Federico Alagna: EU's big mistake is to consider migration as a problem

That misleads the debate and blocks the achievement of a comprehensive, sustainable and human-rights informed response

Photo: Personal Archive Federico Alagna

Migration is a complex, long-standing and absolutely ordinary phenomenon, which can entail challenges at times, but also plenty of opportunities. And, as such, it should be addressed and dealt with in a comprehensive way. When one considers migration as a problem, then the whole discourse is in a way misled. I would say that the pandemic has exacerbated an already existing attitude that, very broadly, the EU has kept over the years, Italian political researcher Federico Alagna says in an interview to Europost.


The EU is currently focused on combating the coronavirus pandemic and rightfully so, but there is growing concern that the solution of other problems like migration will be neglected or delayed. Do you share this concern?

To answer this question, let me start from the first, enormous mistake that the EU, and many others, have made, which is exactly that of considering migration as a problem. Migration is instead a complex, long-standing and absolutely ordinary phenomenon, which can entail challenges at times, but also plenty of opportunities. And, as such, it should be addressed and dealt with in a comprehensive way, providing urgent responses to those in needs and at the same time promoting structural channels that can avoid people having to risk their lives to reach Europe. But when one considers migration as a problem, then the whole discourse is in a way misled. So I would say that the pandemic has exacerbated an already existing attitude that, very broadly, the EU has kept over the years, though with different nuances and degree of responsibility depending on the moment, the specific issue and the institutional body involved. That is, misleading the whole debate on migration; neglecting, as you were pointing out, the achievement of a comprehensive, sustainable and human-rights informed response; but at the same time, almost paradoxically, being very productive on the front of certain migration policies, that is, exclusively the ones that reinforce the paradigm of Fortress Europe, such as we have seen, also in these last weeks, at the Greek-Turkish border or in the Mediterranean Sea.

Some days ago Malta announced its withdrawal from Operation Irini. How will you comment this move and what consequences do you expect?

The whole external action of the EU in the Mediterranean (and beyond) is a story of announcements, negotiations, promises, at the times even threats, between Member States. And this seems to me at the same time cause and consequence (in some sort of vicious circle) of governments' reluctance to a stable, shared and in a way “courageous” foreign policy. So I would dare to say that there is nothing new, to a certain extent: I do not see, in the present case, many differences with the attitude, for example, of the Italian government at the time of the renewal of Operation Sophia in 2019. It is too early to say if and how there will be concrete consequences, but the actual reasons behind this announcement - i.e. accusation that Mediterranean countries are left alone to deal with migrants crossing the sea - are extremely significant and, again, in continuity with what happened with Sophia in 2019. Yet it is odd that a country grounds on these bases its withdrawal from an operation that - unfortunately and dramatically - has nothing to do with the search and rescue of migrants, because of a deliberate, buck-passing choice of the EU to avoid any new intervention in this field. Odd, but explicable, considering how governments want to be seen as playing harsh on migration - and Malta is not the only case at all. This was the reason that sank Sophia, and is the one that might sink Irini. And all this is strengthening Fortress Europe and putting even more lives at risk.

How does the Italian government deal with migrant arrivals during the pandemic emergency?

I have not seen any radical change in the Italian approach to migration throughout the Covid-19 emergency. As early as the very beginning of the crisis, in the last days of February, the Italian government decided to compel NGO ships to quarantine after disembarking migrants, even before the lockdown took place in the whole country and whilst cruise ships were still freely docking in Italian harbours. I myself could have first-hand experience of that in Messina, where I live: at the beginning of March, while the Sea-Watch 3 was quarantining just outside the harbour, a cruise ship freely disembarked thousands of people into the city. Double standards, as usual, even throughout the pandemic. In the following weeks, the government declared Italian harbours “not safe” and forbad any migrant disembarkation, even though this policy was de facto partly changed afterwards due to the strong requests coming from activists, movements, some parties and civil society. However, in early May, Italy resumed its anti-NGOs policy, inaugurated by former ministers Marco Minniti and Matteo Salvini (in continuity between governments of different political colour), and decided to hold the only two NGO ships still active in the Mediterranean for “administrative reasons”. So, without any institutional (either EU or national) search and rescue mission, and with all the NGO ships now docked in harbours because of the EU-wide lockdown, quarantine and administrative measures, migrant arrivals have been very limited and in most cases autonomous - or “invisible” - through those small vessels reaching Lampedusa or the southern coast of Sicily. And many people died, because of that, even if it is particularly difficult to have reliable figures, also because of the increased risk of “invisible shipwrecks”, as recently pointed out by the Director of IOM's Global Migration Data and Analysis Centre. I would say that the cynical smokescreen that makes migration attempts less visible to the public opinion - both through externalisation policies with countries such as Turkey, Libya and Niger, as well as by making SAR more difficult, when not impossible - has continued to work very “efficiently” throughout the pandemic.

The regularisation of the migrant farm workers in time of pandemic sparks political polemic in Italy. Why this problem, which not only Italy faces, could not be resolved at EU level?

This could have been an opportunity for finally addressing in a comprehensive way the situation of those migrants that already live in Italy but, without a residence permit, enjoy very few rights and are often exploited and even enslaved by making them work under awful conditions. There was a huge debate in Italy in the last weeks about this, related to the situation of both migrant and Italian workers, but the solution proposed by the government, although a step forward, as acknowledged by several people active in the promotion and safeguard of migrant rights, fails to address the situation as a whole and leaves thousands of people out. The overall feeling is that the government showed more concern for having food on our tables and for care services in our houses, rather than for the rights of these people. Furthermore, looking at this decree from a migration policy perspective, the proposed solution for undocumented migrants seems insufficient in terms of the conditions required to access it, the lack of any rapid response mechanism to ensure rights enforceability and the foreseen duration of the permit. I am not an expert of labour migration policies, but the Italian way does not seem to me very different from an overall approach followed also by other European countries throughout the crisis. So for me the point is not very much whether a common European solution can be found, provided the division of competences between the EU and its Member States - we shall not forget that as early as 2014 a Directive on seasonal workers was approved. It is rather what kind of response that would be, and I do not see much room for being optimistic.

Do you believe that the controversial Dublin regulation reform will happen one day?

The last credible attempt failed in 2018-19 because of Council deadlocks, and this is a fact. There was too much disagreement between Member States and, at the end of the day, it proved to be easier to make migrants “disappear” (i.e. make them invisible through the mentioned smokescreen of externalisation policies and obstruction to SAR) rather than trying to find a solution that balanced interests of external border countries with those of central and northern European countries. For the future, waiting for a coalition of Member States willing to address not only the Dublin III Regulation, but the whole migration, asylum and border management policy framework of the EU, providing a sustainable and long-term approach, in compliance with human rights (yes, I know, this sounds already very utopic), it will be crucial the attitude that the Commission and the Parliament will have. In the past, they worked hard to reach an agreement on the Dublin III reform and they managed to do so. Even though they have not the power to overcome any potential future deadlock in the Council, their overall approach to migration and their willingness to politically fight - also openly and loudly - those Member States that will make it difficult to find an agreement on that will be crucial. Their role in migration policy-making has been changing over the last few years - mostly in the case of the Commission, but partly also in that of the Parliament - progressively aligning with the Council positions (the whole SAR operations issue is a good domain to see this). The capacity of progressive actors, especially those in certain political groups in the European Parliament, of reversing this process, will be of the utmost importance.

Federico Alagna researches migration policies in Europe and currently is a PhD candidate at the University of Bologna and at the Radboud University, with a research on the EU policies against migrant smuggling. In the past, he conducted research on anti-organised crime policies and worked as project officer in a non-profit organisation. He has been socially and politically engaged for long time, in Italy and abroad, mostly in the area of municipalism, right to the city, migration and the fight against the mafia, and he has published different types of contributions for several journals, newspapers and magazines on these issues. From 2017 to 2018 he served as Deputy-Mayor for Culture and Public Education of the City of Messina, as member of a municipalist platform.

Federico can be contacted at f.alagna@fm.ru.nl

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