A Rising Tide of Hostility Threatens Italian Rights Groups

Human rights defenders in Italy face increasing threats to their work and personal safety as politicians and the media promote a climate of fear and xenophobia.

In early February, a far-right extremist went on a shooting rampage in the town of Macerata, wounding six people of African descent. The incident stands as the most visible recent example of the escalating hostility towards migrants and the human rights and humanitarian organizations that provide aid to them. This hostility, fueled by public officials and the media, damages the credibility of rights groups and makes it more difficult for them to perform their work. This is referred to as the "shrinking space" for civil society organizations.

The shrinking space problem is becoming increasingly acute in Italy. The country held an election on 4 March that could, when negotiations finally conclude, produce a government of authoritarian populists. Immigration was the dominant topic of the campaign, just as it has dominated national headlines for more than a year.

Attacks on migrants & rights defenders

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Italy that work on migration issues have increasingly been the targets of attacks in recent years. These attacks take several forms. Some come as regulatory restrictions that are designed to obstruct their work; other attacks are instances of intimidation or overt violence directed at activists and their organizations.

Just three weeks after the shooting in Macerata, unknown perpetrators threw a brick at the glass door of the office of Gruppo Umana Solidarietà, a Macerata-based NGO that works on refugee integration (and that has been assisting some of those shot in the aforementioned attack). It was far from the only act of aggression against NGOs during the past year.

The front window of GUS's office following the attack. (Image: GUS)

In May 2017, during a festival on culture and integration in Prato organized by several rights groups, including Cospe and Amnesty Italia, and the local municipality, roughly a dozen right-wing youths from the nascent extremist group National Movement of Sovereignty interrupted the events to chant hate-filled slogans and yell obscenities at the festival-goers. It lasted for 10 to 15 minutes before the youths fled just as police arrived.

Other NGOs have faced similar abuse online. In the summer of 2017, Naga, a Milan-based organization that works to help people arriving in Italy deal with the administrative barriers that prevent them from starting over in their new home, was the victim of a coordinated attack against its Facebook page. Over the course of a day, the group’s page was flooded with racist comments and other hate speech. One post even accused Naga of being racist because the group doesn’t focus its work on Italians.

"We think these attacks are very dangerous," a spokesperson for Naga told Liberties. "What is really being attacked is not an organization but our basic principles, our beliefs as humans. To help someone who is drowning, this should be obvious. But now it isn’t."

The code

In an effort to prevent people reaching the relative safety of Europe, in July 2017 the Italian government drew up a "code of conduct" for NGOs operating in the Mediterranean Sea. The code makes it significantly harder for humanitarian organizations to save people from drowning in two ways. First, it slaps them with numerous legal and bureaucratic requirements that divert resources and are time-consuming to fulfill. These NGOs are required to report anything that could possibly be viewed as a criminal act; they must obtain a certificate of “technical suitability” before performing further sea-rescue operations; they are obligated to declare the sources of any funding used for sea rescues; and they are required to take on-board police officers, who will constantly monitor their operations.

Second, the code restricts the area in which NGOs are allowed to operate and orders them to steer clear of the Libyan Coast Guard, which "rescues" migrants and returns them to shore to face torture and enslavement. The code introduces an "absolute ban" on the entry of NGO boats in Libyan territorial waters. While the idea of leaving the relevant national authority to patrol its own territory is sound in theory, it isn’t when said authority actively abuses and tortures those it purports to rescue.

Six of the eight NGOs involved in sea-rescue operations, including Médecins sans frontiers (MSF) and Sea-Watch, refused to sign the code of conduct and have continued their work in the Mediterranean. The latter called it "largely illegal," while the director of Amnesty’s European Office warned that the code "risks endangering thousands of lives." (Sea-Watch has since signed a second, amended version of the code of conduct that does not contain most provisions of the first version.)

Cuffing Open Arms

On 19 March 2018, a rescue boat belonging to Proactiva Open Arms, a Spanish NGO performing sea-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, was impounded by Italian authorities in the port of Pozzallo, Sicily.

The boat, carrying over 200 rescued migrants, had just docked in the port when the police arrested three of the crew and took control of the vessel. The crew members were arrested for ignoring the orders of Italian authorities, who demanded – during the course of the rescue – that they hand the migrants over to Libyan authorities. If the crew had followed the order, these migrants may well have been tortured.

This video shows the climactic moments of the Open Arms rescue that preceded the seizure of the boat:

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Italian authorities released the vessel a few days ago, but prosecutors are still considering whether to charge the crew. Pressing charges would send a terrible signal to other rescue operators and could deter rescuers out of fear of prosecution. In other words, prosecuting rescuers could quite literally cost lives.

Smear campaigns

The media also plays a big part in shrinking the space for civil society groups to operate effectively. Sea-rescue NGOs were smeared in the Italian press, portrayed as working against the interests of the nation. These smear campaigns are particularly harmful to NGOs because of how they impact donations. When humanitarian groups are attacked and scapegoated for the work they do, people become less likely to donate to them. While donations from private individuals are often small, taken together they account for millions of euros. According to the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Italian NGOs fear private donations could drop by between 5 and 10 percent. MSF saw donations drop by four million euros in the last half of 2017, compared to the six months before.

Other NGOs point out that the damage that smear attacks cause to their reputation is just as harmful as the financial damage. Francesco Petrelli, of Oxfam Italy, said to La Stampa, "The thing that hurts the most is the reputational damage. For us, the drama is not losing money, but losing credibility."

Mainstream news outlets also gave significant publicity to a 23-year-old blogger who posted homemade videos parroting the myth that sea-rescue NGOs are conspiring to traffic as many refugees as possible Italy. The videos went viral, with one of them getting over two million views on YouTube. Some pointed out the bias in the videos and the questionable sources of his information, but this did not stop news companies from putting him on their air. By doing so, they help legitimize his work and give people the impression that it is factual and trustworthy.

The smears have been amplified by parties on both the left and the right, which have failed to call out blatantly false narratives about humanitarian groups. Not only have politicians on both sides refused to publicly defend NGOs against smears in the media, but they have also to varying degrees scapegoated migrants themselves, all in an effort to win votes or attention. The leader of one far-right party went so far as to suggest mass murder, saying Italy "needs a mass cleansing, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood…doing it the hard way if needed."

The election and beyond

The election on 4 March was disappointing for anyone who believes that human beings are entitled to dignity and should be offered shelter from persecution. The result produced deadlock, with several far-right parties now negotiating to form a government. Human rights groups are already under threat, and these threats will only intensify under the new government.

Now more than ever, these groups need support. At Liberties’ urging, the EU is warming to the idea of a fund to financially support rights and democracy groups inside the EU. But these groups also need the support of the public. For Italian citizens who value civil liberties, the best thing to do now is support civil society groups. This support can be financial, through volunteering their time, or simply rejecting the hate and bigotry that is all too common from politicians and the media alike.

This is easier said than done, but no fight worth fighting is ever easy. And what’s a more worthy fight than for our rights and freedoms?