Opinion

What populists get wrong about migration

POZZALLO, Italy — “The good times for illegals is over.” Those were the words with which Matteo Salvini welcomed 158 migrants rescued in the Mediterranean as they disembarked in Sicily.

Italys new interior minister — and one of most powerful politicians in the government now taking charge of the country — has a track record of inflammatory rhetoric on migration. He left no uncertainly about his intentions. “Get ready to pack your bags,” he said.

What Salvini, and others like him, need to understand is that what these migrants have experienced can hardly be described as “good times.”

As long as populists like him fail to listen to their stories, their efforts to address the migration issue will fail. Scapegoating migrants and criminalizing migration in transit countries across the Mediterranean and at European borders will only result in even more human rights abuses and lives lost. Only a humane approach can solve the crisis.

As part of the medical team that rescues and cares for the migrants that arrived in Sicily, I heard countless stories of abuse, violence and rape. Many were detained in Libya, where people are routinely forced into slavery and tortured for ransom. None boarded our vessel with the bags that Salvini would have them repack.

The EUs policies in the region have led to a criminalization of migration, forcing people onto different and more dangerous routes.

Among those rescued Friday was a young man who escaped war in Cameroon. He was bought and sold multiple times as he attempted to make his way to the North African coast, and saw countless men and women raped and killed. Wounds inflicted by torture were clearly visible on his body.

Before they were brought to safety by our team, the migrants on board the rubber vessel — fearing that our ship was part of the Libyan Coast Guard and knowing what levels of abuse awaited them in Libya — made the decision to destroy the vessel and drown rather than be intercepted by Libyan authorities, he told us. The story was corroborated by a number of other migrants rescued.

Such stories are increasingly common.

As my patients stories attest, the EUs tunnel vision when it comes to cutting the number of people migrating to Europe creates increasingly dangerous and deadly journeys for those compelled to flee their countries. Its decision to cooperate with Libya, in particular, has led to flagrant human rights abuses.

The League party leader Matteo Salvini | Riccardo Antimiani/EPA

Libya is not a place of safety. An Italian court reiterated as much last month, stipulating that under international human rights law people rescued in international waters cannot be returned there. A 2009 case brought by Somali and Eritrean nationals (Hirsi Jamaa and others v. Italy) strongly affirmed that persons intercepted at sea by Italian authorities cannot legally be pushed back to Libya.

But these rulings — and the countless stories of abuse recounted to aid workers — have not stopped Italy and the EU from using technically legal but morally shameful methods of doing just that.

Italian support to the Libyan Coast Guard has turned the Mediterranean into the “graveyard of European values.” By supporting the Libyan Coast Guard to push people back to Libyan shores on its behalf, Italy has helped return more people to inhuman conditions in Libya and increased the probability of people dying at sea.

The same is true of the vast deserts in North Africa so many who finally make it to Italy have had to cross. A young man in our clinic recounted seeing two friends and travel partners die from exposure. And he was hardly an outlier — nearly every person I spoke to that day reported seeing bodies in the desert.

The EUs policies in the region have led to a criminalization of migration, forcing people onto different and more dangerous routes. They have also emboldened countries to reproduce harsh EU border control tactics.

The EU has tied development assistance to harsh migration policies in the transit countries of the Sahel. Niger — the main transit country for the majority who travel north to Europe — for example, has become the largest per capita recipient of EU foreign aid. Algeria, in recent months, has dropped thousands of people in the desert without food or water.

Harsh anti-immigration rhetoric may get Salvini and other populist politicians elected. It wont help them solve the problem.

The travails braved by the migrants we have rescued also testifies to their drive to escape the conditions they face at home. Promising to increase deportations wont solve Italys migration problem.

Although frequently cast as “economic migrants,” 41.8 percent of arrivals in Italy receive protection and have a legal right to remain in the country under Italian law. Among them: the 17-year-old girl from Nigeria who recounted being forced into sex work in connection houses in Libya, beaten if she resisted and coerced into having an abortion. Her story is sadly typical for the victims of torture, rape or violence who are eligible for protection in Europe.

Harsh anti-immigration rhetoric may get Salvini and other populist politicians elected. It wont help them solve the problem. The only way to successfully address the challenges of migration in Italy and the EU is to develop a sustainable, realistic, and — above all — humane approach to the crisis.

If Salvini truly wants to tackle the issue, he will have to focus on fixing the Italian and EU policies that expose so many people to involuntary detention, human rights abuses and death along migration routes.

Craig Spencer is a physician and public health professional working on board a search-and-rescue vessel in the Mediterranean for Doctors Without Borders. He is also the director of global health in emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and an assistant professor in the program on forced migration and health at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

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