Crispian Balmer and Angelo Amante, Reuters, July 13, 2023
Just as King Canute failed to hold back the seas, so Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has floundered in her efforts to stop the flow of migrants to Italy since she took office last October.
Despite pledges before last year’s national election that she would cut immigration, the number of people crossing the Mediterranean in a flotilla of often decrepit old boats has doubled over the past nine months.
In addition, bowing to pressure from the business lobby, which is traditionally close to Meloni’s right-wing bloc, the government last week increased the number of migrants who can legally come to Italy for work as the population rapidly ages.
“The government is clearly not delivering what it promised, but the ruling parties are still seen by their electorate as much more reassuring than the left on immigration, so they are not feeling pressure in the opinion polls,” said Mattia Diletti, a politics professor at Rome’s Sapienza University.
Immigration is one of the biggest political issues in Europe and has played a major role in the rise of nationalist parties across the continent over the past decade. The fact that Meloni, a figurehead of the new right, has not carried through on her pledges underscores how intractable the problem is.
It isn’t for want of trying.
Since the start of 2023, Meloni has controversially limited the operations of charity rescue ships and upped penalties on people smugglers after a shipwreck off southern Italy claimed at least 94 lives in February. She subsequently declared a state of emergency over the non-stop arrival of mainly Africans.
All to no avail.
From Jan. 1 to July 12, 73,414 boat migrants reached Italy against 31,333 in the same period last year and more than for the whole of 2021, according to Interior Ministry data.
In the run-up to the 2022 election, Meloni said she would impose a naval blockade to prevent boats leaving north Africa. But analysts say that was never going to happen for legal and ethical reasons.
Instead, Meloni has looked to revive a 2017 deal struck with Libya that led to a huge reduction in departures, until the COVID-19 pandemic, which then cut migrant flows to a trickle.
But the situation in North Africa has changed enormously over the past six years, says Matteo Villa, a senior research fellow with the ISPI think-tank, complicating efforts to hold back people looking for a better, safer life in Europe.