by Eric J. Lyman
ROME, June 14 (Xinhua) -- Fleeing war and an economic collapse, thousands of desperate refugees forced themselves onto overcrowded boats in unsafe conditions to set course for Italy. But when they landed, they were greeted by under-prepared communities that provided inadequate food, water, and other services.
The description could have been lifted from any of the hundreds of international news articles and television reports from the last several days, after the new Italian government's high-profile anti-migrant policies took shape.
NOT NEW TO ITALY
The last time Italy saw large arrivals of migrants was in the early 1990s, when tens of thousands fled to Italy from Eastern Europe. In 1991, a boat starting in Albanian transported more than 20,000 refugees to the southern Italian city of Bari in a single day.
"Migration is not a new problem for Italy," Giuseppe De Arcangelis, a professor of international economics at Rome's La Sapienza University, told Xinhua. He said in times of war, during the drastic changes in eastern Europe, and again in recent years, "Italy's geography and other factors make it a destination for refugees."
After a century of net migration from Italy, the formula reversed itself in the 1970s when the tide of those arriving in Italy was larger than those leaving. But the issue has rarely been as political as is today. And many commentators say race is playing a major role.
An estimated 12,000 migrants and refugees have landed on Italy's shores so far this year, mostly from Africa. But that is dramatically slower than the pace between 2014 and 2016, when more than 150,000 -- from both Africa and the Middle East -- arrived every year. The peak came two years ago, when more than 180,000 refugees landed on the country's shores.
To stem the influx, Italy worked out a controversial agreement with the Libyan Coast Guard that reduced the rate of arrivals by two-thirds in the second half of last year, and the figures dropped further so far in 2018.
But that did not prevented migration from being the central issue in the March 4 general election. A new government was installed June 1, led in part by Matteo Salvini, the new minister of the interior who had vowed to expel as many as half a million migrants from Italy.
"The political response is understandable: no other European country aside from maybe Greece has had to endure what Italy has gone through in terms of migration over the last few years," Stefano Allievi, a University of Padova sociologist and the author of several books on migration and refugees, said in an interview.
"What would England or France do if 10 or 15 thousand refugees arrived in a single day? They wouldn't know what to do," the sociologist asserted.
Allievi blames the European Union for doing too little to help Italy pay for and process migrant arrivals for too long, though he also accepted that racism plays a part in the way the predominantly African and Middle Eastern refugees of the last few years have been treated.
"I'm sure there is an element of racism involved," Allievi said. "But I also think the problem of race in Italy has grown much worse in recent years because migration has been so badly mishandled."
During the campaign this year, Salvini said that many migrants were "incompatible" with Italian values, though he denied that was based on skin color. Attilio Fontana, a long-time member of the League who is now president of Italy's most populous region, Lombardy, said elections in 2018 would determine "if our ethnicity, if the white race, if our culture, should continue to exist or if it should be wiped out."
La Sapienza's De Arcangelis said those views were reflected in changes over the last nearly three decades.
"Look back to what happened in the early 1990s and the situation was completely different," De Arcangelis said. "There were worries about the high numbers, but northern European countries like Denmark and Sweden welcomed the migrants then. Now, it is much more controversial. Now, many countries just want to close their doors."