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Italy’s right-wing government aims to halt tide of migrants by cracking down at ports

Italy has borne the brunt of Europe's migration crisis as 200,000 people have landed on the nation's shores after making the perilous crossing. Now a right-wing government wants to stop the human tide, banning nonprofit search-and-rescue ships. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from Sicily.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Italy has borne the brunt of Europe's migration crisis; 200,000 people have landed on the nation's shores after making the perilous crossing from North Africa.

    Now a new right-wing government wants to stop the human tide. It has banned nonprofit search-and-rescue ships from its ports and would like to stop European naval ships from landing refugees on its shores.

    But organizations are fighting back, accusing the Italians of a cold-blooded policy of allowing people to drown at sea.

    From Palermo in Sicily, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    They dance to protest that Italy's generosity and tolerance have reached breaking point. Economic migrants like Lamin Sawa from Gambia are angry that the gateways which allowed them to step foot in Europe are being closed to others following behind.

  • Lamin Sawa:

    The Ministry of Interior of Italy at the moment decided that no boat is going to enter. And that is not fair. They are lives. They are people. They are people who suffered in their country, and trying to come out because of their own human resistance.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Italian politics student Irene Ivanaj has sympathy with the migrants, not least because her mother married an Albanian, who struggled to overcome prejudice.

  • Irene Ivanaj:

    Everybody needs to choose where they want to live. And not letting them in, letting people die at sea is not an option. Sending them back to Libya to death camps and slavery is not an option.

    And what we need to do is to just get more funds to actually help these people once they come here.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Their venom is being directed against this man, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. In office since March, the right-wing populist is now the most powerful politician in Italy, more influential than the prime minister.

    Salvini wants to establish migrant reception centers south of Libya, where applications for asylum in Europe can be processed.

  • Matteo Salvini (through translator):

    The objective is that not one more single person comes here by boat.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The crew of this British patrol ship has sampled Salvini's new tactics. Along with another vessel, it rescued 450 migrants.

    Salvini kept them offshore for several days and only allowed them to dock for disembarkation once some European countries agreed to take them in. Germany, France and Spain promised to accept 50 migrants each.

    This tough approach impresses Salvini's fellow party member Fabio Cantarella, recently elected as a councillor in the Sicilian city of Catania.

  • Fabio Cantarella (through translator):

    If we are Europe, then Europe must share the responsibilities. Previous Italian governments have not had the impulse to say we will not let them disembark unless Europe shares the burden.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    These harrowing images are being used by Salvini's opponents to exemplify the consequences of a fortress Italy policy. A Spanish team accused Libyan coast guards of abandoning a woman and child to drown after intercepting a migrant boat. Another woman was pulled alive from the flotsam.

    Politics professor Flavio Vassallo is disturbed by Italy's right turn. He sees echoes of the country's Second World War fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

  • Flavio Vassallo (through translator):

    The European commission reminded Salvini that people can't be returned to Libya because it's not a safe country. Mussolini used to say, I don't care. And Salvini is doing the same. Basically, he's disregarding international law, which governs rescues at sea, as well as the Geneva Convention and European Convention on Human Rights.

  • Fabio Cantarella (through translator):

    This comparison to Mussolini is shameful. Salvini doesn't do harm to others. Salvini doesn't do harm to others. Salvini is saying something that is very honest and full of common sense. He is saying we cannot welcome everyone.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    According to the U.N.'s International Organization for Migration, nearly 2,400 people drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2017. So far this year, the figure is 1,500.

    That means virtually two out of every 100 people who leave North Africa by boat die. Those figures reinforce the determination of organizations running ships like the Aquarius to continue search-and-rescue missions.

    But in this hostile atmosphere, they face an uncertain future. For two years, this harbor in Eastern Sicily was the home base of the Aquarius, one of the rescue ships. Since Italy closed its ports to such vessels, the Aquarius has been forced to sail 600 miles away to Marseille in France to resupply and undertake repairs. That's a long way from the danger zone.

    A spokesperson for Doctors Without Borders spokesperson who is on board has sent us a statement protesting about the criminalization and obstruction of organizations involved in search-and-rescue. In the past month, 600 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean.

    Doctors Without Borders says that there has been a cold-blooded decision to allow them to drown at sea.

    Claudia Lodesani heads the Italian chapter of Doctors Without Borders. She's been at town hall meetings trying to urge people to reject the government's policies. Lodesani refutes allegations that ships like the Aquarius are providing a taxi service for migrants.

  • Claudia Lodesani:

    I worked in one year in South Sudan. In one year, I see a lot of people dead because there is a civil war, because there is malaria, because of climate changing, climatic problems, so the people have malnutrition. So, of course the people want to leave. It's impossible to stop the people.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Look at the corpses, says Roberto Ammatuna, a doctor and mayor of Pozzallo, a Sicilian port town that has welcomed migrants.

    He was helping to launch a photographic exhibition on the front line of Europe's all-consuming crisis. In 2016 and '17, Italy took in a total of 175,000 migrants. This year, the number has slowed down to 18,000. The mayor opposes returning them to Libya.

  • Roberto Ammatuna (through translator):

    I think that that, in Italy at the moment, there is not a good political climate. There is a wave of intolerance towards minorities and especially towards immigrants, which, in my opinion, is worrying. We need to temper the minds.

    We cannot say that immigrants are all delinquents and murderers.

  • Gift Richard:

    I beg the pope with the God, democracy. We want to go. We want our freedom. We want to go.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Nigerian Gift Richard had a sympathetic audience among demonstrators protesting outside Europe's biggest refugee camp at Mineo in the hot, harsh countryside of Eastern Sicily.

    Like many others, she has been here for two years. Inmates complain of overcrowding, poor food, violence, a lack of funds, and an inability to obtain documentation that would enable them to work or move on.

  • Gift Richard:

    I would beg my fellow Nigerians for them not to — or not be confused them to cross that sea, to come to Italy. If they come to Italy, they are slaves here. Nobody is free.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    A surge in support for the right wing and their policies can be found at this bargain basement market, where impoverished Sicilians feel they are in competition with immigrants.

    Alessandro Lo Cascio sells four bunches of herbs for just over a dollar. Lo Cascio hopes that Salvini, Italy's new interior minister, can improve his personal finances.

  • Alessandro Lo Cascio (through translator):

    I hope so. In the end, I hope so. But if he takes away the problem of immigrants, he has already done a great favor to Italy, already, just that; 18 million Italians are going hungry. Do we have to allow immigrants in? No.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    "Open the ports, open your hearts, to be better people," sings this demonstrator. But that message is largely falling on deaf ears, not only in Italy, but right across Europe.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Sicily.

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