ROME—Matteo Salvini is a man on a mission that will either make the European Union work together on the migrant issue or drive it further apart. His now well known hardline policy on migration, which surely would make Donald Trump proud, will be tested this week when European leaders meet to discuss the burgeoning migration crisis. Salvini didn’t cause it, but he single-handedly forced it onto the top of the European Union’s agenda by imposing what amounts to a naval blockade to stop African migrants from entering Italy. By preventing all foreign-flagged rescue ships from delivering their human cargo to Italian shores, he has made African migration Europe’s problem at last.
What’s most astonishing about what is happening thanks to Salvini’s zero tolerance approach to migration control is that it has never happened before. Italy has grudgingly taken in more than 600,000 boat migrants who crossed the seas from North Africa in the last five years. About half of those were brought in by foreign flagged charity boats run by French, Spanish, Dutch and German NGOs that began their missions after Italy’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue program ended in 2013, in part because European leaders thought it created a pull factor for people smugglers. Now, Salvini has blocked the ports to all foreign-flagged charity ships, sending a strong signal that Italy will no longer be the staging area for the eurozone’s migration crisis.
The NGOs initially were there to fill the vacuum created by the lack of a coherent European migration policy, but they, too, have lost their original plot. The major organizations started their missions to simply provide “safe passage” across the sea, but they are now active players in what has turned into a fierce debate about safe ports and Libyan politics.
“In the beginning NGOs always talked about being a temporary emergency measure to push the E.U. to intervene,” a former search and rescue coordinator on one of the NGO charity ships told The Daily Beast. “Now we seem to have got distracted by the conditions in Libya. That was not the reason NGOs started doing rescues.”
That seeming loss of focus has given far-right leaders like Italy’s Salvini and Austria’s Sebastian Kurz cause to try to stop the ships by cutting funds to the NGOs and making their work akin to abetting illegal immigration.
Twice in the last year before Salvini even came into power, Italy sequestered charity boats for not cooperating with Libyan authorities in search and rescue operations. The German NGO Jugend Rettet’s boat Iuventa is still tied up on the Italian island of Lampedusa. The Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms similarly saw their ship seized for a month this spring. It is back at sea but has not cooperated in any rescues since Salvini closed the ports. Salvini has promised an end to all NGO “interference” in European policies, and in a series of Facebook rants blamed billionaire George Soros for funding the NGO ships and secretly plotting to “turn Europe Muslim,” an echo of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has made hating Soros, a Hungarian-born Jew, a trademark issue. Earlier this month, Salvini denied the Aquarius rescue ship, run by Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranée, the right to dock. Instead, he sent Italian military assets to accompany the Gibraltar-flagged ship to Spain.
This week, the stakes grew even higher. German NGO Mission Lifeline’s main flagship, also called Lifeline, spent six long days at sea with 234 African migrants on board after Italy and Malta both refused them a safe port to dock. Unlike the Aquarius, the Lifeline crew stands accused of gross negligence at sea for not allowing Libyan Coast Guard officials to intervene to save the migrants. Lifeline officials said that Libya was not a safe port, and that it was their duty to bring those trying to cross straight into Europe instead. While there is no question that Libya is not a safe place for migrants, there are many questions about whether NGOs should act unilaterally on such matters.
Unlike the Lifeline, the crew of the Aquarius had rescued its migrants under the direction of Italy’s maritime central command in Rome known as MRCC, which assigns case numbers to all migrant rescue cases and designates the rescue to the nearest ship in the area. The fact that Italy had given the Aquarius permission to rescue the migrants won sympathy when Italy then denied them permission to dock. That’s not the case with the Lifeline. According to Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, the Lifeline captain ignored instructions set forth by MRCC that the migrant rescues would be coordinated by the Libyan Coast Guard, and instead picked up the migrants before the Libyans arrived. French President Emmanuel Macron said the Lifeline had broken "all the rules and played into the hands of smugglers.”
On Wednesday, on the eve of the European summit, the Lifeline was finally granted permission to dock in Malta after Salvini and Maltese President Joseph Muscat struck a deal with Belgium, Holland, Ireland, Luxembourg, France and Portugal to each take a quota of the Lifeline’s migrants in a shared responsibility approach that Italy has been fighting for against European resistance for years.
Now the Lifeline boat will be sequestered in Malta and its crew investigated for illegal actions including defying competent authorities at sea by not allowing Libya to intercept the migrants. Muscat’s office issued a statement promising a thorough investigation into the charity’s actions. Lifeline’s second search and rescue boat, the Seafuchs, could also be seized.
What’s not being discussed is the often forgotten fact that migration into Italy is actually at a five-year low, down more than 85 percent from arrivals last year at this time, according to the International Organization for Migration.
The charity boat drama has provided a somewhat awkward backdrop ahead of the E.U. meeting Thursday and Friday. Leaders of countries where the charities are based or where their ships’ flags are from will have a hard time justifying why Italy should bear the brunt of the crisis simply by accident of geography.
Italian Prime Minister Conte says he will use the rescue boat drama to try to renegotiate the terms of the so-called Dublin Act, which states that migrants must apply for asylum wherever they first make landfall. Italy wants to scrap that rule and force European countries to take migrant quotas based on population and wealth, no matter where they land first. And he has managed to put that into practice unofficially by forcing the Lifeline to Malta and the Aquarius to Spain.
On Wednesday, Salvini donated a dozen patrol boats with search and rescue capabilities to the Libyan Coast Guard so that they can now fill the vacuum created by the absence of NGO charities. Italy will also call for Europe to set up migration centers on the external borders of Libya where migrants can apply for asylum in Europe, and then be given safe passage if they qualify.
“On Thursday in Brussels, we will jointly support with Libyan authorities the setting up of reception and identification centers south of Libya, on the external border of Libya, to help Libya as well as Italy block migration,” Salvini said on a visit to Tripoli earlier this week. “Neither Italy or Libya can be alone in protecting their borders.”
What remains to be seen is how European leaders will respond. Germany has called for a stronger presence by Frontex, Europe’s border patrol arm. France has called for a strengthening of Libya’s border with Niger. Spain’s new socialist government has called for a more humane approach. Hungary and Austria have instead called for a strengthening of borders within Europe and are not prepared to entertain any changes to the Dublin Act regulations. Italy, however, is the country calling the shots right now, and finally, it seems, Europe will have no choice but to listen.