A Watershed Day in Italy

A Watershed Day in Italy

Waldensian_Church_logo.gifPaolo Naso, who is probably the Waldensian best known among North American Christians, described Tuesday’s developments in Italy as “very positive because they put human rights first. As Protestants, we consider the Gospel as more than just a symbol of our identity which is good for expedient speech, but as the light which guides our life choices and behavior beginning with rescuing our persecuted and injured neighbor.”

The following report, just written by Fiona Kendall, a mission co-worker of Global Ministries and the Church of Scotland serving in Italy, elaborates on Tuesday’s developments.  Thanks to the American Waldensian Society for making it available.

Tuesday proved to be something of a watershed in Italy. There were a couple of reasons for that.  In Rome, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte addressed both houses of Parliament. In a speech which pulled no punches, he was trenchant in his criticism of his Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini, whom he described as putting personal and party interests before those of the country and whose fitness to hold any kind of office he called into question.

At the end of his speech in response to a motion of no confidence lodged by his erstwhile Deputy Prime Minister, Conte tendered his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella. While the president mulls over next steps, Conte will remain in office.  Behind closed doors, the political maneuvering continues. The coalition between right-wing Lega and anti-Establishment 5 Star now shattered, Salvini hopes to capitalize on the chaos and propel himself into the premier’s seat. Whether other parties will form an uneasy alliance to stop that from happening remains to be seen. Meantime, the business of actually governing Italy is once again on hold.

A few hours later, at Italy’s southernmost outpost, 83 migrants disembarked from the Open Arms at the jetty at Lampedusa. The crew had been seeking a safe port for 19 days. Offers to host those aboard came from the French government and Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy (FCEI). Yet no EU country would allow the boat to dock. When an Italian regional judge revoked the order forbidding disembarkation, Salvini immediately lodged an appeal (now understood to be without legal foundation), effectively stalling the order’s implementation. National and international celebrities boarded the ship as it was re-supplied in an effort to draw global attention to the unfolding crisis. Still EU governments stood firm.  Medics and psychologists aboard reported serious concerns, and conditions rapidly deteriorated. Those most at risk and, eventually, all unaccompanied minors were evacuated. Some of those left aboard leapt into the sea, attempting to swim to dry land. Still EU governments stood firm.  Spain, five days away, finally offered a safe port. Only after the Open Arms crew refused that offer in light of the conditions aboard, and only after the coalition’s collapse, did Italy relent, and the exhausted passengers were welcomed by a small crowd at the Lampedusa jetty.

The suggestion is repeatedly made by the Far Right here that those who arrive here by boat are, somehow, all “clandestine”. The contrast is often made with those who arrive by plane, either through UNHCR evacuations from Libya or the FCEI’s humanitarian corridors program.  While it is the case that beneficiaries of those programs already have a humanitarian visa, it is simply incorrect to say that those who arrive by boat are all “clandestine”. An asylum seeker may arrive by boat, plane or, indeed, any other means. Whether or not their eventual claim for international protection is genuine depends on whether they meet the criteria set out in the 1951 Geneva Convention which converge around “a well-founded fear of persecution” or the criteria set out by the EU which converge around “a real risk of suffering serious harm”. The criteria under both sets of norms have nothing to do with the means of transport used by the person seeking to reach Europe.

There can be no doubt that the migrants who spent 19 days aboard the Open Arms will have been traumatized by that experience. For most who make the journey across the Mediterranean, this is the end of an arduous journey made up of several stages during which violence, exploitation and abuse will all have been encountered. Each individual on the Open Arms will potentially carry the physical and mental scars of those experiences and it will be for each of them to convince a Commission examining a claim for asylum or subsidiary protection that they cannot return. Many will fail to do so. However, it is a basic human right for them to be permitted to make that claim and to have it properly examined, however they got here.

The current Minister of the Interior does not answer that point in his rhetoric regarding migration.  Instead, he labels judicial decisions that contradict his policies as “political” and claims closure of the ports is necessary in a society which puts national interests first. At what stage, I wonder, did universal human rights become hostage to national sovereignty?  And at what point do citizens cease to hold their leaders to account on such a fundamental point?  At a time when Italy may be about to usher in a new far right-wing Prime Minister whose views on these matters could not be clearer, these are questions which cannot be ignored.

In recent months, since the beginning of the year, over 800 people have already died in the Mediterranean, notwithstanding a reduction of 80% in the number attempting to risk crossing the Mediterranean. More people now than ever are dying in the sea mainly because of the immigration policy of the current Italian Minister of the Interior.