Top army brass fear return of ‘migrant crisis’ as Italians veer to the right

For the Maltese armed forces, the Italian election in March will also signal a change in the country's policy for the rescue of asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean

Senior AFM officials have said that elections in Italy could mean an agreement on migrant rescues between Italy and Malta is scrapped. Photo John Pisani
Senior AFM officials have said that elections in Italy could mean an agreement on migrant rescues between Italy and Malta is scrapped. Photo John Pisani

Senior officers in the Armed Forces of Malta are fearing the rise of the hard right in Italy’s elections will precipitate “a serious situation” for Malta in the area of migration and naval rescues.

With polls suggesting Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition of centre-right and far-right parties will take power in the elections of March, senior AFM officials told this newspaper they were bracing themselves for a return of the so called “migrant crisis”.

“The election of a right-wing government in Italy could spell disaster,” top army brass told MaltaToday yesterday. “The Maltese government could be expected to negotiate to keep its agreement on migrant rescues with Italy alive, but if this fails it is clear that we will be facing a serious situation.”

Since the Lampedusa tragedy in 2013 and the launch of the Mare Nostrum operation by the Letta administration, Italy has been taking in practically all asylum seekers rescued at sea by Maltese army boats in its search and rescue region.

But domestic concerns in Italy on immigration, fuelled by instability in Libya and the continued exodus of people from the Syrian civil war, has invigorated the Italian right-wing which is banking on these fears for its key into power.

Over the last three years, asylum claims in Malta decreased drastically as more boat migrants were passed into Italian hands. Most asylum claims in Malta have been Libyan nationals fleeing the ongoing strife at home, a situation that side-lined migration concerns from the public debate.

But this week, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose Forza Italia coalition now includes the xenophobic Northern League and far right Fratelli d’Italia, made specific reference to Malta on the subject of migration.

“There is no doubt that migrants who risk their life and cross the Mediterranean have to be saved. However, we will not accept that all disembark in Italy. Those saved close to Malta will have to be taken to and disembark in Malta,” he said on Italian channel RAI 3.

Harshly criticising an agreement made by the incumbent centre-left government, through which Italy accepted to take all migrants saved in the Mediterranean, Mr Berlusconi said things would be different if his party was elected to government.

“It is not on that we continue to shoulder all the burden alone. Other countries that have responsibility for search and rescue will also have to share in the burden,” he said.

In 2014, Malta and Italy came to an agreement to have Italy take in all migrants rescued at sea, including those by Maltese naval assets and inside the Maltese SAR.

But speculation has grown on whether the Maltese government had conceded oil-drilling rights to the Italians, claims the Maltese government has denied.

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