On June 11th, 2018, 629 migrants on a cramped rescue ship waited outside an Italian port to disembark, receive medical treatment, and begin applications for asylum. After rescuing hundreds of migrants off the coast of Libya, the ship Aquarius was overcrowded, running out of food and fuel, and lacking the resources to help the 7 pregnant women, 11 young children, and 123 unaccompanied minors on board.
But instead of allowing the ship to dock, Italy closed its ports. More than 600 people were left stranded in the Mediterranean.
In defending his decision to close the ports, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said, “saving lives is a duty, turning Italy into a huge refugee camp is not.” In the first half of 2018, more than 14,000 migrants had arrived in Italy by sea, and Salvini was saying “no more.” Just one week before the arrival of the ship, Salvini had announced that the “good times for illegal immigrants” were over, telling them to “get ready to pack [their] bags.”
Earlier this year, Salvini won the election on the campaign promise of deporting half a million migrants under the slogan “Italians first.” He led his far-right League party to win 17 percent of the vote, becoming the third largest political party in Italy. Together with the populist Five-Star Movement Party, which became Italy’s biggest party with 31 percent of the vote, the two populist parties are currently trying to form a coalition that will give them control over the legislature.
After the 2018 elections, Italy may be charting the same course that Hungary has been following since 2010, and Poland since 2015 — with growing populist movements, rising anti-migrant sentiment, and deteriorating democratic institutions.
Just eight years ago, in 2010, Hungary was confronted with a hauntingly familiar set of issues: an economic recession, disenfranchised rural conservatives, a struggling middle class, and rising anti-immigrant sentiment. Combined, these factors brought to power the populist, anti-immigration Fidesz Party, led by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Eight years later, Fidesz has consolidated its power with a two-thirds majority in parliament and Orban won a third term as Prime Minister after campaigning under the slogan “Hungary first.”
In his eight years as prime minister, Orban solidified his party’s power through heavy censorship of the media, weakening the power of the judiciary, and modifying the constitution and electoral rules in his favor. His actions have led concerned analysts to brand Hungary as everything from a dying democracy to a full-fledged autocracy.
In 2015, Poland followed in Hungary’s footsteps and brought the radically conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) to power. Unlike the Fidesz Party in Hungary, PiS lacked legislative authority, only winning 36.7 percent of the vote. Nonetheless, the PiS began illegally appointing judges, refusing to implement court decisions, and taking over the lower courts.
Since then, the party’s popularity has grown even more, while the anti-minority and anti-migrant sentiment that brought PiS to power has continued to embed itself within Polish society. Since the election, reports of violence and hate crimes against minorities have soared. PiS has grown especially popular among the younger generation, of which 37 percent have a negative perception of Jews and nearly 90 percent are against Poland accepting migrants.
This trend is found across Europe, but especially in Hungary, Poland, and Italy, where anti-migrant and anti-muslim sentiment is among the highest in the continent. In these three countries, anti-migrant sentiment has become intertwined with the political landscape as populist leaders use fear and intolerance as a weapon to erode democracy.
We have seen this pattern in Europe — and around the world — before. History has, time and time again, reminded us just how dangerous the weaponization of fear of “the other” can be. This fear is not only dangerous, it is hard-wired — science has shown that our brains are wired to fear people different from us. This makes our fears — of the immigrant, the Muslim, the refugee — naturally exploitable by politicians seeking political gain.
Peacebuilding, however, provides an avenue to rewire the brain towards tolerance and understanding. From dialogues across ethnic and political divides, to community-led conflict resolution within communities, peacebuilding seeks to transcend differences, build empathy, and shield politicians from exploiting our instinctive fears of the “other.” While not a panacea, programs centered around understanding “the other” are critical tools in creating an alternative to the “us versus them” narrative permeating Hungary, Poland, and Italy today.
Finally, it must be noted that these circumstances are not isolated to Europe. Across the Atlantic, President Trump is addressing the outrage against his family separation policy with rhetoric strikingly similar to Salvini’s rejection of the Aquarius just one week prior, declaring, “The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility.” With more than 68 million forcibly displaced people worldwide — the highest number in history — it is necessary to remember that the cost of divisive rhetoric and “our country first” doctrine is human lives.
As more and more of the world’s leaders — both at home and abroad — head down this dangerous path, the world must watch to ensure that countries do not reject democracy and peace as easily as 629 migrants were rejected in the Mediterranean.
-2018 Alliance for Peacebuilding
-AfP would like to recognize Lulu Qian for her contributions to this publication.