PALERMO, Italy — Italy's new anti-immigrant interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has forced immigration to the top of Europe's agenda once again by blocking humanitarian rescue boats from docking in the country's southern ports — a decision that's sparked outrage from the country's own leaders.
By refusing to grant landing permission to French NGO boat The Aquarius last week, Salvini, the populist leader of La Lega — a coalition party in the country's new government — brought into sharp focus the meaning of his campaign slogan: "Italy First."
“We have opened a front in Brussels,” said Salvini. “We are contacting the European Commission so that it can fulfill its duties toward Italy that have never been respected.”
The Aquarius's 629 survivors, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 young children, and 7 pregnant women, were all rescued from shipwrecks carrying migrants from Libya to Europe. The deadly route, taken mainly by people from sub-Saharan Africa, has seen nearly 700,000 people arrive in Italy since 2013. However, there's been an 80 percent drop in the number of arrivals this year compared to last. Some 16,000 people have arrived in Italy thus far in 2018, down from 60,000 in the same period in 2017
The move drew condemnation from European leaders. While not going so far as to offer sanctuary to those rescued, French President Emmanual Macron accused Italy of "cynicism and irresponsibility," prompting Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte to accuse Macron of being "hypocritical."
Uncertainty of the fate of those rescued was brought to an end when Spain's new socialist leader Pedro Sánchez intervened, saying: "It is our duty to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer a safe port to these people."
Salvini declared victory, but in the Sicilian capital Palermo, a town that boasts a proud history of welcoming immigrants, the central government's new stance was met with shock.
"We have shame. I feel shameful for what is happening today," Palermo Mayor Leoluca Orlando told VICE News.
When asked if he thought Salvini had won, he added: "He is a populist. Populists have no respect of time. They live in the eternal present. They have no vision. They have no respect for the past and no hope for the future. If you have a vision, you can lose today and you can win tomorrow."
This segment originally aired June 13, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.
Cover image: Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini (C) attends a local election rally in Cinisello Balsamo, near Milan, Italy, 17 June 2018. ((ANSA via AP))