Dear Blog Readers –
With fears of terrorists hopping on boats and crossing the Mediterranean, suddenly Italy – which has been pulling migrants out of the sea by the thousands over the past year – is witnessing a strong backlash against migrants.
This weekend the leader of the right-wing anti-Euro, anti-Migrant Northern League led a massive rally in Rome denouncing the government of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and demanding that Italy’s immigration policy be changed.
Northern League leader Matteo Salvini called the government’s immigration policy a “disaster” and said they want to limit immigration “with every possible instrument.”
Mario Borghezio, a representative of the Northern League to the European Parliament, had harsher words to say, “…our proposal is to do a deep “cleaning” all around the country, and also in Europe of all the illegal migrants.” He went on to insist that his party as “no problem with asylum seekers who have the right to the asylum, but with the majority of immigrants, who are coming here to search for a job…should not be allowed to stay in or country. They should go home”
Deep Cleaning. That sounds a lot like ethnic cleansing.
Among the protesters were hundreds of members of the neo-fascist group Casa Pound. They marched to Piazza del Popolo through Rome’s Villa Borghese park wearing black shirts and waving Italian and anti-migrant flags under heavy police escort. My 14-year-old daughter was in the park with me as the Neo-Fascist procession passed and got angry “brutti fascisti — vattene via” (Ugly fascists, go away) she kept repeating under her breath until I urged her to go home and let me do my job.
Police estimated there were some 10,000 people in the Piazza and wandering among them I felt as though they were less extremist than some of their leaders. Their basic concern seemed to be the economy – jobs, taxes etc. Yuri Quaranta from Priverno, Italy voiced what many Italians say about the migrants arriving in Italy, “This is an invasion without precedent. Among the 150,000 migrants who arrived last year for sure there is at least one terrorist, one terrorist, among 150,000. I hope I am wrong”.
Although the Italian government of Prime Minister Renzi has repeated its position that it does not believe that terrorists are coming over on dinghies and other migrant ships, the concern continues to grow.
It did not help this month when some ISIS extremists began tweeting using the hashtag #We_are_coming_O_Rome If any of you blog readers want a laugh, go look at the reaction of the Romans on twitter with that hash tag. Romans have tweeted back warning the ISIS fighters that they will get their tanks stuck on the nightmare ring-road (the Raccordo Annulare) in traffic, they have offered to sell the fighters the Colosseum saying they will take credit cards, have warned them of the terrible pickpocket problem in the city, warned the terrorists not to wear white sneakers or they will stand out like tourists (the bella figura requires more elegant footwear), someone even invited them to attend one of Berlusconi’s bunga bunga parties, another invited the fighters to enjoy an “aperitivo” in the Eternal City. (I must admit, I think this is Romans at their best, instead of ringing their hands and drumming up the fear of terrorists, they are taking the twitter threat in stride).
Tweets aside, there is a threat that Italians are taking very seriously. Libya has descended into chaos, the horrific beheading of 21 Coptic Christians this month was a clear reminder of how close the madmen are and how brutal they can be.
As an indication of the government’s concern, Italy has moved a naval ship, reportedly with Special Force on board, off the Coast of Libya.
And the migrant boats continue to depart from Libya on a daily basis.
So, who are the migrants arriving in Italy? A quick look at figures provided by Italy’s Ministry of Interior show that a total of 170,100 migrants arrived by boats on the Italian coast in 2014. Of those migrants 13,096 were children. The national groups with the most arrivals were Syrians (42,323) and the second national group was Eritrean (25,155).
The figures on 2015 are less clear, but what we have so far is EU figures that show in January a total 5,600 migrants were saved making the crossing. Figures provided by the non-profit organization Save the Children show that between January 1st and February 20th 7,491 people made the crossing to Italy from Libya.
Friday evening I covered a counter-demonstration by Romans who are pro-migrant and did not want the Northern League to be given the beautiful, enormous Piazza del Popolo for their rally on Saturday.
This group, using rubber dinghies blocked the traffic on the Muro Torto – the main road running along the old Roman City wall. Three hundred protesters with rubber dinghies faced off against dozens of police in full riot gear. Eventually the police charged the protesters, whacking them with batons and lighting the dinghies on fire.
The protesters fled and the demonstration was dispersed. Several people were injured.
Needless to say the migrant question is just heating up in Italy.
In the meantime there was an interesting press release from Save the Children this week on some of the children who have arrived sadly caught in the middle in this dinghy debate.
According to Save the Children, as of February 22, there were 91 children at the holding center for migrants on Lampedusa, 3 from Somalia were accompanied and the remaining 88 unaccompanied. The breakdown is 45 from Eritrea, 16 from Somalia, 6 from Mali, 6 from Senegal, 5 from Gambia, 4 from Palestine, 3 from Benin and 1 from Nigeria.
The stories of what happens on these dinghies (and other migrant ships) are well known. The violence of the traffickers, the fear of drowning, people weak and dying, women giving birth, migrants so tightly packed in they cannot move — but from a perspective of a child it is even more frightening.
Save the Children tells of a 16-year-old boy watching traffickers push migrants into the sea because they are weak and ill, others speak of their fear or drowning because they do not know how to swim. Others have been hand-cuffed in detention cells in Libya until their families send the money for the crossing.
More on the children in another post, and more on the dinghy debate as it continues in Italy.