The mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, believes the Italian capital is facing a new migrant emergency. “We can’t afford new arrivals,” she argued in a letter sent to Italy’s Ministry of Interior on June 15. “Rome’s reception capacity is on its knees,” she continued, adding that new arrivals would have “devastating social costs”. According to the Italian interior minister, Marco Minniti, new arrivals in Rome are in line with agreed quotas.
This was not Raggi’s view only six months ago, when she spoke in early December at an event hosted by the Roman Catholic Church to showcase positive responses to refugees in European cities. Raggi, who is from Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) or Five Star Movement, praised the role that cities such as Rome and Barcelona have in welcoming refugees and celebrated the contributions newcomers bring to society. In a post on her Facebook page at the time she added:
We as mayors and our cities face the effects of large immigration inflows. It is our duty to guarantee dignity, shelter and human warmth to new comers. Negative attitudes and closure offend our human dignity.
So what has happened in the last six months? There are two main explanations for why Raggi’s view has changed. The first has to do with Italian party politics; the second is related to the situation for migrants and refugees in Italy and how it has evolved in the last few years.
Italian commentators noted that Raggi’s letter coincided with the M5S underperforming in the first round of municipal elections in early June. Ahead of the second round on June 25, Raggi’s anti-migrant rhetoric successfully diverted media attention away from her party’s poor electoral result.
The letter to the ministry is seen as part of a strategic alignment of the M5S towards more traditional right wing politics. Other signals of this shift include migrants with insecure legal status being forcibly evicted from squats, tougher anti-begging measures introduced in Rome and a call by Beppe Grillo for Roma camps to be closed down.
With a potential general election looming in Italy, there are talks of a possible alliance between the far-right Northern League and the M5S against former prime minister Matteo Renzi’s ruling Democratic Party. This hypothesis seems validated by an alleged secret meeting in early June between Matteo Salvini, the Northern League figurehead, and Davide Casaleggio, a senior strategist of the M5S.
When Raggi was elected as mayor of Rome, she was hailed by her M5S colleagues as living proof that Grillo’s anti-establishment party was ready to move from the opposition into government at the national level. But the initial excitement soon vanished and she has gone from one political crisis to the next. Grillo and his party were ready to distance themselves from her on a few separate occasions, but political opportunism intervened. However, her decisions are now closely monitored by the national party machine, which is why her public statement against migrants in Rome is seen as being sanctioned by the party.
Destitution among refugees and migrants
The second explanation for Raggi’s letter is the situation facing refugees and migrants in Rome. While it may be true that the numbers are in line with agreed reception plans, on the ground the presence of refugees and migrants has become more visible in the last year, particularly in train stations and public spaces.
Destitution and homelessness are on the increase as Italy struggles to provide medium- and long-term support to help newcomers integrate in Italian society. In the early years of the so-called Mediterranean migrant crisis, the country imagined itself as a transit hub for refugees and migrants on their way to central and northern Europe.
In 2014, for example, while 170,000 people arrived by sea in Italy, only 66,000 asylum applications were lodged. Over 100,000 people – mostly Syrians, Eritreans and Sudanese – travelled through Italy using Milan and Rome as temporary bases. As Simon McMahon and I have shown in our research on Europe’s responses to Mediterranean sea arrivals, during 2015, efforts were made to track the mobility of newcomers via fingerprinting and to channel more people through the Italian asylum system.
The establishment of EU Hot Spots, which screened arrivals, in four Italian ports played an important role in this process. More asylum applications were followed by higher rejection rates and an increasing number of people left destitute on the street, unable either to leave Italy or to regularise their position.
Increased visibility has had an impact on public attitudes regarding the “refugee crisis” which have become more negative in recent years. Repeated media and political attacks on NGOs running search and rescue operations at sea have further contributed to a renewed sense of uncontrolled migration in Italy.
So, while Raggi’s move is rooted in political opportunism, it is also related to what her citizens see and perceive on the ground. But Raggi’s solutions of capping arrivals and evicting squats is short-sighted as it doesn’t address the causes of growing destitution among refugees and migrants in Rome. These lie in myopic EU policies that have created buffer zones, particularly since 2015, at the southern borders of Europe where migrants and refugees are stacked for months, unable to rejoin their families and friends and unable to integrate in Italian society and the job market.