During the peak of Europe’s coronavirus crisis, immigration – a perennial hot-button issue in Italy – was conspicuously MIA from the country’s political debate.
Not any more. A fresh surge of migrants arriving across the Mediterranean, combined with a string of mass escapes from migrant quarantine facilities, has reignited tensions over irregular immigration into Italy, as anti-immigration politicians cast the new arrivals as a potential threat to public health.
The growing number of arrivals and breakouts – the most recent of which happened on Monday – have heaped pressure on the country’s coalition government, and been gratefully seized on by anti-immigrant opposition politicians, who have painted the escapees as potential carriers of the virus.
“For the last ten days, immigration has been back at the top of the Italian political agenda,” Teresa Coratella, program manager in the Rome office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE News. “The government is deeply divided; this is putting a lot of pressure inside the coalition. We’re back in a critical point of the political debate.”
Coratella said the tensions had been created by a huge surge in arrivals that began last month, when more than 5,000 migrants arrived by boat on Italian shores, compared with about 1,000 in July of 2019 and 2,000 the previous July.
About 200 more migrants arrived on the island of Lampedusa overnight on Monday alone. The new arrivals were taken to an overcrowded reception center built to hold 95 people, which now holds nearly ten times that number.
The surge has been driven by a massive flow of people fleeing political and economic instability in Tunisia, currently in the grip of a major political crisis. Of the 13,700 migrants the Italian government says have arrived by boat this year, more than a third were Tunisians.
Alarm over the surge in arrivals – some of whom have been photographed landing on beaches surrounded by sunbathing tourists, or even disembarking with rolling suitcases and a pet poodle in tow – has been compounded by mass escapes from reception centers where the new arrivals are required to spend a mandatory 14-day quarantine.
About 50 Tunisians escaped by climbing the fence of a migrant center in the Sicilian town of Porto Empedocle on Monday, sparking a major manhunt. It was the second large breakout from the facility, after about 100 people escaped last week. Italian media reported the facility, which had capacity for 100 people, was holding about 500 migrants at the time.
Just days earlier, 184 migrants fled another Sicilian detention center in Caltanissetta.
Coratella said the escapes appeared to be motivated by widespread fears among Tunisians that they would be repatriated as economic migrants without a legitimate asylum claim.
Amid growing public alarm over the rising number of arrivals and escapes, senior ministers have condemned the situation, sent a naval ship to the Sicilian coast to act as a floating quarantine center and raised the prospect of cutting off development funding to Tunisia unless it stops the boats leaving its shores. Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese said Italy was grappling with “an uncontrolled flow” from Tunisia that was creating significant problems for the health system.
But that hasn’t been enough to blunt the attacks from the country’s anti-immigration populists, who have gratefully seized on the issue and condemned the government for failing to do enough to control immigration.
Giorgia Meloni, head of the Brothers of Italy party, has attacked the center-left ruling coalition for subjecting Italians to draconian lockdown measures while allowing illegal immigrants to “transgress our borders and violate quarantine, wandering around infected”, while Salvini, the leader of the populist Lega party, has been firing daily broadsides at the government over the issue.
“Salvini feels he’s losing support, so he’s using the only two strong arguments he has: migration and coronavirus,” said Coratella. “These merge together to create the perfect political propaganda – immigrants bring coronavirus to Italy.”
So far, she said, that claim hasn’t been supported by the testing of migrants, which had found only low levels of COVID-19 infection among the new arrivals. But that hasn’t quelled fears among a public that is only just emerging from the trauma of one of the world’s worst outbreaks. Nor have recent clusters detected on migrant boats elsewhere in the Mediterranean; last week, 65 of 94 migrants who were brought to Malta after being rescued at sea tested positive for the virus.