Salvini's anti-migrant pledge 'practically impossible' to fulfil
Less than a month into the job, Matteo Salvini has made headlines by barring foreign flagged migrant rescue ships from Italian ports, calling for a census of Roma and travelling to Tripoli “to help Libya as well as Italy block migration”.
Italy’s interior minister has accused NGOs of “causing trouble” by rescuing people at sea, called reports of human rights abuse in Libyan migrant centres “lies”, insisted the country will take in “not one more” refugee and pledged he will never allow his country to become “a holding pen for all of Europe”.
He has lost no opportunity to show his commitment to halt the mass migration that helped bring his far-right, xenophobic League party to power. But one legally complex and hugely expensive election promise – to “send home” 500,000 illegal immigrants already in Italy – may not be so easy to keep.
“Practically, it’s impossible,” said Sergio Bontempelli, a migrant rights campaigner with the Association of Rights and Borders. “But it’s been happening for years – a politician comes along and says ‘we’ll send them all home’, but they are only words, which people unfortunately believe.”
Bontempelli compared Salvini’s campaign tactics with those of the US president, Donald Trump, who vowed to build a wall on the Mexican border to keep out immigrants and force Mexico to pay for it.
“Words matter a lot. They don’t produce anything in terms of deportation but they do produce a lot in terms of instigating hatred and violence,” Bontempelli said.
The challenge might be huge, but Salvini has already signalled that he is determined to enact promises made to his voters. Last month he blocked the arrival of over 600 migrants who were aboard the Aquarius rescue ship and has warned others that they are unwelcome. The vessel eventually docked in Spain.
On Salvini’s Facebook page, supporters spur him on with encouragement whenever he repeats his vow to “get rid of them”. But they are likely to end up disappointed.
The first anomaly in Salvini’s rhetoric is the figure of 500,000.
“There is no credible statistic on the number of people in the country at this time without a valid residency permit,” said Christopher Hein, a professor of law and immigration policies at Luiss University in Rome.
“There is also a mixture between those who have entered the territory irregularly and those who have entered with a valid entry visa but then overstayed their period of authorisation. So long as the interior minister doesn’t reveal his source, I cannot judge. But then he could easily say 2 million; where is the truth?”
Hein said that a vague indicator of how many illegal immigrants might be in Italy could be gleaned from data on the numbers who had requested asylum. About 130,000 applied in 2017, with about 50,000 being turned down.
However, many of those who are rejected gain protection after appealing through the courts.
Italy’s deportation procedure is messy, costly and for the most part unworkable. When an illegal immigrant receives a deportation order, they are first given the choice to return home voluntarily, a procedure that is usually organised by NGOs. But few use this option, with just 1,500 expected to take it up in 2018.
If they do not go home voluntarily, they are given a deadline to leave the country: failing to do so is a criminal offence. At this stage, it is also up to the immigrant to obtain travel documents and fund their journey home.
For immigrants detained in one of the five centres for identification and expulsion (CIE), then it is up to Italian authorities to obtain travel documents from the countries of origin – an often insurmountable challenge given that the relevant authorities in their home countries often do not exist or function in an efficient way or do not want their citizens back – and fund their return.
Italy has bilateral deportation agreements with only Nigeria, Tunisia, the Gambia, Sudan and Egypt. It is against EU law to return people to countries at war or where they could be subjected to the death penalty, torture or other inhumane conditions. War-riven Libya is the main departure point for migrants and refugees, the majority of whom are from sub-Saharan Africa, setting out on the treacherous sea crossing to Italy’s southern shores.
Last year, 31,624 undocumented foreigners were detected in Italy, of which 6,514 were repatriated, according to interior ministry figures.
“Failure to cooperate with the country of origin means that it is impossible to repatriate an irregular migrant, unless the latter is in possession of a valid identity document,” the ministry said.
A person can only be held in a CIE for 90 days, although in some cases stays last a year or more, with conditions regularly criticised as inhumane. If Italy fails to deport someone, then they are released with an order to leave the country of their own accord within a week. But the majority simply disappear.
Salvini said he would boost the number of detention centres to 20, one for each Italian region, in order to accelerate expulsions. His predecessor, Marco Minniti, made a similar declaration last year but failed to make progress.
“In reality these centres have never worked,” said Bontempelli. “You keep people in a type of prison, causing suffering, but as a mechanism for deportation it makes no sense.”
The other main impediment to Salvini’s plan is the massive expense. On top of the cost of identification, detention, legal hearings and flights, each deported migrant has to be escorted to a plane by two police officers at a cost of about €3,000 (£2,650). The total repatriation cost for one person is estimated to be between €6,000 and €15,000.
“Regularising migrants [enabling them to work] would be much cheaper and would even allow for tax contributions into the state’s coffers,” said Alessandra Ballerini, a human rights and immigration lawyer.
Salvini said he would use money currently spent on hosting asylum seekers to pay for mass deportations. He told voters that the previous administration’s reception policy cost €50bn.
Some of the cost of migrant reception, integration and deportation is paid for via the EU’s asylum, migration and integration fund (AMIF).
“But 90% of Italian taxpayer money would be needed to deport 500,000 people,” said Hein. “The fund is already being accessed and will continue to be, but it won’t be possible to say ‘we will shift half a million people and the EU should pay for it’.”