Italy changes course on immigration with new minister Luciana Lamorgese

Italy’s newly formed ruling coalition of the populist Five Star movement and left-leaning Democratic Party has decided to once again allow humanitarian rescue ships to dock here after more than a year of blocking ships under Matteo Salvini, the former minister of the interior.

Allowing rescue ships to dock, working with EU to solve migrant crisis

Rescued migrants sit in an Italian Coast Guard boat after disembarking from the Ocean Viking in Lampedusa, Italy, on Saturday. Allowing the Ocean Viking to dock marked a change of course for Italy. (Renata Brito/Associated Press)

This weekend, while idling in the Mediterranean Sea between Malta and Italy, the bright red and white Ocean Viking humanitarian ship suddenly set off in a strong, clear course toward the southern-most Italian island of Lampedusa.

The ship had just received permission from Italy to sail to Lampedusa, setting off a wave of relief for the 82 rescued people onboard. It also marked the first tangible evidence of a sweeping change in course to Italy's — and possibly Europe's — approach to the controversial issue of immigration.

Italy's newly formed ruling coalition of the populist Five Star movement and left-leaning Democratic Party has decided to once again allow humanitarian rescue ships to dock here after more than a year of blocking ships under Matteo Salvini, the former minister of the interior. And it has made a swift deal with several EU countries to share the migrants aboard the Ocean Viking.

"Basically Italy is saying to Europe, we're breaking with the past policy," says Annalisa Camilli, immigration expert and author of La Legge del Mare – The Law of The Sea. "It's a big message that Italy has chosen to come back in line with Germany, France and Spain instead of aligning with [anti-migrant] countries such as Hungary and Poland under the former far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini."

Luciana Lamorgese arrives at Quirinale Presidential Palace to be sworn in as Italy's interior minister in Rome on Sept 5. She's different in both style and substance from the last minister. (Ciro de Luca/Reuters)

The change comes with the government's replacement of Salvini with the southern Italian lawyer Luciana Lamorgese. She's the first woman to hold the job and, says Camilli, could not be more different in style and substance than Salvini.

Lamorgese has a deep and nuanced understanding of immigration policy with more 30 years experience in the Interior Ministry that deals with immigration. She's the only so-called 'technocrat' in the cabinet, with no political allegiances. And she has worked mostly under the radar.

Not on Twitter or Facebook

"Lamorgese has no social profile. She's not on Twitter or Facebook," says Emiliana De Blasio, a political expert with Rome's Luiss University. "She's super partes and has worked with both rightist and leftist governments. She's an institutional woman, not a politician, and because of that, Salvini has never attacked her and will find it more difficult to now."

Until earlier this month when, in a political miscalculation, Salvini ousted himself from government, the far-right leader dominated the discourse on migration in Italy. In his near daily rants posted on social media, he amplified unproven conspiracy theories that humanitarian rescuers colluded with human traffickers; cultivated fears of a migrant invasion even as arrivals dropped by 80 per cent due to EU deals with African countries to try to stop migrants from entering Libya; and lashed out against the EU, while shutting down dialogue with its neighbours.

Leader of The League party Matteo Salvini speaks at a party's rally in Pontida, Italy, on Sunday. As interior minister, he cultivated fears of a migrant invasion in Italy. (Luca Bruno/Associated Press)

His refusal to allow migrant rescue ships to dock triggered some two dozen standoffs between Italy and rescuers — NGO, commercial and even Italy's own naval ships — forcing migrant-crammed vessels to remain stranded at sea for up to three weeks. He also passed two so-called security decrees that cancelled special humanitarian assistance for asylum seekers and criminalized the NGO rescuers.

But if the choice of Lamorgese to replace Salvini signals a radical departure, the move is more political jujitsu than a counterstrike.

"They have seen that politicizing migration has divided the society, and basically they want to overcome this polarized vision of reality by defusing it," Camilli said.

Lamorgese will do that by quietly getting to work, she added.

Talking with Europe about refugees

Already negotiations with Europe to share migrants and financially penalize countries that don't are underway, as well as discussions about relaunching an EU naval patrol in the Mediterranean.

Members of the Democratic Party are pushing for Italy to reprise a lead role in setting up  a German- and France-backed EU investment scheme in African countries to stem the flow of migrants and forging bilateral accords with those same countries to take back people who don't qualify as refugees.

And here in Italy, reforming the country's antiquated 16-year-old law on immigration is a top priority.

"I think we're going to be hearing less about the invasion of migrants from the sea and more about how to grant long-term legal status to the 600,000 immigrants who have been living and working as agricultural workers and caregivers in Italy for years," said Camilli.

Migrants are rescued by the NGO ship Aquarius. Italy is letting migrant ships dock at Italian ports again. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Still, the issue of migrant flows across the Mediterranean from Africa is hardly going away. Even with the number of arrivals to Italy under 6,000 so far this year, more than 50,000 migrants crossed to Spain and Greece.

And how European countries deal with the sea crossings will remain contentious and of urgent concern to human rights observers.

NGOs watching how she handles human rights

In Italy, migrant rescue NGOs will be watching closely to see how Lamorgese deals with protecting the human rights of migrants in Libya where they are held captive in overcrowded barracks, tortured and extorted.

Under the previous Democratic Party interior minister Marco Minniti, Lamorgese worked to back a plan that funded the Libyan militias who ran their coast guard to intercept migrant-crammed dinghies and send the people back to captivity. Experts say the move merely fuelled human trafficking. Many migrants whose dinghies later made it past the Libyan patrols reported being trapped in a vicious cycle: Having to pay traffickers to board the rubber boats, being caught by the Libyan coast guard and brought back to the traffickers, only to have to pay them again for another attempt to escape.

"Italian ports will be open to humanitarian rescue ships, but at the same time they'll fund extra-European countries such as Turkey, Libya, Tunisia and Sudan to block the immigration flows before they reach EU borders," said Camilli.  

Remaining as low-profile as she has been throughout her career, Lamorgese has not made any public statements about her new role as interior minister or given interviews about her plans.

Annalisa Camilli, immigration expert and author of La Legge del Mare – The Law of The Sea, says Italy is coming 'back in line with Germany, France and Spain instead of aligning with [anti-migrant] countries.' (Megan Williams/CBC)

But Democratic Party members of Italy's new coalition government insist that the country is on a new course.

"Our approach is completely different from Salvini. We're not trying to stop immigration, but manage it," says Democratic head Senator Andrea Marcucci. "We must care about human beings and human rights. We must also see the Mediterranean as our future and as a place that provides opportunities and not only a terrible place that links us to Africa over immigration."

It's a promise that's been made by previous governments, Marcucci admits.

But, say observers, if this new government lasts, Lamorgese has as good a chance as any at making inroads.


Megan Williams

Rome correspondent

Megan Williams has been covering all things Italian, from politics and the Vatican, to food and culture, to the plight of migrants in the Mediterranean, for more than two decades. Based in Rome, Megan has also told stories from other parts of Europe and the world and won many international prizes for her reporting, including a James Beard Award. Her radio documentaries can be heard on Ideas and The Current. Megan is also a regular guest host on CBC national radio shows.