Why Are Sicilian Mayors Leading the Opposition to Salvini’s Asylum Policies in Italy?

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The “grass-roots resistance” of mayors in Sicily to the recent crackdown on migrants carried out by the Italian Ministry of Interior Matteo Salvini has recently gained increased attention in both European and International newspapers.

When the last remaining rescue ship in the central Mediterranean Sea was blocked off the coast of Sicily in late January, the mayor of Syracuse, Francesco Italia declared the city’s port open, despite the Italian government prohibiting the ship to disembark rescued migrants.

In addition to taking action on the rescue ships, other mayors are leading the opposition of Italian local and regional authorities to the controversial “Decreto Sicurezza” (Security Law) passed by the populist coalition in December. Notably, the mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, decided to suspend the application of some of its provisions, which he considers “unconstitutional”. In early 2017, his radical pro-migrant rhetoric led The Guardian to define him as “the mayor who is taking on Europe over migrants”.

Importantly, in the last eight months, a great deal of criticism against Salvini’s policies has also come from Sicilian mayors and political leaders affiliated to centre-right and right-wing parties. Among them, the right-wing President of the Regional Government Musumeci, the leader of Forza Italia Micciché and the mayor of the port town of Mazara del Vallo Cristaldi, affiliated to the far-right post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia political party.

How can the decision of the mayors of the main Sicilian cities to adopt these pro-migrant stances contesting the governments approach be explained? And why is migration not the object of political contestation in Sicily?

The question connects, more broadly, to the debate on the politicisation of immigration. This process, according to many scholars, is the outcome of increasing migrations flows, in addition to issue salience, hardening public attitudes to migration and the rise of the far right.

Given that there is no absence of migration flows in Sicily, the non-politicization of the issue of immigration is striking. The region, indeed, was crucially and centrally affected by the refugee crisis. After 2015, it became the main European gateway for asylum-seeking migration, and its reception centres, at the peak of the crisis, hosted the highest number of asylum-seekers in Italy. Asylum-seekers’ reception was, moreover, characterised by frequent scandals concerning the management of the centres,  infiltration by organized crime in the reception system, and media outrages about migrants’ living conditions.

Furthermore, data from the last Eurobarometer suggest that in 2018 the salience of migration in Sicily was significantly high. Other polls also indicate that Sicilians express more negative sentiments towards migrants compared to people living in the Centre and North of Italy. This can be mainly explained by macro-economic factors such as the high unemployment and low income, leading to a higher labour market competition.

Despite that, according to interview data with 41 mayors, MPS, officials and NGO representatives, I collected in Sicily in May 2018 as part of the MIGPROSP project, most Sicilian party actors do not inject immigration and asylum into the political arena and immigration is not a prevailing concern on the Sicilian regional agenda, unlike in other Italian regions.

Findings from my research suggest that four interrelated reasons can explain these dynamics.

Sensemaking and Identity processes.

First, party-actors’ understandings of public reactions to the migrant crisis are powerfully influenced by the prevalence of preconceptions about Sicilian tolerance among the local political elite. Evidence about public attitudes on migration in Sicily is strongly embedded in a narrative story: the Sicilian population is perceived as welcoming, or tolerant, or not willing to mobilise against asylum-seekers, and this acceptance is justified by Sicily’s tradition and past. Sicily’s history and culture, in other words, in the eyes of the local elite, explain the acceptance of migrants there, or should justify such acceptance if it did not exist. This powerful and insinuating common sense, disconnected from the reality suggested by available opinion polls, powerfully drives decision-making processes. The long and defining experience of emigration constitutes the moral basis used for the enactment of this common sense in the present. Mayors’ direct experience of assisting migrants’ landing process, moreover, seems to be a focusing event that reinforces pre-existing perceptions.

Second, my interview data suggests that the pro-migrant stances of many mayors of the main Sicilian cities represent a strategic choice of a “branding of difference” and promoting the image of their cities as open and welcoming to delineate it from a conflicted past history. The Mayor of Palermo, interviewed by CNBS, for instance, declared that “there is no city in the world that changed so deeply and widely like Palermo: in the last 40 years we went through a tremendous change, we started from being the capital of mafia to being the capital of human rights”. The far-right mayor of Mazara del Vallo also started to formally celebrate the multicultural status of his port town with the aim to rebrand it as a tourist destination and strategic location for cross-Mediterranean relations.

Interest politics.

Third, these mayors’ problem assessment is clearly influenced by the absence of anti-immigrant political entrepreneurs in the region. The centre-right and right-wing politicians interviewed, indeed, although sometimes adopting securitarian frames, do not inject migration into the public arena.

This, indeed, seems to be perceived by them as not politically convenient. The lack of anti-migrant protests, the strong Catholic identity, and the apolitical reaction of Sicilians towards migrant flows, seem to make them afraid of the negative political consequences that using anti-immigration frames publicly might have on the Sicilian electorate. The only exception is represented by the few politicians affiliated to the far-right Lega, but that party is still marginal in the regional political system.

On the other hand, right-wing mayors involved in designing local asylum policies tend to develop strategies that reflect an intentional balancing of different goals and priorities. Local asylum and migration policies in the region are the object of a range of competing interests. Several mayors’ decisions not to oppose the creation of new reception centres in their municipalities during the asylum crisis seem to be motivated by the opportunity that asylum-seekers’ reception offers to provide employment to locals and, as some civil society actors suggest, to develop new patronage relationships. The local conservative political elite, moreover, is traditionally close to the Sicilian bourgeoisie, which, my interviews reveal, has incentives to employ irregular migrants in low-skilled (and low paid) jobs, mostly in agriculture.

Fourth, in a context where most actors refrain from discussing migration-related issue publicly, the politics of immigration is mostly left to associations, NGOs and Christian churches, which ultimately play a crucial role in the local immigration policy-making. The presence of a very active and strong civil society, particularly in big cities, is described by many interviewees as a source of very significant and sometimes uncomfortable pressures to which mayors had to respond. These NGOs’ continuous invocation of Sicilian culture and history, seeking to make more evocative their general calls for tolerance, moreover, seems to reinforce actors’ pre-existing perceptions of local attitudes on migration.

Drivers of the politicisation of migration.

To sum up, analysing how and why Sicilian mayors enacted radical pro-migrant narratives in a region that was crucially affected by the refugee crisis leads us to question some of the assumptions in the literature on the politicisation of migration, which tends to see political contestation as a necessary outcome of an increase in migration flows and issue salience.

In contrast, The Sicilian case shows that the relationship between problems and solutions is not necessarily smooth-flowing. This is not to say that there is always a radical disconnect between public reactions and actors’ politicization strategies but, rather, to make the point that the often ignored complexity of actors’ decision-making can play a crucial role in shaping the politicisation process.

This case also demonstrates that party elite’s decisions to inject or not the migration issue into the regional political arena is driven by actors’ understandings of the effects of migration on underlying social systems. Politicians, in other words, are not passive recipients of information, but active choosers, interpreters and rationalizers and they form their understandings through a process of meaning-production about phenomena surrounding them. These processes of ‘sensemaking’ are influenced by the events and cues that actors pick up from the environment around them, past experiences and identity processes.

Finally, the Sicilian case shows that, through these cognitive processes, individuals, develop actions and dialogues that generate a new reality, which can, in turn, reinforce existing perceptions. Centre-right mayors’ passive stances prevent the emergence of anti-migrant protests in Sicily – or prevent spontaneous local protests from gaining significant media coverage, unlike in other Italian regions – and the perceived absence of social mobilisations represents a powerful feedback that reinforces preconceptions of Sicilians’ tolerance.



The EUI, RSCAS and MPC are not responsible for the opinion expressed by the author(s). Furthermore, the views expressed in this publication cannot in any circumstances be regarded as the official position of the European Union.