“When my friends and family ask me, Why are these people coming to Italy? I respond, our ancestors also escaped when there was war. There went looking for their fortunes in America, Australia, Switzerland and other places. Where there is no war it gives you hope of a better future.” – SERGEANT MAJOR FRANCESCO CUONZO, Italian Marines
The Italian Solution, screened on ABC’s Four Corners last night, documented Italy’s humane, compassionate and enlightened approach to migranti, those men, women and children, who desperately set out to sea from Lybia in dangerously overcrowded and flimsy vessels, including rafts, to seek refuge from conflict and misfortune, including war, persecution and economic adversity. They travel to the island of Lampedusa, approximately half-way to Italy and make contact with the Italian marines by satellite phone from the tiny island. It is a risky business. Three thousand migranti have drowned in the attempt this year alone. Few can swim and there is always the danger that panic will cause disaster in overcrowded, unseaworthy craft.
The documentary starred Italian naval personnel so clearly enjoying their mission: rising to the challenge of difficult rescues each evidently, effortlessly heeding the voice of the heart, the voice of compassion and faith, that tells each one of us that it is right to reach out to strangers in need; that we have a duty and a human need to reach out to others in distress.
The Italian Solution told more than the story of saving lives at sea, it dramatically and powerfully reaffirmed our duty to each and every other human being in need. At the same time it illustrated what can and what should be done by any self-respecting, nation when challenged to provide a solution to the rapidly growing numbers of people who are forced to risk everything in fleeing for their lives and those who are prepared to risk everything to make new lives in another country. At no time at all did we encounter anyone attempting to blame the victim or to make invidious distinctions between types of migranti. Nowhere was heard the despicable term illegal or economic migrants, Australia’s favourite pejorative term for asylum seekers. Nor do Italians use the terms ‘asylum seekers’, ‘refugees’ either, they simply call them the migranti.
Nowhere was there an air of secrecy or that tight-lipped determination to conceal the facts which characterises Scott Morrison, Australia’s minister and his department. Those involved were open and keen to show and share every detail of their controversial strategy.
We have the duty in these cases when we are at sea to intervene to save human life. If we are not at sea then we can’t see what happens, we can close our eyes, turn off the lights and in that way, there’s no need to “turn back” the boats because they will die. We need to remember that International Rights exist. There are international laws that our countries have ratified. – VICE ADMIRAL FILIPPO FOFFI, Commander in Chief Italian navy.
The documentary made you want to migrate to Italy yourself, so refreshing is the contrast with Australia’s punitive attitudes and strategies to those forced to seek asylum and so eloquent was the humanity expressed in Mare Nostrum the Italian government’s search and rescue strategy, underpinned as it is even in its title, (our sea) by a sense of obligation and responsibility to all humanity. Italy, despite being a nation in recession itself, can, nevertheless, respond to the plight of the dispossessed first and foremost and sideline any carping in domestic politics or critics in other countries. It shows courage and it shows leadership. The Italian government is prepared to make waves by actively, strenuously, pursuing a generous, non-judgemental strategy of acceptance and support and deal later with any criticism from other European neighbours. Non Importe. (It doesn’t matter.) It is to be applauded for daring to make a principled stand; admired for setting a shining example to other nations.
By contrast, the elephant in the room, Australia’s own benighted asylum seeker policy, appears more than shabby and morally threadbare. Both Australia’s “Sovereign Borders” modus operandi and the fundamental nature of its policy are the antithesis of the Italian. Instead of welcoming and accommodating, we invest huge sums in repelling, returning or detaining those who have a right to expect our help if not our sympathy and understanding. Indeed, viewed against Mare Nostrum Australia’s “turn back the boats” seems primitively mean-spirited, divisive and shamefully indifferent to suffering as it denies its duty to humanity and its own natural compassion in policy and practices crafted by politicians seeking votes by pandering to the lowest common denominator, of widespread popular domestic prejudices fanned by shock-jocks and others with a vested interest in fear-mongering and scapegoating. By contrast The Italian Solution indicts Australia for its cruelty, its inhumanity, studied indifference and the grotesquely elaborate self-delusion of our official justification. Scott Morrison should take a close look at this programme. Then take a close look at himself.
Of course, the Italian solution is controversial. It is expensive, costing $13 million per month. But more expensive, in the long run is the cost of apathy, indifference or hostility. Of course it makes Italy vulnerable to accusations that it is swelling migration numbers irresponsibly adding to those who move from Italy into Germany and other more prosperous countries. There are critics who claim that the policy encourages people to migrate illegally but to this the government points out that the situation in Syria and in other Middle Eastern states has become increasingly more dangerous or hostile and that Italy would prefer to respond to suffering than count numbers. More than admirable is the courage, the initiative and enterprise embodied in the Italian solution as a vision which seeks first to do good. It is inspiring in an age of increasingly narrowing self-regard to see a nation which is prepared to reach out to help others in distress and not to count the cost. That account can be properly wait for later if the moral balance is right.