The following interview was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2020 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.
Giuseppina Nicolini is an Italian politician who served as mayor of the Sicilian commune of Lampedusa e Linosa, the southernmost municipality in the country, from 2012 to 2017. Her term in office coincided with the arrival of thousands of refugees and migrants on the island of Lampedusa. As a result of her efforts to promote integration and solidarity, in 2017 she was awarded the Félix Houphouët-Boigny-UNESCO Peace Prize.
Migrants and refugees tend to end up in the world’s cities by default, because of a lack of better alternatives or coherent migration policies, argues Giuseppina Nicolini. A more joined-up response that gave greater roles to small towns and local authorities, coupled with a thorough overhaul of current reception and integration systems, would help overcome the current, uncoordinated, and counterproductive emergency mentality and achieve the widely shared goal of managed, safe and orderly migration.
What role does Lampedusa play in the journeys of refugees and migrants, which for the most part continue to terminate in cities?
Lampedusa is a border town. It’s a place of arrival. But it is important. Because Lampedusa has somehow become the symbol of all other Lampedusas in the Mediterranean Sea, like Lesvos, the other Greek islands, and many others. It is true that migrants do not stop here. And there are actually not many here now, in 2020. It is because being here is not their objective, they are people who carry out this journey to reach further into Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Having said that, what happens in places like Lampedusa is extremely important for cities, because initial reception matters. Making sure that the first interaction with refugees and migrants is as dignified and humane as possible will make the challenges linked to integration, which will play out later, often in cities, much easier to overcome.
During your term as mayor, the sanctuary you and NGOs working to support migrants offered was temporary, but there were some parallels with what certain sanctuary cities are trying to do around the world, weren’t there?
Yes, I would say so. Lampedusa has become a symbol during a dramatic phase of our history of migration, mostly because we managed to re-affirm the right to life of people who arrived here. Before the Pope came to Lampedusa in July 2013 nobody was speaking about migrants’ deaths at sea. Migrants’ deaths were not only covered by the water of the sea, but also by the silence of public opinion, by their indifference. The important thing, I believe, is that Lampedusa helped to remind public opinion that these people had the right to be rescued and that they could find a place to start their lives over, they had a place where they could claim their right to exist. This is an extremely important step, which comes before refugees and migrants reach cities, or anything else really.
Do you think your fight against the Italian government and your criticism of its lack of support for, or solidarity with, migrants is similar to the antagonism between some sanctuary cities in the US and the federal government?
Yes, but the difference is that, in the US, President Trump went as far as retaliating against sanctuary cities, while this has not happened in Italy yet. In Italy, Lampedusa continues to remain a symbol and continues to denounce the absurdity of [former deputy prime minister and interior minister Matteo] Salvini’s closed ports policy. And then we had Palermo, Naples, and other cities. We had those mayors who refused to implement the decrees that foresaw the de facto denial of fundamental rights, such as access to health services and documentation, to refugees and migrants. So there has been resistance and, therefore, I think we can indeed draw parallels. What brings these different things together is the absence of national and regional migration policies, which, in my opinion, is becoming more and more a global phenomenon, and which is creating a surge in antagonism of cities and other local realities versus national authorities. This is because it is cities which, at the end of the day, have to deal with refugees and migrants’ needs and vulnerabilities.
As mayor of Lampedusa you pioneered a more welcoming response and solidarity towards migrants and refugees, while others on the island appear to have grown tired of the new and seemingly endless arrivals. In 2017 you lost the mayoral election to Salvatore Martello, a candidate with a left-wing but anti-migrant agenda. Would you do it again? Based on your experience, what lessons might you offer to mayors of cities where migration is a top issue?
I may exaggerate here, but I think that yes, I chose to do what I thought was right. And in doing so, I believe I did the right thing. Not just for refugees and migrants, but also for the people of Lampedusa. Also, I took away fertile ground from the racist and xenophobic populist agenda, from extreme right parties which, without migration, would not have had any political space over the past 20 years.
Having said that, I don’t think you should be a kamikaze. I tried for instance to gain strength through contributing to the creation of a network of mayors of border towns and big cities, exactly because these situations are linked. The mayors of Lesvos and other landing spots in Sicily are linked with other small municipalities, like Riace, in Italy, but also with the mayors of Barcelona and Paris. We started building a network because we thought the big cities could help us, small local authorities, to build better infrastructure and offer better services for both refugees and migrants and our own citizens. This will later pay off for big cities, since a dignified initial reception establishes, for me, a sort of citizens’ pact with newcomers, which later on will play a critical role in their integration in destination cities.
Are you suggesting that an elected mayor should promote particular principles, such as making their city welcoming to migrants and refugees, even when large proportions of their constituents disagree? How will that lead to a harmonious city?
The fact is that if you lose an election after having been a “symbol”, you make headlines. But there are many places in Italy where mayors carry out very progressive migration agendas off the radar while maintaining the support of their citizens. But this doesn’t make the news. I could mention quite a few examples of this in Italy. Small villages and towns in the central regions of Italy, especially—but not only—those that are being abandoned, where schools are closing and children of different age groups are taught together because there aren’t enough of each group. In some places, schools remain open only thanks to the children of migrants. This is just an example, but I could mention many similar situations. So, all this to say that I think in Italy we know and understand this duality of solidarity and opportunity for both migrants and the local population. What is missing is a vision which allows the translation of these local successes into policies that could be replicated and further expanded elsewhere, for the benefit of both migrants and local situations.
Given that most migrants and refugees head for towns and cities, should it be city managers and mayors, rather than central governments, that take the lead in formulating relevant policies and programmes?
I believe that cities, but also towns and even villages, should be playing a bigger role. I strongly believe in the key role that small localities could play—for opportunistic reasons, if you like—because there you can simultaneously fight against depopulation and the ghettoisation of migrants, which is often a problem in big cities. What is happening right now is that, in the absence of policies, people end up by default in big cities. It happens more or less automatically: in big cities it’s easier to find work, so migrants head there. If instead we managed to build a more articulated approach, which, in the process, would allow small towns and local entities to play a more prominent role, you could aim at reception and integration which will be much more spread out territorially. In my opinion this would be a much better approach. Of course, to do that you need central authorities to give resources and invest in building the tools needed at local level. We are not there yet.
So you envision a more prominent role for cities and small towns but against a central normative framework which allows and promotes a more decentralised management of migration issues?
So far, what has emerged is the strength, the dynamism and the resistance of small towns and cities. This is why I believe that migration management needs to be embedded in the local social fabric. For that, it is important to continue supporting initiatives coming from cities and local institutions and help them to play an even more prominent role. But also, national migration policies are needed and, of course, some European guidelines. Because while respecting the specificity and attitude of each local situation (which will call for different solutions), we cannot have a functioning system without some common guidelines. What is a right in Paris needs to be a right in Palermo, as much as it is in Madrid and everywhere on European soil, and this is not the case today. What is needed is a reform which completely changes the parameters of our reception and integration system, from disembarkation to long-term integration, access to work, etc. This will also contribute to overcoming the present emergency approach which, characterises our approach to migration management. Recently, in Italy, there has been a lot of discussion around the regularisation of migrants, and residence permits for irregular migrants. In the end, after much discussion, only a few hundred migrants will actually benefit from this. We cannot continue this way. This continues to be an emergency approach, uncoordinated, where, more often than not, local institutions and mayors are left to themselves.
So this emergency response approach not only prevents cities from playing a more prominent role, it also creates challenges for proper interaction between refugees and migrants and cities?
Yes. Overcoming this emergency approach is the first step toward developing a climate of trust and defeating the fear. The same fear that is the breeding ground of xenophobic and racist propaganda is at the origin of this absurd antagonistic climate around migration issues and which caused the misfortune faced by mayors like me. It is about finding political solutions, thinking in terms of managed, safe and orderly migration.