Commentary. The power to sustain life and let it die. Italy abolished a law to protect refugees that exists in the majority of EU nations and beyond.

No special protection for migrants in danger, Meloni wields biopower

The Meloni government’s abolition – openly defended by the Prime Minister – of the special protection for migrants who risk being killed or imprisoned in their countries of origin because of their political ideas, sexual orientation or religious beliefs, means the elimination of a tool to safeguard the most basic and well-recognized human rights, something currently existing in the majority of EU nations and beyond.

This fact already fundamentally disproves the specious argument advanced by the Prime Minister that Italy was somehow unique in this field: this is simply not true. Lies may have long legs but they also stop you from looking back, and that, in politics, means having myopic vision.

Now it is clear that many games are being played, with the migrants bearing the costs: the national arms race between Fratelli d’Italia and the Lega over who excludes more, but also an entire vision of international relations, particularly between rich and impoverished countries, and, through this lens, of the very construction of the European Union.

This is evidently a biopolitical vision, as Foucault highlighted in the 1980s when he clarified that the migrant body, with all its symbolic meanings and signifiers, becomes the ultimate expression of a governance that, as its ultimate goal, deepens instead of bridging over the fracture lines already present within humankind. The point of intersection between the treatment of migrant bodies and the bio-dominion approach becomes clearest if we take up Foucault’s own definition of “sovereign power,” in its radical novelty compared to the conditions under which this had been exercised until the end of the Cold War. Before the fall of the Wall, in fact, “sovereign power” consisted of “the right to take life and let live”; in our times, marked by biopower, its definition has instead changed to “sustain life and let die.”

At this point, the guiding thread running through the programmatic announcements of the sovereignist right-wingers has become all too clear: first the ban on multiple rescues at sea and now the Italian decision to cancel special protection, which, moreover, is openly supported by the EPP president Manfred Weber, who, in an interview published on Monday, said: “We need clear readmission agreements [read: forced expulsions – author’s note] with the countries of origin”; however, if these don’t work, “walls should be the last answer, but if illegal immigration cannot be stopped in any other way then we must be ready to build fences. The EPP thinks that the European Union should fund these fences because it is about protecting European borders” (from Corriere della Sera, 17-4-23).

In this political climate, it is easy to understand the need to effectively deploy the tools for a real response that would bring together human rights and international solidarity; in other words, to finally invest the resources to support the Sustainable Development Goals that all nations at the UN, including Italy, agreed to implement through the allocation of 0.7 percent of their GDP – a promise that the current campaign with the same name is asking the Italian government to fulfill.

In fact, it would be enough just to calculate how much walls really cost, with the securitarian logic that accompanies them, the militarization of borders, the support given to governments that are using the specter of migrants as if they were biological bombs to drain resources from Europe, the persistent environmental damage that pushes whole peoples towards forced migrations and, last but not least, the continuous and ever-worsening shrinking of democratic spaces within the countries of the Union themselves, to understand that the most productive investment for democracies would be in solidarity and rights instead.

In contrast, the current state of emergency to manage the issue of migrants has not (yet) reached the level of the “state of exception” that Carl Schmitt wrote about, but those of us who are older will remember how many violations of civil liberties were allowed in the “Years of Lead,” starting with “police detention.”

This is why many mayors, from Lepore in Bologna to Gualtieri in Rome, are against this top-down decision. The conclusion is that the logic of rejection, walls, barriers, and the externalization of militarized borders must be reversed. This is why, for the NGOs that are engaged in assisting migrants at sea, but also for those working on the Sicilian or Greek docks, or those assisting in the procedures for the protection of minors, their first priority is to restore the acknowledgment of these peoples’ personality, their unique and unrepeatable identity, their life force – because it is us, who are ready to throw centuries of democracy and coexistence to the wind, immersed in a demographic winter, who need the strength of these lives at least as much as they need us.

Raffaele K. Salinari is spokesperson for CINI (Coordinamento Italiano ONG Internazionali).

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