After spending 27 years as the first doctor to examine migrants reaching Europe’s shores, Pietro Bartolo is now about to take over as a member of the European Parliament in Brussels. InfoMigrants caught up with Bartolo on Lampedusa and asked him about the Italian government's policies vis-a-vis NGO migrant rescue ships and his hopes as an MEP.
Known as Italy’s migrants’ doctor, Pietro Bartolo was elected to the European Parliament as a candidate of the center-left Democratic Party (PD) in Italy. In May's elections, he secured 274,000 votes - the fifth most voted candidate in Italy - though only a handful came from his home island of Lampedusa.
He now spends four days a week in Brussels getting ready for the European Parliament’s first plenary session on July 2. But every weekend he travels back to Lampedusa, a 22-square-kilometer island closer to the Libyan and Tunisian coasts than to Sicily. There, he goes back to his usual routine: As the director of the island’s health services, he was also in charge of giving first aid to the migrants who landed here.
On June 15, he was on the dock to meet 10 migrants, among them two pregnant women and three minors, who were allowed to be evacuated from the Sea-Watch 3 rescue ship for medical reasons. The Sea-Watch 3 rescued more than 50 migrants off the coast of Libya on June 12 and sailed towards Lampedusa. But Italy's government has not allowed the ship to dock, and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party, signed a new decree to fine NGOs rescuing migrants at sea.
InfoMigrants: What is happening with Sea-Watch?
Pietro Bartolo: Every time there is an NGO rescue, Salvini starts up this farce. In reality, there are small boats landing here all the time, and he says nothing, he says that ports are closed. But ports are open. On Saturday he allowed ten people to land, but I hope he will allow the rest to land too. Sea-Watch saved them, and now he calls them criminals. Salvini says Sea-Watch put migrants at risk. It is madness. They want to force [Sea-Watch] to take these people back to Libya, from where they ran away, from where they managed to escape and take to the sea [knowing that they could be] risking their lives.
Would the situation in Libya be so bad were it not for the controversial deal brokered by former Interior Minister Marco Minniti, of the Partito Democratico (PD), with Libya’s tribal militias and coast guard?
Minniti did something that I condemned from the first moment, which led me to distance myself from the PD - even though I am now part of it through Demos, a smaller party. Minniti started down this path, and Salvini [is taking] advantage of it. I say it was a heinous act, which I never agreed with. We are guilty of a very serious mistake. Making agreements with Libya means creating concentration camps, in my opinion.
What can Europe do vis-a-vis Italy’s new security decree?
The new security decree is unconstitutional and violates all international norms. It must be retracted. I hope that as soon as I start working in the European Parliament, I will work on getting these people here safely through humanitarian corridors and regular channels and not across the sea, that is dangerous. It is necessary for Europe to consider migration as a structural phenomenon and not as an emergency.
It is a protest vote. In Lampedusa, people demand something from the state. Indeed, the island has been abandoned, after bearing the load of migration for 30 years.
But I have to say that I was a bit upset. Because it's my people, I've done so much for them, so much. Because after all, it is someone from Lampedusa going to the European Parliament. I wish they could have seen past this form of protest and sent a signal.
How much did migration affect electoral choices?
The League created this enemy. They found an enemy [that could be relied upon] to scare people; [that] created fertile ground [so they could] talk about security, and say ‘We can protect you from this enemy’. They do all of this to create approval: fear, ignorance and hatred create approval.
Migration is not the problem. We are talking about human beings to whom we must pay special attention, as I have always done, but it is not a problem. Migration is a problem that Matteo Salvini and other politicians have created in order to justify everything else. The problem is that their idea [is all about] dismembering Europe. But a weak Europe is a Europe destined to perish.
Italy has a history of migration. Has this been forgotten?
We are a strange country, which manages to excel in all sectors: technology, arts, design, the environment. Thanks to this exchange of cultures, traditions, DNA, hereditary baggage, everyone brought something, and they all converged into what we now call the Italian people.
But we have forgotten these things. Just as we forgot that we were migrants and invaded the whole world: Argentina, the U.S., Canada, Australia. Do you remember when Switzerland was El Dorado? This continues nowadays. This year, 250,000 people left. Our young people who leave every year, we call them Ferraris. They don't leave because there are migrants who arrive to "take their jobs."
How is it possible to dismantle this misleading information vis-a-vis migrants in Europe?
Imagine that if today, all the migrants who live and work in Italy decide to leave. Italy would die.
Changing the Dublin Regulation is important because now they [the asylum seekers] have to stay here, and by changing the regulation, they could have the opportunity to choose where they live.
It is not true that there is an invasion. But Salvini has made it into a problem especially with all those lies he has told so that he can create fertile ground to then say, ‘I am here, the savior’.
How optimistic are you?
I think you can change things. We are still in time. I decided to go to Brussels because the issue of migration brought me there. I want to make sure that people stop seeing migration as a problem. Migration is a phenomenon that occurs among animals too. We all migrate to where we are better off.