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Editorial: Britain's record on refugees is not so different from Salvini's

THE charge from Italian socialist politician Viola Carofalo that Britain is “complicit in [Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s] far-right xenophobic project” cuts deep.

Salvini has captured the left’s imagination as a hate figure. 

His reputation for brutality is well-deserved. This Mussolini-admiring demagogue has turned a cold shoulder to desperate immigrants, happy to let them fester aboard cramped rescue vessels offshore rather than allow any to set foot in Italy.

The draconian steps he orders to punish anyone showing compassion for refugees beggar belief: €5,000 fines per refugee saved from drowning, penalties of up to €1 million  for each vessel that docks and threats of decades behind bars for the heroes who put their lives on the line to save them.

The effect has been chilling and Salvini undoubtedly has blood on his hands. The sole survivor from a dinghy carrying 15 refugees picked up off Malta earlier this month reported that passing ships ignored their cries for help.

Miguel Roldan, a Spanish firefighter threatened with two decades behind bars for saving lives, said of attempts to run the obstacle course laid by Italy before such rescues: “We respect the rules so much that we’ve watched people die because of bureaucracy.”

Salvini is not merely nasty but dangerous. And his vision is not limited to Italy. With former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and French fascist Marine Le Pen, he has worked on a pan-European far-right project that aims to change the political weather across the continent.

But Italy’s geographical location as a key entry point for refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean can see other countries let off the hook.

The record of successive Conservative governments on refugees is dire. David Cameron’s government did everything it could to squash the Dubs amendment which would have allowed unaccompanied child refugees to enter Britain.

It was forced to backtrack, saying around 3,000 would be admitted after a Labour-led public backlash.

No matter: Theresa May’s administration quietly reneged on the commitment early in 2017, meaning only a few hundred of the thousands of children promised refuge ever got it.

The fate of the rest is unknown, but the global refugee crisis is leading vulnerable children to disappear into the slave and sex trades in significant numbers.

Britain cannot claim moral superiority over Salvini if we condemn his government for refusing entry to the desperate yet refuse it ourselves.

Nor can the European Union, which has been complicit in the unfolding tragedy from the start. A dodgy deal with Turkey to hold millions of refugees from a Syrian war in which Britain and France were complicit contravened international law, but was signed by Brussels anyway.

Now Istanbul’s mayor is turning on the city’s population of Syrian refugees, vowing to drive them out.

The EU’s response to Salvini’s threats not to take asylum-seekers rescued in the Mediterranean was to cancel its sea rescue missions entirely.

It has instead focused on training the Libyan coastguard to force them back — despite Libya being in the midst of a civil war with refugee camps targeted by air strikes.

And despite a well-documented slave trade in black Africans emerging in the country since Britain, France and the US overthrew its last functional government in 2010-11.

The gap between far-right would-be strongmen like Salvini and the British and European status quo is not so wide as liberal politicians would have us think. 

A left approach to the refugee crisis must begin with a solidarity that has been as lacking from London and Brussels as it has been from Salvini.

It’s one that would look to address the causes of the refugee crisis in Western-led wars, climate change and an international trading system rigged against poorer countries.

But first of all it would take responsibility for the suffering our governments have unleashed — and extend the hand of friendship to the victims of imperialism.

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