Italy’s far-right Northern League has promised to introduce mass deportations of asylum seekers to Africa as part of a radical reshaping of migration policies if it wins next month’s elections.
The party, led by Matteo Salvini, would also seek to force asylum courts to disregard the circumstances of a migrant’s journey in any deliberation about whether they should be granted asylum.
With Italians going to the polls on 4 March, and in the aftermath of an attack on six African immigrants, rhetoric on the right has increasingly focused on migration and Italy’s role as the point of arrival for hundreds of thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Africa.
The government, currently led by the centre-left Democratic party, has recently taken controversial steps to sharply reduce the number of migrant arrivals, including allegedly making secret agreements with militias and tribes in Libya that have been condemned by human rights groups.
But the Northern League, or Lega, has promised to go further, saying that, if elected, it would begin a programme to force an estimated 400,000 migrants back to their countries of origin, including Nigeria, Tunisia and Morocco.
Analysts have said they doubt the plan is realistic, and that the prospect of mass deportations in Europe would cause an uproar in Brussels. The current government has already sought to speed up the expulsion of migrants, but the process is expensive, mired in bureaucracy and complicated by the unwillingness of other countries to take back those who have left.
Marco Minniti, the interior minister, has said he wants to increase expulsions, but Italy only deported about 6,500 people last year, up from 5,200 a year earlier.
Lega’s campaign promises could shape domestic and foreign policy in the event of a victory by its centre-right coalition with Forza Italia and the far-right Brothers of Italy.
If the centre-right won an outright majority – which is a possibility, though far from certain – it would give Berlusconi the power to choose the next prime minister. Berlusconi himself is ineligible.
However, if Lega does better than expected and emerges as the dominant entity in the coalition – the two parties are separated by a few percentage points in the polls – it would allow Salvini, who has adopted a campaign slogan of “Italians first”, to be prime minister.
In an interview, Guglielmo Picchi, a member of parliament who said he could serve as foreign minister or a senior foreign policy adviser in a Salvini government, said the party would use a mix of economic threats and incentives to speed up the deportation process.
“I don’t want to use the word sanctions but we have tools – economic tools – that we can use to put pressure on countries to accepts back migrants,” Picchi said.
He promised that Lega would also increase incentives, including financial contributions, to help countries take back migrants who were deemed to be in Italy illegally. These would include payments to foreign consulates in Italy to speed up bureaucratic hurdles that Picchi said were slowing down the current deportation regime.
Picchi said Lega would change humanitarian asylum rules, and seek to stop special courts granting asylum on the basis of a migrant’s journey to Europe, however harrowing.
“Crossing the Mediterranean should not be a way to automatically get protection,” he said.
Riccardo Fabiani, an analyst with the Eurasia group, said it was easy for the centre-right coalition to make bold promises about migration, but any action would face legal and diplomatic hurdles.
“Sure, you can send police in and arrest 5,000 migrants in a specific place, and present this to your voters as if you are doing something, but this has no real impact,” he said. “The process of expelling migrants is costly and difficult, and internationally a [mass deportation] would be hugely controversial in Europe.”
Fabiani said it was more likely that a centre-right government could put pressure on European countries – specifically Austria and France – to take in more migrants by allowing them to cross northern borders.
“If they are smart, they can negotiate with European partners a more fair distribution of migrants – fair from the Italian perspective – by saying, ‘listen to us or we will open the borders’,” he said.