Public sentiment toward migrants is rapidly changing in Italy. The Interior Ministry asked NGOs saving migrants off the Libyan coast to sign a code of conduct in order to regulate their activities. Italy is focusing on the wrong problem, and formulating the wrong solutions.


Irish Naval Forces rescuing migrants trying to get to Europe during Operation Triton on 15 June 2015, some 50 kilometres northwest of Tripoli (Libya) © Irish Defence Forces



There is a famous thought experiment, one used by moral philosophers to force us into thinking about what should be done in a hypothetical scenario, that goes as follows. Imagine you are walking along the sea and you see a child drowning. Should you try to save that child?

In 2017 there is no need for philosophical abstraction. Calling the stretch of water between Lampedusa and Libya a warzone is no longer rhetorical, when a person dies every two hours and the route accounts for 75% of deaths of migrants trying to get to Europe. Since the early 1990s, the Mediterranean sea has taken the lives of 22 thousand people trying to reach EU shores.

As the cultural heirs of Rousseau, Kant and Dante, that reached the highest level of comfort in human history, one would think that Europeans would have promptly come to their aid. Instead, during the past three months, something deeply disturbing has happened in Italy. Not only have deaths increased compared to previous years, but the Italian government is now also making the work of those who want to see that number reduced more complicated.

In the past year alone, the boats of 15 NGOs have saved 46 thousand lives – the population of an average Italian village – by trying to create a humanitarian corridor between Italy and Libya. For the Italian authorities, this kind of selflessness was totally unacceptable. It had to be stopped.

On the 31st July, the representatives of the 15 NGOs working in the Mediterranean sea were asked to sign a “code of conduct” detailing, in 16 points, how the rescue operations must be performed. The code, introduced with the specific aim of “regulating” the NGO’s activities, forbids ships from entering the Libyan waters and requires them to accept policemen on board, with the intent of gathering information on human trafficking activities. The document also forbids NGOs from discharging migrants on other boats during the journey back.

But what if, as it is already happening, NGOs do not sign the code and continue their rescue operations? As with all regulations, non-compliance triggers a penalty, which in this specific case means boats will not be permitted to dock. Italy has thus instituted a sort of “humanitarian crime”, not in the sense that it is unlawful to violate human rights, but that it is to uphold them too much.

This code of conduct is the direct result of the deafening silence of the Italian left, which sacrificed its values in an attempt to pander to right wing voters and win votes at the 2018 elections. It is the result of politicians bowing under the fire of popular fear, which comes from a monolithic media narrative that depicts migrants as a cost and drain to a country that, with its demographic problems, badly needs them. In a matter of a few months, the public debate shifted from “what to do about them” to “how do we stop them from coming”. Tweet by tweet, news bulletin after news bulletin, Italians started buying in on the aberrant rhetoric of the right that called the NGOs ships the “taxi of the sea”. This behaviour epitomises the helplessness of politics discharging its responsibilities on those who are saving lives.

Of course, no one should underestimate the social and economic cost of integrating newcomers in a country – especially one like Italy that has never seen the kind of multiculturalism of continental Europe – nor should we be calling – as The Economist did – for a reckless open-border strategy based on an undergraduate level demand and supply model.

But it is (or should be) even more self-evident that letting people drown is not an option. The risk is that of perceiving as normal what should be an exception. As soon as we start accepting the current state of events, we relinquish any responsibility. We become accustomed to injustice. We commit what David Hume called the naturalistic fallacy: it happens, therefore it should happen.

NGOs happen to save thousands of lives, but should they be doing that at all? Should the EU do it instead, by allowing Frontex to perform search and rescue operations?

It could surely be objected that it all depends on what kind of injustice we are focusing on. “Human trafficking is inhumane and unjust itself and the NGOs are directly incentivizing it, by making migrants’ journey safer”.

Let us analyze the logic of this unwittingly cynical refrain. What this objection is actually implying is that NGOs are saving too many lives; that it shouldn’t be so easy to cross the Mediterranean, and that the appropriate death rate should be somewhat higher of what it is today. Trump’s border protection policy does not seem such a crazy idea after all!

The point is that with this code of conduct we are “curing” the wrong “problem”. The chain of causality and responsibility in the migration crisis is far more complex that this; it starts with the deep global inequalities and finishes with the current EU asylum policy.

Indeed, this political, cultural and humanitarian tragedy unfolded under the eyes, and with the political support (or inaction), of all European leaders. Yes, this is not another symptom of the endless Italian crisis. It is not the unwarranted collateral damage of having Italy and not France in the middle of the Mediterranean sea. It is the European rational design answering an irrational fear.

Even the Europhile and newly born star of the Old Continent, Emmanuel Macron, shrugged his shoulders in response to the Italian request for support. And so did all other leaders of the rich north. Austria has even threatened to send the army at its southern border. Meanwhile, Junker’s promise to move some 40 thousand migrants from Italy to its neighbouring countries remained dead letter.

The truth is, that Italians felt left alone in front of a task that requires coordination and joint action. Coordination in the distribution of responsibilities among other European states for the integration or expulsion of migrants; joint action in the conduct of search and rescue operation at sea. What is missing is, in other words, European solidarity.

One thought on “The Italian Moral U-Turn on migrants and the deafening silence of Europe

  1. You write very clearly. I share your considerations about Politicians’ mistakes in Italy and Europe. I hope that they find the rigtheousness.

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