia to control the waters. The criminalization of the NGOs was always a mainstream project, in cahoots with fascist conspiracy theorists and deep-cover spies.

The world took note in 2018 when the new Five Star–Lega coalition with Salvini as interior minister chose a head-on conflict not only with the NGOs, but even with the Italian coast guard. Already riding a wave of smear attacks and press lies, Salvini pushed forward with criminal accusations, seizures of ships, detention of persons on board, and defamation — acts for which he is currently embroiled in two important ongoing court cases.

With the collapse of this “all-populist” government in 2019, a new center-left alliance of Five Star and the Democrats arose, and with it a new interior minister, Luciana Lamorgese. She brought an apparently softer approach: the fines against the NGOs were lowered (but not scrapped) and the criminal proceedings slowed down, but administrative seizures and impediments continued – leading to her taking the unenviable position of having blocked more NGO ships than the previous government, under absurd charges such as “improper waste disposal” and “incorrect cleaning equipment.”

Now, in 2021, the same minister is in government but the coalition has changed once again and, with it, the charges have returned to criminal proceedings. Is this a Salvini-led plot? Is the Lega, back in power, bringing their homegrown racism to roost?

In all likelihood, the truth is worse than this. The fact is that Lega and M5S are no longer outriders; instead, they have gained cultural hegemony. Their views on migration have since become hegemonic not only across Italian political parties, but throughout Europe itself, as neofascist parties in the former Eastern Bloc have hindered every attempt to create a reformed and uniform EU migration policy.

Draghi made it clear in his first dossier that he intends to be part of a European negotiation (an aspect which Salvini completely ignored during his time as interior minister, snubbing a vital meeting). Perhaps the criminal proceedings against the NGOs is the Draghi government’s method of proving to his EU partners that Italy can do its part in border control, in exchange for a renewed reform of EU migration policy that would take the pressure off Italy’s politicians.

It is probably no coincidence that the Mediterranea Saving Humans NGO was about to buy a new ship — the speed of the operation seems aimed at preventing the acquisition. How bad would it have looked if Draghi turns up to a meeting on European renegotiation of border policy when a movement of Italian activists had just bought a boat with capacity to rescue five hundred people?

Post-COVID Africa

Draghi might be as silent as a lockdown, but his actions speak clearly. In mid-March, Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio visited Libya along with the head of the Italian oil company, Eni. On Tuesday, Draghi himself met with the new Libyan prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah to discuss the usual coordinates of this Euro-African relationship: oil, gas, and migration. The new Libyan government, backed by the UN, forms the other unstable hinge on Europe’s gateway. To close the ports, Italy and Libya have to coordinate their oppression of the African working class — including, as Draghi underlined in the press conference, walling up Libya’s southern border.

A hundred thousand people made their way across the Mediterranean last year, despite the closures and borders, following the same route as the lucrative gas pipeline that runs from Libya to Sicily. So far this year, fifteen thousand people have succeeded in the crossing. Many arrive in Europe only on their third or fourth attempt to cross the Mediterranean, after being caught and tortured by the so-called Libyan coast guard that the EU finances — of which Draghi dared to praise as “rescue missions.”

The vast majority of those attempting to reach Europe through this “back way” — the shortcut — have been pushed by the devastating poverty imposed on the African working classes through decades of austerity measures and a neocolonial draining of resources. If before the pandemic there were some signs for hope — the possibilities of Nigeria’s petroleum-fueled economy, and important political changes from Sudan to Ghana — a post-COVID Africa faces new, vast problems. Resource and oil prices are down along with manufacture, tourism is all but dead. More vitally still, just as in Europe, states are drunk on their new police powers.

From the protests against police brutality in Nigeria and political repression in Senegal, through to the Ethiopian invasion of Tigray, change is underway. It would be redundant to underline how the health crisis has exacerbated extant poverty and conflict, and foolish to ignore how these conflicts lead to pressure on Europe’s borders. So long as global inequalities mean that a worker can earn ten times as much picking olives in Southern Europe than teaching English in a West African classroom, the class will move.

The maritime border between our continents thus remains a war zone of proletarian struggle, in which those without means of movement attempt to access the wealth and security that stable life in Europe can offer. As Charles Heller has aptly pointed out, the overlapping of the new sanitary apartheid and the global apartheid of borders merely brings greater violence and resistance.

Mario Draghi, then-president of the European Central Bank, prepares to answer a reporter’s question following a meeting of the ECB governing board on September 12, 2019 in Frankfurt, Germany. (Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

The Italian ruling class believes that by installing Draghi as prime minister, they have the man who can take hold of Italy’s unstable situation, tame its unruly masses, and impose a new round of profits. But this merely shows their desperation: Draghi represents decades of disastrous monetary policy and failed European diplomacy.

Every Italian prime minister talks about “finally” having an effective policy of deportations, “finally” creating a new effective collaboration with Libya, and “finally” combating illegal immigration. Yet every Italian prime minister underestimates not only the forces of European solidarity but, above all, the force of the African proletariat.