The original Italian version of this article has first been published in Il Manifesto and is published here with kind permission by the author. Translation by Paolo Sandro (University of Leeds).
The tragedy of the 73 people left to drown, without help, a few meters away from the beach near Cutro and the Italian government’s pathetic attempts at justification for their inaction forcefully raise again the ‘migrants question’. Besides the culpable negligence of the Italian authorities, it is our laws and the political and cultural climate generated by them which are truly responsible for these catastrophes. Giorgia Meloni tries to offload these responsibilities onto the smugglers, arranging criminal punishments of up to 30 years in jail for them and, above all, arguing that the migrants must be ‘stopped’ – that is, prevented from leaving North-African coasts altogether.
The Italian Prime Minister obviously ignores that migration is a fundamental human right, established by articles 13 and 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by article 12 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, and even by article 35 of the Italian Constitution. It would therefore be unlawful to hinder its exercise. More significantly, the right to emigrate is also the oldest of fundamental human rights, having been proclaimed since 1539 by Francisco De Vitoria in support of the conquest of the “new world”, when it was only Europeans who “emigrated” to colonize and plunder the rest of the planet. Back then, this right was accompanied by the right to wage war against anyone who opposed its legitimate exercise: something which invariably took place, with the destruction of pre-Columbian civilizations and the massacre of tens of millions of indigenous people. But now that the asymmetry has been reversed and the exercise of the right to emigrate has become the only alternative for millions of desperate people fleeing their countries (initially plundered by Western conquests and today devastated by wars, poverty and exploitation), not only has its foundation in our own tradition been forgotten, but it is being repressed with the same ferocity with which it was brandished at the origins of modern civilization for the purpose of robbery and colonization.
There is another aspect of the Italian government’s migration policy which indicates its hostility to sea rescues. It became apparent with the so-called “NGO decree” of last February, which, borrowing from the Salvini doctrine, makes the ability of vessels to rescue people at sea contingent to a series of senseless bureaucratic requirements, introduces obstacles to sea rescues, such as the prohibition of so-called multiple rescues, and provides, for captains who violate these absurd provisions, fines from 10 to 50,000 euros, detention for two months and, in cases of recurrence of violations, the confiscation of the vessel used for the rescues.
This constitutes a qualitative leap in the very forms of populism in our society. The ‘old’ penal populism leveraged the fear of street crime – that is, of routinely overblown but still illegal phenomena – in order to produce fear and reap popular consensus through useless and demagogic policies which were however still legitimate from a legal standpoint (such as the harsher criminal penalties established with the various ‘security’ legislative packages). This new populism, on the contrary, relies on soliciting hatred and on the criminalisation of not just lawful, but indeed heroic conduct (such as sea rescues) in order to obtain consent for policies that are themselves unlawful, criminal and criminogenic – such as the closure of the most accessible ports to rescue vessels and the resulting dereliction of rescue duties.
This new form of populism is wreaking havoc on the fabric of our democracy. For populist demagoguery, which always needs an enemy, the migrant in fact personifies the ideal enemy, due to the latent racism that leads to perceive him as an inferior and ontologically illegal person. We therefore understand how racism is the effect, rather than the cause, of sea massacres like the one on the shores of Cutro: it is the “condition”, as Michel Foucault wrote lucidly, which makes acceptable that a section of the world population is “put to death”. For only racism makes it tolerable that thousands of people drown every year in the Mediterranean.
The result of these ruthless practices is the lowering of the public spirit. The consensus obtained by these practices is, in reality, the sign of the collapse of ethics on a mass scale. When inhumanity, immorality, and indifference to the suffering of others are flaunted by the institutions of the state, they are not only legitimised, but are also supported and nurtured. They become contagious and normalised. We could not understand, otherwise, the popular support enjoyed by Nazism and Fascism. These abhorrent policies, by sowing fear and hatred for those who are different, by devaluing the basic human sentiments of equality and solidarity, by discrediting the act of helping those in danger of dying, are poisoning our societies and seriously distorting the democratic identity of Italy and Europe.