Italy’s long and complex history intersects with the work of Clowns Without Borders in relation to the ongoing European migrant crisis.
World War I
Italy suffered huge military and civilian losses during World War I. As the Russian Revolution inspired leftists across Europe, liberal Italian officials nervously put their support behind Mussolini’s nascent National Fascist Party. In 1922, Mussolini’s Black Shirts attempted a coup of the Italian government. King Victor Emmanuel III appointed Mussolini as prime minister, and he swiftly squashed dissent. Mussolini’s dictatorship served as inspiration and support for other ultra-nationalist governments, including Nazi Germany and Francoist Spain.
World War II
Italy was, of course, one of the Axis powers during World War II. During the interwar period, Fascist Italy had annexed parts of Yugoslavia, forcibly assimilating, deporting or interning people already living in the region. After WWII, the Italian economy was at rock bottom, with per capita income at its lowest point since the beginning of the 20th century. The nation received economic support from the U.S. as part of the Marshall Plan, an economic recovery plan that funded neoliberal ideologies of industrial growth, reduced regulatory control and fewer trade barriers. It was also meant to stop the spread of communism. The economy rebounded and Italy joined NATO, and was a founding member of the European Economic Community, which predated the European Union.
Into the 21st Century
Between the 1960s and the beginning of the 21st century, Italian society and economic stability was in crisis. Assassinations, political scandal, disbandment of a major political party and skyrocketing debt all occurred in the course of about 40 years. At the turn of the 21st century, Berlusconi’s center-right coalition and Prodi’s center-left alternately governed the country.
2008’s Great Recession had a deep effect on the Italian economy, causing years of GDP loss. Though the Great Recession is commonly thought to have lasted between 2008 and 2013, a 2013 blog published via the London School of Economics notes that Italy’s economy had flatlined. A later blog by the same author discusses how the country’s entrepreneurs and educated work force were leaving the country, en masse. In 2015–2016, when the European migrant crisis peaked in terms of overall migrant arrivals, Italy was not far off from this most recent economic crisis.
The Ongoing Migrant Crisis
Since then, the country has adopted severe measures to address the migrant “problem.” Notably, the Italian government formed a deal with Libya, a key site for North African migrants heading to Europe, to detain and repatriate migrants who attempt the sea crossing, and to interfere with NGOs rescuing people. The Libyan coast guard and navy has since been emboldened to threaten NGOs, many of which have ceased operations in the Mediterranean. Intercepted migrants are returned to Libya, ostensibly for processing. However, there is active human trafficking in Libya, and no formal government. It’s impossible to determine how people are treated once they’re detained. Italy has failed to set a humane example, banning NGOs operating in the Mediterranean from making phone calls to aid migrant departures and transferring rescued migrants to other vessels. Thanks to these efforts, the number of migrants arriving in Italy has decreased, but it in 2017, 85 percent of all migrant arrivals took place in Italy. This means that Italy is still the “country of arrival” for migrants, and it is the country where, under EU law, they must apply for asylum.
A Shift To The Right
As Italy struggles to address its own tanking economy, xenophobic and bigoted rhetoric against migrants has paved the way for newly emboldened nationalist parties. Using the guise of populism, these groups have moved from the far-right and neo-fascist fringe into mainstream conversation. Though many factors, both within Italian politics and the larger EU project, contributed to Italy’s economic collapse, these parties conveniently blame migrants. There is a resentful sense among Italy’s disaffected youth population that they have been abandoned by other EU countries, some of which refuse to take their quota of migrants.
When Italians voted on March 4, 2018, fringe far-right parties which played off of immigration fears did well. The election was inconclusive, with no party winning a majority, but various far-right and center-right parties have discussed working together. Now, the Italian parliament must convene to build a coalition and include the newly emboldened ultra-nationalist parties.