ROME — For years, Giorgia Meloni has railed against Italy’s migration policies, calling them overly lenient and saying they risk turning the country into the “refugee camp of Europe.”
“The smart approach is: You come to my house according to my rules,” Meloni, of the far-right Fratelli d’Italia party, said earlier this month in an interview with The Washington Post.
Her ideas, taken together, figure to significantly tighten the doors to one of the European Union’s front-line destinations for undocumented immigrants.
While in other areas — like spending and foreign policy — Meloni would be more constrained by Europe, E.U. countries have plenty of leeway to handle their external borders, and she has long made it clear that halting flows of people across the Mediterranean is one of her priorities.
But that doesn’t mean it will be complication-free.
Efforts to block humanitarian rescue vessels from docking at Italian ports could prompt legal challenges. And if Meloni chokes off pathways to Italy, the volume of crossings would probably increase to other Mediterranean countries such as Spain — as happened three years ago when Italy was briefly led by an anti-immigration, populist government.
“You can do stuff relatively quickly [on migration] that is draconian, symbolic and sends a clear message: We’re here, we’re doing something. But there’s trouble in store,” said Andrew Geddes, director of the Migration Policy Center at the European University Institute in Florence.
“When you stop the crossings and divert them [elsewhere], that is where you get into conflict with the E.U.,” he said. “It will breathe life into an old conflict.”
Meloni’s party received more support than any other group in national elections on Sunday, obtaining a clear mandate to lead Italy’s next government and placing Meloni in position to become prime minister. During the short campaign, coming after the collapse of Mario Draghi’s unity government, immigration policy was low among the priorities, given soaring energy bills, a looming recession in Europe and other acute issues stemming from Russia’s war in Ukraine.
But immigration still strikes a chord with many right-leaning voters in Italy, who feel their country has received scant help from Europe in handling the burden of accommodating and integrating new arrivals. A surge of asylum seekers and refugees in 2015 and 2016 turned migration for several years into a political touchstone and helped spark a nationalist movement across Europe. Though Meloni’s party didn’t immediately benefit from those sentiments, she later siphoned votes from a rival Italian far-right group, the League, that soared in part because of the immigration backlash.
Although millions of Ukrainians have sought refuge in Europe this year, taking advantage of special residency and work rights, immigration across the Mediterranean is nowhere near the numbers from seven years ago. To the extent that it has ticked up, compared with the rates from just before and after the pandemic, politicians allied with Meloni blame lax policies under recent governments, including Draghi’s.
Jude Sunderland, an Italy-based associate director at Human Rights Watch, said people were opting for the journey for other reasons, including rising food prices and deteriorating conditions in their own countries.
Meloni’s and the two other parties in her coalition said in a jointly released platform that they want to block rescue vessels from Italian ports as a way to stop the “trafficking of human beings” from Africa. Such a move would be a throwback to the period of 2018 and 2019, when Italian politics were dominated by then-Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who vowed to stop the “invasion.”
Salvini’s first move was to close off ports to the slew of nongovernmental groups that sail around the Mediterranean and attempt to rescue immigrants from their flimsy boats. His move led to protracted and risky standoffs in which boats with hundreds of migrants on board could find nowhere to dock, and sometimes spent weeks at sea while European countries negotiated over how to divvy up passengers.
The practice pulled Salvini into four court cases — one of which is still ongoing, where he faces a sentence of up to 15 years if found guilty of kidnapping through abuse of office. Two other cases were dismissed, and in one instance the Italian senate used its power to prevent a trial. Meanwhile, NGOs saw their boats impounded and faced Italian legal challenges.
Some experts said crossing the Mediterranean became deadlier during Salvini’s time: The number of arrivals to Italy dropped, but the number of deaths didn’t dip commensurately.
“We do know it will be more difficult [again]. We do know it will be tougher,” said Mattea Weihe, a spokeswoman for Berlin-based Sea-Watch, one of the NGOs that handles rescue work. Weihe said that her group, with an eye on the expected far-right victory in Italy, had purchased a new rescue vessel as a “way to bring a different game to the table.”
Meloni has also called, repeatedly, for a “naval blockade” of the Mediterranean. A spokesman for Meloni said Monday that such a move could only be led by Europe, and in cooperation with North African countries.
In her interview with The Post, Meloni said “migrant flows need to be managed,” because “nations only exist if there are borders, and if those are defended.” She said that Italy had been giving immigrants few legal pathways, while instead letting migration be dominated by “smugglers” and “slave drivers.”
“Is it a smart approach? No,” she said. “Letting in hundreds of thousands of people, then keeping them pushing drugs or being forced to prostitute themselves at the margins of our society isn’t solidarity.”
She has suggested that Italy in cooperation with Europe should set up so-called hot spots outside of the E.U. where would-be asylum seekers and refugees can be vetted, with only those who are approved being granted passage. Politicians on the left and right have long talked about such ideas, but the obstacles are manifold: Few countries want to host such centers, and the possibility for rights abuses are rife. Britain is pursuing a related plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, but its rollout has been complicated by court challenges.
Within the E.U., several countries over the years have taken major steps to make it harder for undocumented immigrants to reach the bloc. Greece has been accused of intercepting migrants crossing from Turkey and pushing them back into international waters — a violation of international law. And Italy, in a policy supported by both the left and right, has worked to build up and equip the Libyan coast guard to pull back immigrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean.
Even under Draghi, rescue groups faced obstacles, including delays at sea. But it was rare for them to be denied port access.
Rossella Miccio, the president of Emergency, an Italian NGO that plans to begin a Mediterranean search-and-rescue mission next month, said that “there’s been too much across-the-board homogeneity in Italian politics” that sets aside “the priority of human rights.”
She thought the climate would deteriorate further.
“We’re frankly worried, not for our activity, but for the lives of people at sea in need of being rescued, as opposed to being stopped in their tracks and sent back,” Miccio said.