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IMMIGRATION

Row over migrant beds as boat arrivals intensify

Italy's interior ministry has ordered regional prefects to find emergency housing for an influx of boat migrants, sparking criticism on Tuesday over the government's handling of a crisis that looks set to intensify.

Row over migrant beds as boat arrivals intensify
Migrants wait at the port of Lampedusa in February 2015. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

A surge in attempted illegal crossings from the coast of north Africa saw nearly 8,500 migrants rescued between Friday and Monday, reigniting a debate in Italy over whether or not the country has a duty to house all new arrivals.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is "looking for another 6,500 beds for immigrants," said Matteo Salvini, head of the anti-immigrant Northern League, which has made the crisis one of its platforms ahead of regional elections in May.

"I ask the League's governors, mayors, assessors and councillors to say no, with every means, to every new arrival. The League is ready to occupy every hotel, hostel, school or barracks intended for the alleged refugees," Salvini said on Facebook on Tuesday.

The interior ministry had on Monday called on Piedmont, Lombardy, the Veneto, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna and Campania regions to find 700 places each for the latest arrivals.

Puglia in southern Italy was told to find 300 places, while the Lazio and Marche regions were asked for another 250 each, with the remaining 1,500 beds to be divided between other regions.

Members of the opposition have accused Renzi's centre-left government of pandering to those fleeing war zones or poverty, with many saying the policy of rescuing immigrants at sea encourages others to attempt the journey.

"It is an absolute disgrace that the government, instead of repelling the invasion of clandestine immigrants, thinks to appropriate thousands and thousands of beds, giving in to the invasion," said senator Maurizio Gasparri from the centre-right Forza Italia party.

Boats 'should be sunk'

And with summer approaching and over 500,000 people waiting to set out from Libya for Europe according to EU border agency Frontex, charity organizations are warning the government is not prepared to deal with the next wave.

Some 10,500 people have been plucked from boats since the beginning of April, with 20,500 people arriving in total so far this year. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 500 people have died at sea.

Italy's coast guard said that 2,851 people had been picked up from boats on Monday alone.

Forza Italia head Giorgia Meloni said the boats setting off from north Africa to Italy "should be stopped as they leave," while those used by smugglers to escape "should be sunk".

Photo by Filippo Monteforte/AFP

The majority of immigrant arrivals have no desire to stay in Italy and quickly journey on towards northern Europe.

According to the UN's refugee agency, in 2014 the number of people fleeing conflicts in Syria and Iraq who applied for asylum in wealthy countries was the highest in 22 years.

While Germany received the most applications, with 173,000 requests, Italy ranked behind the United States, Turkey and Sweden with 63,660 requests.

The country has a publicly-funded network of reception centres housing some 30,000 people, according to the Migrantes Foundation.

But due to severe overcrowding the extra beds are likely to be found in converted hotels, hostels, old people's homes and holiday residences which apply to take part in a state-funded hospitality scheme.

The government gives hundreds of structures across Italy €30 a day per migrant, with €2.50 going towards pocket money and the rest earmarked for bed, board and services such as legal assistance with applying for asylum.

Critics have said this hospitality business, which at the end of 2014 housed over 32,300 migrants according to the interior ministry, is worth around €1 million a day and attracts profiteers and organized crime.

Catholic associations like Caritas are putting roofs over the heads of another 20,000 immigrants, Migrantes Foundation director Giancarlo Perego said, adding that the government's preparations were "absolutely insufficient."

"It's not tolerable for a municipality to be able to decide whether or not to take in an asylum seeker. It would be like deciding whether or not to support an old person who is not self-sufficient or an unaccompanied minor," he said.

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2022 SWEDISH ELECTION

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend showed how Sweden’s third party, the far-right Sweden Democrats, has shaped Swedish politics since the last elections four years ago, argues David Crouch

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

In the build-up to the 2018 elections, the world’s media descended on Stockholm, expecting a breakthrough by the Sweden Democrats (SD) who had been polling as high as 25 percent. In the end, SD took third place with around 18 percent of the vote.

Four years later, SD are hovering at around the same level in the polls. However, Swedish politics has been utterly transformed, as the other main parties have moved onto political terrain previously occupied by SD.

This would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago. When they first entered parliament, SD were treated as political pariahs, a racist party, held at arm’s length by the other parties who refused to cooperate with them in any way.

Attempts to bring the SD into the mainstream of Swedish politics fell flat. The leader of the centre-right Moderates lost her job after suggesting it was “time to stop demonising” the SD. Her replacement, Ulf Kristersson, said he would neither negotiate nor govern with them. After the elections, two smaller centre-right parties – the Centre and the Liberals – agreed to prop up the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens to prevent the SD gaining any influence in parliament.

It was clear, however, that the only chance for the centre-right to govern would be with SD support. After all, in Finland and Norway right-wing populist parties had entered government with the centre right. And in Denmark, the centre-right had governed with populist support. If it worked there, why not in Sweden?

In early 2019, the SD leader Jimmie Åkesson famously had meatballs for lunch with Ebba Busch, the leader of the tiny Christian Democrats, who acted as a bridge-builder. A few months later, Kristersson met the SD leader for the first time in his Stockholm office. By early 2021 the cordon sanitaire dividing the parties had been truly dismantled, and in the autumn the three parties presented a joint budget.

Meanwhile, the Moderates stepped up their rhetoric against immigration and crime. But perhaps the influence has worked both ways? Maybe the far-right have toned down their policies, compromising with the centre so the parties can work together?

On the contrary, Åkesson and other leading SD figures have stoked up the fire and brimstone in their anti-immigrant message. For the SD, the problem is dark-skinned immigrants from Muslim countries whose values conflict with Sweden’s and who should therefore be deported.

The response among the Moderates – and also the governing Social Democrats – has been a deafening silence.

After the Easter riots in six Swedish cities, the Social Democrat government proposed a package of coercive measures to help the police and social services crackdown on criminals.

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend brought this out very clearly. More than that, it showed how the Sweden Democrats have shaped Swedish politics since the country last voted four years ago.

In the debate on Sunday, prime minister Magdalena Andersson talked about being tough on crime and boasted that Sweden now has one of the strictest immigration regimes in Europe.

It was left to the Green Party (polling 4 percent) and the Centre Party (6 percent) to challenge the SD on immigration. They pointed out that the violent minority is tiny, and that tens of thousands of recent immigrants hold down jobs, obey the law and contribute to Swedish society.

Centre Party leader Annie Lööf listed some of the SD’s more extreme proposals, including demolition of high-immigration neighbourhoods, dawn raids on refugees, and collective punishment for crimes committed by a single family member. This was “pure racism”, Lööf said – where were the “red lines”, beyond which the centre-right would turn against the SD?

All the parties agree that segregation along ethnic lines has gone too far in Sweden, that integration efforts have failed and that something must be done. But there is a paucity of bold ideas that could really make a difference.

Immigration will once more be a battleground at the elections in September, with key politicians competing to be the toughest in dealing with unruly “foreigners”. Meanwhile, the underlying problems that have fuelled disaffection among people with immigrant backgrounds are unlikely to be addressed.

A few weeks ago, Swedish journalist Janne Josefsson spoke to Ahmed, one of the stone-throwing youngsters who shocked the country at Easter.

“We are second class citizens. You let us in, but then Sweden doesn’t care about us,” Ahmed told him. “We are trapped here. I have studied, but will never get a good job. At least once a week we are stopped by the police. In the end, you feel hunted, like a quarry. Do you understand?”

It seems that Swedish politicians don’t really want to.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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Listen to a discussion on Sweden and immigration on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

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