Columns 9.3.2018 06:05 am

Stopping migrant ‘flood’ is futile, but wins votes

The immigration issue just serves as a visible symbol of the displacement so many feel as the economy pushes them to the margins.

Lucky old Italy just got two Donald Trumps for the price of one.

One of the big winners in last Sunday’s Italian election was the Five-Star Movement, whose 31-year-old leader Luigi di Maio has promised to stop sending out rescue boats to save migrants from drowning when their flimsy craft sink halfway across the Mediterranean. A “sea taxi service”, he calls it, and promises to send all the surviving illegal immigrants home.

So does Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League (formerly the Northern League), the other big winner in the election. “I’m sick of seeing immigrants in hotels and Italians who sleep in cars,” Salvini told supporters at a recent rally in Milan. He pledges to send 150 000 illegal migrants home in his first year in government.

It is not yet clear whether Salvini and/or Di Maio will actually be in government. A coalition between the Five-Star Movement and the League would command a majority in parliament and is one possibility, but other combinations are also possible.

However, it’s already clear that these two populists won more than half the votes on openly racist platforms. Now it’s true that 600 000 illegal migrants, mostly from Africa and the Middle East, mostly Muslim, and mostly young men, have arrived on Italy’s shores in the past four years, which was bound to startle the older residents.

On the other hand, there are 60 million people in Italy, so that’s just 1% of the population. Why is that such a big deal?

You might as well ask why it’s such a big deal that an estimated half-million illegal migrants enter the United States each year. That is only one illegal immigrant per year for every 600 people who are already in the country. Half of those illegals aren’t even Mexicans, and yet Donald Trump won a lot of votes by promising to build a wall on the Mexican border to stop them.

Both in the United States and in Italy, the real fuel behind the populist surge is high unemployment (the official US figure is a fantasy) and long-term stagnation in the incomes of the lower-paid half of the population. The immigration issue just serves as a visible symbol of the displacement so many feel as the economy pushes them to the margins.

What we are seeing now, however, is a foretaste of the time when the migrant flows grow very large and the politics gets really brutal. In the not too distant future the Mediterranean Sea and the Mexican border will separate the temperate world, where the climate is still tolerable and there is still enough food, from the sub-tropical and tropical worlds of killer heat and dwindling food.

This is a regular subject of confidential discussions in various strategic planning cells in European governments, and also in the grownup parts of the US government. Global warming will hit the countries closer to the equator far harder than the fortunate countries of the temperate zone, and the main casualty will be food production in the tropics and the sub-tropics.

Of course, a miracle could happen. There could be early and very deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, so that most of the catastrophe never arrives.

But I’m having trouble even believing in the Easter Bunny any more.

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