The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The torchbearer of Italy’s far right is now in power and wants to make good on anti-migrant promises

Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League party and Italy's new interior minister, spoke at a rally in Catania, Italy, on June 3. (Video: Chico Harlan/The Washington Post)
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POZZALLO, Italy — The torchbearer of Italy’s far right had been in Sicily only for a few hours, calling the island the “refugee camp of Europe,” saying that migration of this magnitude only creates “chaos,” and when he ducked inside a gated migrant holding center for his next event, a new kind of chaos began in his wake.

Some 150 Sicilians were outside the concrete building, waiting for Matteo Salvini — a new deputy prime minister and minister of the interior — to reemerge. One person yelled that migrants should “go home.” Another held up a golden crucifix chain and said, “If I ever went to their countries, they’d make me eat this.” Others came to the migrants’ defense. Several arguments broke out. TV cameras rushed in.

When things calmed, there was at least one thing people agreed on: The anti-migration viewpoint has prevailed in Italy, and Salvini’s rise is the clearest evidence of that yet.

“He represents the new xenophobic right, and views like mine are losing ground,” said Memmo Campailla, 63, a greenhouse builder who had been arguing for a welcoming Italy. “Very bad days await.”

“I am fighting for my Italy,” said Mary Boscarino, 36, a hairdresser who stood nearby. “I would be the first in line for a job to pick tomatoes, but instead the work is going to migrants.” And then she said, “We are with Salvini.”

With an Italy-first message, Salvini has rocketed into the center of Europe’s battle over migration. He is recasting the cultural debate about how to treat those fleeing the Middle East and Africa, highlighting examples of migrant criminality and describing the influx as an “invasion.” And now, in his first week in control of Italy’s interior ministry, he has power to do what he has pledged: more tightly close the doors of a country that, several years ago, ranked among the most welcoming in Europe.

Salvini has risen to power on a mix of grass-roots anxiety and his own political acumen. He is the leader of Italy’s far-right League, a once-fringe regional secessionist party that polls now show is on the brink of becoming the country’s most popular party. He styles himself as a friend of Russian President Vladi­mir Putin and a thorn in the side of Brussels bureaucrats. He is an irrepressible social media user. He has a public profile far larger than that of ­Italy’s new prime minister, an academic with little political experience.

Salvini is a gifted speaker with an avuncular style who dresses casually and uses big hand gestures and punchy sentences. At his first stop in Sicily over the weekend, during a stump speech, a basket of produce from a nearby farmers market made its way through the crowd and toward Salvini. He grabbed a peach and held it up.

“We need to defend the fruits of our land,” he said.

Salvini received the interior ministry job as part of the deal reached last week that gives Italy a new government composed of the League and another populist insurgent party, the Five Star Movement. From that perch, Salvini said he intends to pursue some of the migration-related promises that were central to the populist surge: speeding up deportations, making it harder for vessels to bring migrants to Italian shores, and pressuring Europe to rewrite regulations requiring migrants to claim asylum in the country where they first set foot.

In an interview at a seaside restaurant in Pozzallo, a town whose beachfront has a long stretch of sunbathers and then a center to hold newly arrived migrants, Salvini said that, in theory, migrants could successfully integrate in Italy. “But it’s a matter of numbers,” he said. “With excessive numbers, there is only social clash and chaos. I believe that a limited quantity of immigrants, possibly through an Australian-style program on the basis of work qualifications, can be let in. In the current situation, no.”

Italy is ground zero for Europe’s migrant debate because it has so disproportionately shouldered the burden — something Salvini frequently points out. Among those who crossed the Mediterranean last year, 64 percent landed in Italy. Some 400,000 have applied for asylum here over the past four years, a group that is fighting for space in Italy’s languishing job market — particularly in Sicily, where unemployment stands at 21.5 percent, according to E.U. statistics.

“Facts show you cannot fit Africa inside of Italy,” said Alessandro Pagano, a League parliamentarian from Sicily.

Salvini’s party, in earlier years, had cast this southern part of Italy — rather than migrants and the E.U. — as the force to fight against. The Northern League, as it was then known, criticized poorer southerners as moochers who bled resources from the rest of the country. But after becoming leader of the party in 2013, Salvini rebranded. Last year, “Northern” was dropped from the party name, though its stronghold remains in the north. In the March 4 elections, the League won just over 17 percent of votes — and about 5 percent in Sicily. Recent polls have shown its national support closer to 30 percent.

“Up until two or three years ago, such a reception [here in Sicily] would have been unthinkable,” Salvini said at the restaurant, where one of the kitchen staffers was a migrant from Mali. “Absolutely unthinkable.”

Salvini’s Sicily trip included selfies with supporters, encounters with a handful of protesters, and a trip to the migrant holding center where, two days earlier, 158 people had arrived, rescued from a rubber dinghy by an NGO patrolling the Mediterranean. “Here increasingly more illegals are arriving from Tunisia,” Salvini wrote on his official Facebook page after his visit. “Not refugees but often criminals and ex-convicts.”

At a news conference, Salvini spoke approvingly about the work done by Italy’s outgoing interior minister, Marco Minniti, a member of the center-left. In a sign of how a traditionally right-leaning stance toward migration has swept across Italy, Minniti has worked over the past two years to bolster Libya’s coast guard and create tighter rules for NGOs operating in the Mediterranean. During the first five months of this year, migrant arrivals in Italy were down more than 75 percent from the same period in 2017, according to data from the United Nations’ migration agency.

What makes Salvini stand apart, though, is that he so unsparingly highlights what he sees as the problems with migration. When a Nigerian immigrant was arrested this year in the killing of an 18-year-old, Salvini wrote on Facebook, “What was this maggot still doing in Italy?” Last week, during negotiations to form a government, Salvini posted video footage of what he said was a supposed migrant plucking the feathers of a pigeon. “In broad daylight in the middle of the street,” he wrote. “Go home!!!”

Sunday morning, as people waited for a Salvini rally in Catania, on Sicily’s east coast, one banner turned those words on him: “Salvini, go home!” But other people chanted his name — “Mat-te-o! Mat-te-o!” — and people jumped at the chance to talk about him, joining in a tight circle to answer questions from the media.

“He embodies our way of thinking,” one person said.

“Migrants are taking money from Italians,” said another.

“Italians first,” said a third.

Salvini was finishing up a news conference in a second-floor hotel meeting room directly above the piazza. Before going downstairs and out to the crowd, he apologized for being quick. “I want to go back to the people waiting for me,” he said.

Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.

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