Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri on Monday said he was expecting Italy’s new right-wing government to start changing the country's migration policy soon, after its likely leader Giorgia Meloni pledged to block boat landings in the country.

Camilleri warned there was “no way” the crisis could be addressed if the two countries do not work together.

“Italy will probably start to experience a policy shift on this important subject early in the legislature,” he told Times of Malta hours after the first election results indicated that Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party had swept to victory.

“Malta and Italy share the same challenges in the Central Mediterranean and there is no way these challenges can be addressed if we do not work together.

“Efforts must take place within the context of our membership in the European Union, as well as our relationship with neighbouring countries like Libya and Tunisia.”

Giorgia Meloni pledged a naval blockade to reduce migration during her campaign. Photo: AFPGiorgia Meloni pledged a naval blockade to reduce migration during her campaign. Photo: AFP

Meloni is set to become Italy’s first female prime minister and lead a coalition government with former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini’s League, after securing an impressive vote in Sunday’s election.

Her government is being dubbed as the most right-wing since World War II.

If she delivers on her adamant promises to stop irregular migration from Northern Africa, Malta could see a surge in asylum seeker arrivals from Africa and potentially have one less ally in the EU on the migration issue.

Meloni’s partner in government, Salvini, had engaged in several disputes with Malta over migration between 2018 and 2019 when he was home affairs minister. His refusal to allow boats into the country could be one of the reasons why Malta absorbed a record number of irregular migrants in 2019.

Matteo Salvini had stopped migrant boats from entering Italy when he was Italy’s home affairs minister between 2018 and 2019. Photo: AFPMatteo Salvini had stopped migrant boats from entering Italy when he was Italy’s home affairs minister between 2018 and 2019. Photo: AFP

In recent years, the Maltese government has embarked on an effort to stop migrants and refugees from leaving Libya, arguing it would not allow human traffickers to endanger migrants’ lives.

Several calls for help from migrant boats in distress within Malta’s search and rescue zone appear to have fallen on deaf ears, sparking protests from humanitarian organisations. 

Salvini redux?

Researcher and former Times of Malta journalist Mark Micallef said that with Meloni’s new government, he was expecting a repeat of what happened during the Salvini era.

“I would actually be surprised if that doesn’t happen,” he said.

Micallef, who is the director of the North Africa and Sahel Observatory at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, said populist parties like Meloni’s Brothers of Italy tend to rise to power with great support thanks to big talk of revolutionary policy changes, only to eventually realise that governing is far more complex than their populist rhetoric makes it out to be.

“The right way to tackle migration is for Italy and Malta to sit down as allies with Brussels and North Africa and devise a long-term, sensible strategy that accepts migration as a reality that is here to stay,” he said.

“But in a country like Italy, where governments are notoriously unstable and topple frequently, the Meloni coalition, like far-right movements before it, will probably realise that truly solving the issue will be harder than they expected and end up engaging in symbolic disputes with Malta over which boat is or is not their responsibility. Or they will scapegoat migrant rescue NGOs.”

Italy’s anti-migration policies could, therefore, see Malta struggling with a larger influx of boats in the near future.

“In the short term, this is bad news for migrants, because they will be the ones who suffer the most,” Micallef said.

Contacted for comment, former foreign minister Evarist Bartolo stressed the importance of Malta maintaining good relations with Italy but said it was too early to predict whether Meloni’s election would have any significant impact on migration in Malta.

“It depends on her behaviour with EU institutions and not least on who she decides to appoint as home affairs minister,” he said.

“We have no guarantee Salvini will be home affairs minister again, and the process to form the government could take weeks.”

Dialling it down

Both Bartolo and Micallef think that despite being touted as a far-right politician who is attempting to revive war-time fascism, Meloni’s words might actually speak much louder than her actions.

“She has already toned down her rhetoric about the European Union and even about migration,” Micallef said, adding that only time will tell whether she will become milder in her views as she assumes power.

The Brothers of Italy party was a long-time Eurosceptic movement in Italy, leading some people to believe it would attempt its own version of Brexit.

While it still calls for a “more political and less bureaucratic EU”, it is now committed to stay in the bloc, possibly because it desperately needs resilience and pandemic recovery funds from the bloc.

The party was also once seeking to cosy up to Russia and Vladimir Putin but the Ukraine invasion has prompted Meloni to back Italy’s NATO agreements and declare support for military aid for Ukraine.

Regina Catrambone, an Italian national and activist who works closely with migrants in Malta, also expressed concerns that Italy could deflect search and rescue responsibilities towards Malta and said she hoped this would not create diplomatic friction between the countries.

“We will continue to do our job to support and assist the vulnerable people worldwide. It is essential to keep working on advocacy and promoting the values of humanity, integration and inclusion, now more than ever,” said Catrambone, who co-founded the Migrant Offshore Aid Station. 

“[Meloni and Salvini] are leaders of two different parties but share the same vision about the migration phenomenon and policies. I do not expect the narrative around migrant to change anytime soon.”

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