Far Right Seizes On Italy’s Renewed Coronavirus Restrictions To Bash Immigration

On Sunday, Italy announced that it is shutting discos and nightclubs for three weeks as the number of coronavirus cases has increased, particularly among young people. It’s the first reimposition of restrictions in the country, which for so long was the center of the global pandemic, since the government began easing its lockdown in May.

“We cannot nullify the sacrifices made in past months. Our priority must be that of opening schools in September, in full safety,” Health Minister Roberto Speranza said on Facebook.

Speranza on Saturday urged young people to be as cautious as possible, as “if they infect their parents and their grandparents, they risk creating real damage.” In addition to closing nightspots, the government is requiring that face masks be worn between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. in areas close to bars and pubs, and where gatherings are more likely.

Italy had kept clubs open despite mounting criticism that they attracted large crowds, that social distancing was not being respected and masks were not being worn.

But new cases in the past week were more than double the number three weeks ago.

And to the country’s far-right politicians, the resurgent coronavirus crisis has provided fresh fodder for their anti-immigrant agenda. Now, the reimposition of restrictions on regular Italian life at the exact moment migrant boats have begun landing has enabled the far right to stoke the fears of Italians afraid of an imported coronavirus second wave.

“The only problem related to the virus is not the boys who dance but those who disembark,” Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right Lega Party, said at a news conference last week, per HuffPost Italy“The enemy is not the boy who goes to the beach, disco or restaurant, but the thousands of migrants who land on our shores.”

Lega Party leader Matteo Salvini, on July 28 in Rome.
Lega Party leader Matteo Salvini, on July 28 in Rome./

“Another 100 landed tonight,” Massimo Casanova, a Lega member who owns a nightclub in the beach town of Milano Marittima, told HuffPost Italy. “What is the point of picking on companies? This government has no idea what it means to run a business.”

Lega Party leader Matteo Salvini, on July 28 in Rome.
Lega Party leader Matteo Salvini, on July 28 in Rome./ Simona Granati – Corbis via Getty Images

In recent weeks, a steady stream of asylum-seekers have arrived in Italy, particularly from Tunisia, whose economy has been ravaged as a consequence of the pandemic.

According to The Guardian, 1,277 migrants from Tunisia were intercepted by Italian authorities in the first six months of 2019. This year, that number rose to 6,628. More than 4,000 migrants were intercepted by Italian authorities in July alone.

With more and more boats arriving from Tunisia every day, the Italian island of Lampedusa has reportedly run out of room to quarantine new migrants, and tensions have flared amid worries that the new arrivals could lead to a new spike in coronavirus cases. With little room on Lampedusa, migrants are being transferred to other quarantine centers, putting local mayors on a war footing.

“I don’t understand why the premier doesn’t declare a state of emergency” on Lampedusa, the island’s mayor, Toto Martello, told the Giornale di Sicilia newspaper.

Italian prosecutors are investigating two recent attacks against pro-migrant symbols in Lampedusa — a fire that burned hundreds of abandoned boats in the island’s “migrant boat graveyard,” and the vandalism of the Gateway to Europe monument, erected in 2008 as a memorial to migrants who died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

However, Giusi Nicolini, Lampedusa’s former mayor who won the UNESCO Peace Prize in 2017 for her work with migrants, has stressed that there “is no emergency.”

“They say we are overrun for political purposes,” Nicolini told the La Stampa newspaper.

Boats used by migrants sit abandoned near the port at Lampedusa, Italy, on Aug. 4.
Boats used by migrants sit abandoned near the port at Lampedusa, Italy, on Aug. 4.,Fabrizio Villa via Getty Images

For politicians like Salvini, the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed 35,000 lives in Italy since February, is just the latest excuse to demonize immigrants.

During his tenure as Italy’s interior minister from June 2018 to September 2019, he repeatedly denied ships carrying migrants access to the country’s ports. Italian prosecutors have sought to bring kidnapping charges against Salvini in three such cases, and the Italian parliament voted last month to lift Salvini’s immunity from prosecution.

Yet Italian authorities have continued to turn their backs on migrants seeking assistance. In April, the government declared the country’s ports “unsafe” due to the coronavirus pandemic and said it would not authorize the landing of migrant boats — an unprecedented move.

“For the entire duration of the health emergency, due to the outbreak of coronavirus, Italian ports cannot be classified as ‘safe places’ for the landing of people rescued from boats flying a foreign flag,” the government stated in an official decree.

In July, humanitarian groups photographed an Italian coast guard ship ignoring a migrant boat that was adrift in the Mediterranean with about 60 people on board.

While the rhetoric of politicians like Salvini has fanned the flames of division, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has been blasted over his silence on the arrivals. During mass landings and escapes from reception centers in the final week of July, Conte was criticized for simply claiming that “the situation is complex.”

Meanwhile, humanitarian groups say there is little evidence that migrants are fueling the spread of coronavirus.

“There is no correlation,” Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration, told Politico. “The far right will use whatever they find to create their anti-migrant message.”

With reporting from HuffPost Italy and Reuters.

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