As Coronavirus Reappears in Italy, Migrants Become a Target for Politicians

The phrase “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” comes to mind:

As the summer vacation season draws to a close in Italy, a flare-up of Covid-19 cases is fueling a surge in anti-immigrant sentiment, even though the government says that migrants are just a small part of the problem.

Sicily’s president, Nello Musumeci, ordered the closure of all migrant centers on the island last weekend, saying it was impossible to prevent the spread of the illness at the facilities. And although a court blocked him, saying that he did not have the authority to close them, his order underlined the challenges Italy faces as right-wing politicians seek to rekindle a polarizing debate about immigration in a country hit hard by the pandemic.

In Pozzallo, a town in southern Sicily that has the highest rate of infection among newly arrived migrants, Roberto Ammatuna, the center-left mayor, has found himself trying to balance fears of a coronavirus influx with an obligation to rescue migrants in distress at sea.

“Our citizens need to feel safe and protected, because we are here in the front lines of Europe,” he said in an interview in his office overlooking the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean. “No one wants migrants who are sick with Covid,” but, he said, “we can’t stop rescuing people at sea.”

In one week in August, 73 migrants tested positive out of about 200 quarantined in Pozzallo. About 11,700 migrants have reached Sicily since June, and 3 percent either tested positive upon arrival or during the quarantine period that the Italian authorities imposed inside shelters.

But Franco Locatelli, the president of Italy’s Superior Health Council, a government advisory body, said migrants’ role in bringing Covid-19 back to Italy was “minimal.”

In the first two weeks of August, around 25 percent of new infections registered in the country were imported from abroad, according to Italy’s National Health Institute. Over half of those were Italians who had traveled abroad, and many others were foreigners who already lived in Italy and were returning to the country.

Less than 5 percent of the total were new immigrants, according to Italy’s Health Ministry.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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