How Populists Used COVID to Turn Sicily Against Migrants

This piece was originally published in Coda Story’s Disinformation channel.

PALERMO, Italy—On August 24, a cruise ship docked in the Sicilian port of Trapani. It was not, however, one of the many ordinary liners that typically call during the summer tourist season. Rather, it was what is known as a quarantine ship, carrying 603 migrants who had been transferred from the nearby island of Lampedusa.

Among the passengers was 17-year-old Ahmedou. His story had begun more than a year before in Burkina Faso, a landlocked West African country that has, for decades, suffered repeated droughts, famines and military coups. Since 2015, it has also experienced a surge in Islamist violence that has left hundreds of people dead and up to one million more displaced.

During a telephone call from a Sicilian migrant shelter, Ahmedou described a journey, taking in Niger and Libya, where he was held in what he referred to as “connection houses” used by trafficking gangs and forced to work long hours on a farm to pay for his stay. Then, finally, came a perilous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea—waters in which more than 575 migrants have died in 2020, according to United Nations statistics.

“There was a lot of conflict in Libya,” he said. “We didn’t have any money and there wasn’t any work. So it was better to come here, even though I knew it was dangerous. The same day that we got on the boat, there were people who died at sea, but we had to go anyway.”

For Ahmedou and thousands more like him, the voyage to Sicily is a risk worth taking. Historically, the island has been an accepting and open place for migrants, but now that is changing. As they have elsewhere on the Italian mainland, right-wing politicians in Sicily have harnessed the coronavirus crisis to further their anti-immigration agendas, painting all outsiders as vectors of mass infection.

Five quarantine ships now operate in Italian waters. The use of such vessels began in April, while the country formed the epicenter of Europe’s COVID-19 outbreak. In response to the pandemic, the government banned migrant rescue boats from the nation’s ports. It then ruled that rescued migrants had to undergo a 14-day period of isolation at sea and be given COVID-19 tests prior to boarding and upon reaching Italy.

Migrants who arrive in southern Italy’s ports are meant to be transferred to reception centers and camps throughout the country, where they undergo further tests. These regulations mean that, far from being a dangerously unmonitored cohort of international super spreaders, migrants form what is probably the most closely observed group on the island in terms of the virus.

That fact has done nothing to prevent Sicily’s regional president, Nello Musumeci, from mounting a populist campaign of disinformation against them. On August 22, after months of escalating rhetoric, he posted on Twitter that, “Sicily can’t continue to submit to this invasion of migrants.” Then, the night before the ship carrying Ahmedou arrived, Musumeci issued an unprecedented decree, declaring that all migrants must be evacuated from the island and calling for an “immediate clearing of hotspots and migrant welcome centers” by midnight the following day.

The edict was ultimately unsuccessful, but it is a stark example of the inflammatory rhetoric that is now polarizing Sicily.

#Populists #COVID #Turn #Sicily #Migrants

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