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Saviano in NYC Doesn’t Give Up: Where the Lies on “Taxis of the Sea” Come From

While Salvini threatens the writer to withdraw his police escort, Saviano continues his unpopular battle on migrants: “This is about bearing witness"

Roberto Saviano speaking at the Emergency USA event (Ph: Sara Greco)

How did we get here, how did we end up describing the NGOs’ ships as “taxis of the sea”? “We needed to escape from the guilt we used to feel when we saw scenes of desperation,” Saviano claimed. “We also needed to say to our stomach that was twisting into knots, that it wasn’t our fault, that it was only a conspiracy to rip us off, a scheme of the economic elites in order to take new slaves: Beautiful, mighty boys," that can’t be that poor and desperate if they even own smartphones...

In Italy, Roberto Saviano is one of the preferred targets of Minister of Interior and Vice Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s attacks, and because of his unflagging exposé of organized crime and of anti-migrant propaganda, he is considered among the most divisive Italian intellectuals of our time. In New York, the renowned author of Gomorra talked about migration and NGOs in the fund-raising event organized by Emergency USA, in front of a wide audience of Italians and Americans.

Only a few days before, Mr. Salvini had published a video on his Facebook account, in which he sent Saviano–as he usually does– a “big kiss”, while at the same time announcing a plan for reviewing the allocation of police escorts protecting him and other Italian citizens from the organized crime’s threats. Only a few hours later, the Council of Europe put Salvini’s threat on its platform “to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists.” Definitely not a good sign for Italian democracy.

When you speak about Roberto Saviano in Italy, you never know what to expect from your interlocutor. Users’ comments published under his post announcing his participation in the Emergency’s event demonstrate this ambiguity. Among the kind words and encouragements of his supporters, there are also those who blame him for speaking about migrants while living – according to them – in a fabulous loft in New York City, and give him credit for Salvini’s electoral success. There are also those who sarcastically ask him to keep on writing and speaking up on these issues, “so that Salvini’s League reaches 100% of the vote.”

However, his voice has remained one of the few still willing to challenge the most popular propaganda every day. He did it, recently, with the new book In mare non esistono taxi, There are no taxis in the sea, a photographic testimonial against right-wing fake news and misleading rhetoric on immigration and NGOs committed to saving migrants’ lives in the Mediterranean Sea. And while words could easily be undermined by an irrational narrative, it is to be hoped that powerful images get inside of us and stay there.

Therefore, it is no surprise that, during the conference held in Manhattan, the author’s testimony has been accompanied by the most iconic photographs showing a crisis that involves human rights, our own language, and the media.

That crisis has also resulted in a linguistic reversal that has turned those who save lives at sea from “heroes” into “smugglers” in the eyes of the public opinion. “The first ships that saved human beings used to be welcomed in the port of landing with applause”, Saviano underlined, recalling a time that seems to be lost forever.

The author commented on several pictures that have become the symbols of the European migration crisis. First of all, the one showing the lifeless body, lying on a Turkish beach, of little Aylan Kurdi, a child who could easily remind us of our kids, for his skin tone and his way of dressing. Then, the picture of Josefa, a migrant from Cameroon that the right-wing propaganda accused of being an actress because of the red enamel on her nails—actually an act of caring made by the NGO volunteers who had rescued her, in order to remind her that “body is not only pain”, Saviano explained.

And again, Mr. Saviano also showed a photograph depicting the legs of migrants—who usually travel straddling dinghy tubulars—completely burned by a mixture of salt water, sun and kerosene coming from the engine.

Ironically, this is the “free ride” (“pacchia”, in Italian) for illegal migrants, as Mr. Salvini usually puts it. But how did we get here, how did we end up describing the NGOs’ ships as “taxis of the sea”? “We needed to escape from the guilt we used to feel when we saw scenes of desperation,” Saviano claimed. “We also needed to say to our stomach that was twisting into knots, that it wasn’t our fault, that it was only a conspiracy to rip us off, a scheme of the economic elites in order to take new slaves: Beautiful, mighty boys,” that can’t be that poor and desperate if they even own smartphones. Here is another lie: migrants’ smartphones, far from representing the proof of the conspiracy, are actually their only path to salvation.

Why? Because the Libyan Coast Guard consists of “smugglers who put on the uniform,” of those whom Italy entrusted with the “rescue operations”, so to speak, of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. And when they catch you, they don’t send you back to your country of origin. On the contrary, they return you to the Libyan detention camps, those which the UN continue to denounce as places where violations of human rights and torture systematically occur.

Then, the Libyan Coast Guard asks you for money to let you come back home. Prices, according to the author, are around 5000-8000 euros. And if you don’t have a phone to reach out to your family, you will lose the only opportunity to have your life saved. 

(Wikimedia Commons).

In the meantime, in the Mediterranean Sea, the Italian Navy, that has been saving a lot of human beings over the last years, “no longer feels free to act—they will disprove that, but it is the truth.”

During the conversation, Mr. Saviano dismantled several other arguments of anti-migrant rhetoric. They say: “Do not let them arrive, because they will end up being enslaved in the tomatoes fields”. But if the problem is illegal and inhuman employment, you should act on the food supply chain, rather than preventing migrants from arriving. They usually claim that ‘we cannot accommodate entire Africa,’ but the truth is that 98% of the European population is native. They usually blame the Nigerian mafia, but they do not say that no foreign organization could do business in Italy without the complicity of local criminals. Recently, the right-wing propaganda also claimed that, after stopping the NGOs’ ships’ rescue activities in the Mediterranean Sea, migrants’ fatalities have decreased. This is a lie: the only truth is that there are fewer eyewitnesses.

According to the Italian journalist, those who mix up the obligation to save human lives, with the discourse on how to accommodate migrants, are actually stacking the deck. “Migrants’ accommodation is a political issue: there is time to discuss it. There is no time, indeed, to save lives. If you start procrastinating, migrants will die.”

Why should we keep speaking up and publicly denouncing abuses, in an era in which the message seems to be condemned to be crushed by the dominant propaganda, and it ironically ends up fueling it? Far from representing a daring battle against the windmills, as in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, this is about bearing witness, looking to the future rather than to the present. “The number of people that are aware is progressively declining,” Mr. Saviano said. He also confessed that many people, even among his loved ones, have advised him to give up: “Choose a different path, or you are doing him [Salvini] a favor. This is the issue he wants people to speak about.” However, according to Saviano, strategy is useful in politics, but not when you “need to create a narrative.” And when that happens, bearing witness means “keeping to the truth and protecting it.” This kind of urgency is similar to the one experienced by those who work for the NGOs: “You choose to leave because, if you chose to stay, you would feel inadeguate.”

Therefore, we all share responsibility. “We can affect people around us. That is bearing witness. Those who love you, listening to the accurate information, may start trusting you and changing their minds,” especially when they will realize—because they will—that all these lies haven’t improved their own lives.

UNHCR/Mark Henley. Hungarian border, 2015.

The author urged his New York audience to “understand that we are able to leave a mark in our lives, affecting people much more than we can imagine.” This was a call for “not giving up so that our thinking can have an impact.”

“La Voce di New York” asked Saviano about his view on Federico Rampini’s position regarding immigration, elaborated in his last book-analysis about the crisis of the Italian left. According to the well-known US correspondent for “La Repubblica”, one major mistake made by the left was to embrace the cause of immigration, giving up on the Italian poor in order to commit to “the poorest”—the migrants. What does Saviano think about this analysis?

“I know Rampini’s book. I agree with his reflection about the large web companies, that the left welcomed as civil and human progressive revolutions, even if they stripped rights, and created platforms for tax evasion. It is no surprise that the largest corporations in the world have their own headquarters where major crime organizations hide their wealth,” the author explained. And the international left “has failed in regulating this kind of business.”

According to Mr. Saviano, “the greatest fault of the left is allowing the objective existence of such big laundering channels, that prevent the workers from feeling like they are part of a just world, since they have to pay 60% tax rate, while the big corporations pay only 5%. This might even be justified if, in return, the company were to promote useful interventions in the area.”

However, “when Mr. Rampini discusses the opposition between ‘the poor’ and ‘the poorest’, Italians and migrants, I definitely do not agree with him.” “The rights are universal,” and when you start believing that dealing with the issue of the Roma’s integration is a way of giving up on the problems of Italian workers recently being driven out, you are falling into a fallacy.” Actually, by neglecting the Roma issue “you are handing over these people to crime and poverty, with no advantage for redundant workers.”

UNHCR / Hereward Holland. Un gommone pieno di migranti al largo della Libia aspetta di essere soccorso dalla Sea Watch.

The left’s mistakes—and there have been many—”are not about favoring migrants over Italian citizens in need. And when it’s expressed like that, you risk fueling propaganda.” Saviano believes the real problem is that the left failed in “promoting a crystal-clear economic vision.” But that, “in my opinion, it is dangerous to pit the poor Italians against the poorest, the migrants.”

According to Saviano, the left’s mistakes in Southern Italy have been huge. The journalist thinks that the large abstention in the European Election among southern Italians could be explained by the fact that, in that kind of election, “it is in nobody’s interest to buy citizens’ votes”. “The organized crime doesn’t care about European Elections, and that’s why there has been no pressure at all on the electorate.” The writer explained: “It is very dangerous claiming that if you are fighting in order to grant migrants’ kids access to school lunch, you are neglecting Italian workers’ kids. It is rather the opposite. When you are committed to strengthening someone’s right, you are strengthening everyone’s right.”

In reply to a question about the relationship between past and present emigration and immigration, Mr. Saviano underlined that, “Italy is second only to China in terms of emigrants, in relative figures.”  “Every time that immigration quotas were opened in South America, millions of Italians left Italy to enter those countries.” So often I hear people saying, ‘Unlike today’s migrants, we migrated in order to work.’” This kind of assertion,” the author explained, “comes from the idea—strengthen by certain propaganda—that the African or Slavic migrants come in order to steal. But actually, when in the 20th century Italians arrived in New York City, the misguided belief was: ‘They’re coming to assault white American women.’ In the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, there was even a reference to Italians’ garlic breath.”

Italians are totally aware of their past as immigrants, and sometimes try to redeem it. Think about the Riace model of integration, in which many Italians that had left the country several years before gave their empty apartments to the newcomers. Nevertheless, there has been such strong propaganda that, “we forgot that we Italians have been blamed for the mafia and organized crime for decades, and we are still bearing the shameful stigma according to which Italians are all mobsters. Now, we ourselves are recreating a similar prejudice against migrants arriving in Italy.”

Mr. Saviano also pointed out that the fact that we turned the migrant into the new enemy “has made people from Southern Italy who migrated to the North [those whom Salvini’s League used to blame in the past] into legitimate citizens.” As if, he added, we have found the true enemy, the one responsible for evil and chaos; “as if a disease could release your body only when another disease infects you.”

That is why remembering has become urgent. And a living memory, directed at the present and the future, is needed more than ever. This commitment is complementary to that of bearing witness. “We can’t do anything against propaganda in the short term, but in the long term, our commitment will allow us to collect accurate information, preventing  us from being bullied and exploited.” After all, as Hannah Arendt wrote, “The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible.” And more importantly, “One man will always be left alive to tell the story. Hence, nothing can ever be ‘practically useless’—at least, not in the long run.” 

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