Italy, the never-ending migration problem

The recent tragedy off the coast of Calabria is just one more episode in a problem that has been going on for more than a decade. What is striking in all this is that it took place off the coast of the so-called "tip of the boot" (as the region of Calabria, which has been governed by the centre-right for years, is popularly known), because it is usually the small island of Lampedusa and the region of Sicily that are most affected by the migration problem. 

Let us begin by recalling that the migration issue is, in the case of the eurozone's third largest economy, an issue that dates back to the second half of the 1990s, when thousands and thousands of Albanians tried to reach the Italian coast through the Strait of Otranto. Specifically, it all started in the fateful year 1997, when the Albanian economy contracted by no less than 10.9 points of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with a national population whose "per capita" income at that time was only 630 euros per year (what you hear, yearly, not monthly). This situation continued until the end of 1999, when the Albanian economy began to adapt to the free market and experienced a continuous growth that has led to the fact that, in the year 2021, its economy grew almost nine points over national GDP and the per capita income stood at 5,400 euros per year. 

Once the continuous flow of Albanian immigrants had been stemmed, the transalpine authorities could rest easy until the famous 'Arab Spring' of 2011, which led to the end of Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship in Egypt (11 February 2011) and the fall of Muammar al-Gaddafi, who was executed by his own people on 20 October 2011. Let us remember that Mubarak had been in power since 1981, while Gaddafi's dictatorship began in 1969. 

The reality is that these two real "satraps" were a full guarantee for the European countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, and in the case of Libya, this Maghreb nation was a very important source of energy resources for Italy. But with its fall, everything changed. Libya, which almost a century ago was an Italian colony (the so-called "Tripolitania"), entered a phase of strong instability that has turned it into a sort of "failed" state. Human trafficking mafias have taken advantage of this to use the country's coasts as a departure point for numerous barges (mostly full of irregular immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa) to try to reach the coasts of neighbouring Italy by any means possible.  

The consequence is that the transalpine authorities found themselves, from 2013 onwards, invaded by masses of irregular migrants, for whom especially at first there was no work (because regions such as Sicily, Calabria, Puglia, Abruzzo and Basilicata have been sending their young people to the north of the country for decades, to the point that Lombardy alone, with its 16 million inhabitants, accounts for 26-27% of the country's total population) and which, in principle, should have been redistributed long ago by the European Union (EU) as a whole.  

But the reality is quite different: nobody wants these immigrants. Germany, the European Union's main economy and with an ageing population, needs a lot of labour, but, in the case of skilled workers, they need to be able to speak a language as complex as that of their country. France, in turn, also has an ageing country, and in its case these irregular immigrants do speak the language of the country, but most of them have no qualifications and the population is so concerned about the problems of insecurity on the streets that, in the last presidential elections, the far-right National Front formation not only reached the second round, but also gained almost 40% of support.  

The main problem for Italy is that these irregular immigrants end up trapped in their country, because neither France nor Austria nor Slovenia (the three EU members that border Italy) will let these immigrants in, let alone the Swiss, where security on the streets is simply not up for debate. But the worst thing for the eurozone's third largest economy is that the EU authorities do not want to accept that Italy is the southern border of the European Union, being instead perceived as a country with its own national sovereignty that has to deal with this migration problem. A problem that has reached extremely serious figures: in the years 2013-2018, the average number of irregular migrants was 150,000-200,000 people per year.  

It is therefore not surprising that when, in June 2018, the Lombard and Lega member Matteo Salvini became Minister of the Interior, his aggressive policy of ports closed to immigration won 70% of support within the country, and that the same Salvini, in the European elections, won 70% of support, In the European elections, this same Salvini obtained no less than 34% of the vote, a figure of support that would be unthinkable for a party like the Lega which, founded in 1987 by Umberto Bossi, has traditionally had between 10 and 14% of the votes cast. 

Salvini fell in September 2019 after his failed attempt to go to early elections that would make him president of the Council of Ministers, the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, decided to take matters into his own hands by appointing Prefect Lamorgese as the new head of the Interior Ministry. Thus, both in the PD-Cinque Stelle coalition (September 2019-February 2021) and in the Draghi government (February 2021-October 2022), the issue seemed to be under control. Moreover, since February 2022 those who started arriving en masse were not Africans, but Ukrainians fleeing their country after being overrun by Putin's Russia. 

But now there has been a new migration tragedy and the Meloni government has come in for all kinds of criticism. The reality is that there are only two possibilities to transform this reality: in the short term, pay the Libyan authorities to prevent the barges from leaving their shores (just as Spain finances Morocco to prevent them from crossing the Strait of Gibraltar and the countries of Eastern Europe, in turn, pay the Republic of Turkey so that Erdogan's government acts as a "stopper" for everything coming from the Asian world); and in the medium and long term, investing large sums of money in developing the former colonised world, where France and the UK should bear the greatest cost, since it was they who massively colonised the African continent and who decided to leave more than half a century ago without having given their former colonised the ability to govern themselves.  

In any case, the European Union can now begin to provide solutions and funds to the Meloni government, because the far right, populism and anti-Europeanism (represented in Italy by Salvini's Lega) have already made substantial gains in the various elections held in their respective countries. And it should not be forgotten that a country with a strong democratic tradition and where the welfare state was established between the First and Second World Wars (we are talking about Sweden, the main Scandinavian country along with Norway), has been governed for months by the xenophobic and racist Sweden Democrats. It is just one case, but the EU authorities should waste less time criticising the Meloni government and thus help them to deal with an increasingly serious issue: Italy returned to Europeanism, first with the PD and then with Draghi's government, but now it is the centralist Roman right that governs the country, and, as if that were not enough, the ultra-nationalist and anti-European Salvini is a key party for the country's governability. Will what happened off the coast of Calabria remain an isolated tragedy, or are we in for a summer of more of the same? In a few months' time we will be able to answer this disturbing question. 

Pablo Martín de Santa Olalla Saludes is a lecturer at the Camilo José Cela University and author of the book "Historia de la Italia republicana" (Silex Ediciones, 2021).