by Lauren Heidbrink
How do citizens enact solidarity when nations fail to? In this first of a 2-part series, anthropologist Lauren Heidbrink examines forms of solidarity that have emerged in Italy in spite of and in active resistance to the state.
“I thought it would only take three or four hours to reach Europe, but the journey was much longer and colder,” described Mohammed of his journey from Libya to Italy. A 16-year-old unaccompanied minor from Nigeria, Mohammed was one of 177 migrants rescued by the Italian coastguard’s Diciotti in August of 2018. Many onboard were fleeing violence in Eritrea, Syria, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Somalia; Mohammed was fleeing eight months of hard labor and violence in Libya, where he sought employment following the death of his parents in a car accident in Lagos. “Libya was no good for us blacks…I didn’t know if I would survive. I don’t know if I will survive here either; it’s not so easy, but I’d rather die than return there,” Mohammed explained several week later from a Sicilian reception facility where I was conducting research on child migration in Europe.
Rescued near Lamapdeusa, Mohammed thought his journey had ended when he boarded the Diciotti. Instead, he would remain at sea for another four days and in the Sicilian port of Catania for another two before being permitted to disembark. Like so many others, Mohammed fell victim to ongoing debates on solidarity in Europe. Flexing his newly-acquired political might, Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini refused the Diciotti to dock, announcing, “The ship may land in Italy, as long as the 177 migrants are distributed, in a spirit of solidarity by the EU (European Union).” Italy’s populist Five Star Movement (M5S), which governs in coalition with Salvini’s far-right League party, assumed power in June of 2018, with aspirations of sealing Italy’s 7,600-kilometer coastline from incoming migrants.
As Mohammed explained, “I came to Italy to be safe and to live free, but there we were, captive on a boat just centimeters from land. I could throw a ball that would reach Europe, but I wasn’t allowed to catch it.” Simultaneously denouncing Maltese authorities for failing to rescue the migrant boat in its waters, Salvini drew a line in the sand—either Europe demonstrates “solidarity” by redistributing migrants from Italy to northern Europe or Salvini would return the migrants onboard the Diciotti to Libya.
With mounting international pressure, Italy’s transport minister Danilo Toninelli allowed the Diciotti to dock in Catania, but Salvini quickly refused migrants onboard to disembark. Akin to a hostage situation, Sicilian authorities and Italian civil society began to negotiate their release enlisting a hierarchy of vulnerability: the Italian Ministry of Health in Sicily secured the immediate release of 13 migrants with pressing health issues, such as pregnancy, tuberculosis, pneumonia, scabies, and urinary infections, who were whisked to local hospitals in Red Cross ambulances. The Italian Ombudsperson for Children and Adolescents (Autorità garante per l'infanzia e l'adolescenza) called for the immediate release of children onboard, citing Italian law and international protections for children enshrined in the UN Convention of Human Rights and the Convention of the Rights of the Child. Two days later, 27 unaccompanied children, including Mohammed, were permitted to disembark. Behind the scenes, the Italian Conference of Catholic Bishops began negotiating the release of migrants, who were threatening a hunger strike as negotiations drug on. Within a few days, prosecutors in neighboring Agrigento opened an investigation into Salvini for kidnapping, abuse of office, and illegal detention of migrants onboard—charges that were later dropped.
Sicilians took to the street in protest, flooding the port of Catania chanting, “We cannot quietly watch fascism come back. We have to act and resist.” Wielding the Sicilian specialty arancini (rice balls), they yelled, "Welcome to Catania! Here, have an arancino." Standing next to me in the crowd of 300, a protestor explained, "In our homes, you welcome travelers with food; arancino are warm and immediately satisfying after a long journey.”
These negotiations inflamed entrenched political debates in Italy, calling many to critique its slow-moving bureaucracy, high unemployment levels, chronic housing issues, and the increasing license of nativists’ “Italian first” response. International debates centered on issues of solidarity, as Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said, “Italy must take note that the spirit of solidarity is struggling to translate into concrete acts.” Here, Conte specifically referred to the June 2018 EU summit, which failed to establish a scheme for redistributing 160,000 refugees held in overcrowded camps in Italy and Greece. Only after the 10-day standoff were the remaining 140 migrants onboard the Diciotti processed in a nearby Messina hotspot and transferred to placements with the Italian Church (100 migrants), Ireland (20 migrants), and non-EU member Albania (20 migrants) at their own expense.
In recent years, Italy rescued nearly 600,000 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea; at its height in 2016, the Italian coast guard and humanitarian organizations rescued 4500 migrants in the Mediterranean in a single day. Since 2017, however, the number of migrants arriving in Italy has dwindled. Unrelenting in his anti-immigrant campaign, however, Salvini has exploited social ills and tragedies across Italy, blaming migrants for outbreaks in illness, rape and murder, the impunity of the mafia, and even the deadly Genoese bridge collapse. Salvini and the League systematically have criminalized any entity attempting to respond to shipwrecked migrants, including humanitarian organizations, commercial vessels, Frontex, fisherman, and in the case of the Diciotti, even the Italian Coast Guard—claiming they all are aiding and abetting smugglers.
With fewer boats arriving since the Diciotti in August, Salvini has turned to eroding social support and legal protections for refugees already residing in Italy. The recent arrest and exile of immigrant-friendly mayor Domenico Lucano, largely heralded for singularly resuscitating the town of Riace by welcoming refugees, served as a high-profile effort to deter local governments from welcoming refugees. Some posit that Lucano’s arrest is in direct response to mayors in southern Italy vowing to disobey Salvini’s orders to block humanitarian rescue boats from all Italian seaports.
“It has only deteriorated,” explained an immigration attorney in Rome. “He is a right-wing sheriff who rules by tweet. He does not represent us; we must fight him at every turn and hope he doesn’t destroy the nation in the process.” On September 24, 2018, Italian Council of Ministers unanimously signed the Decree-Law on Immigration and Security (decree law no. 113/2018), effectively abolishing humanitarian protections in Italy; allowing for the refusal or withdraw of international protections; and establishing a framework to strip Italian citizenship from some refugees. Colloquially termed the Salvini Law, the decree likewise erodes the System of Protection of Asylum Seekers and Refugees (SPRAR), a decentralized network of small-scale reception centers housing refugees and unaccompanied minors. The decree has cleared the Italian Senate. The Chamber of Deputies must review the proposal within 60 days, without whose intervention, it automatically becomes law.
“The clock is ticking,” Leonardo, the director of a Sicilian-based SPRAR, told me. “We have lost so much [government] funding in recent years, that we are already functioning with so little support. Now, staff are preparing for unemployment. We are scrambling to find places for these children to live.” Livid at what he sees an attack on Sicilian values of hospitality, generosity and inclusion, Leonardo fumed, “Mass mourning on social media is not enough; time for talking has long past. We must conspire. We must act!”
Lauren Heidbrink is an anthropologist and assistant professor at California State University, Long Beach. She is author of Migrant Youth, Transnational Families, and the State: Care and contested interests (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014). As the recipient of the Fulbright Schuman 70th Anniversary Scholar Award, she is conducting a comparative study on the migration of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Italy, Greece, Belgium and the United Kingdom.
Disclaimer: In an effort to ensure confidentiality, all names of individuals and organizations are pseudonyms. All views expressed in this publication are of the author.