The Sardines – A Popular Human Rights Movement?

By Giulia Ciccia Messina

Beginning in November 2019, a new wave of protests has surfaced in Italy. We are used to associating Italian politics with anti-immigrant and refugee sentiments. However, the new movement, which has become known as the Sardine (sardines, in English) is bringing people together across many Italian cities to protest in support of the human rights of those whom right-wing populists have been attacking so publicly.

On November 14th Matteo Salvini, the prominent leader of the extreme right-wing Italian political movement called Lega, was scheduled to appear in Bologna. The Paladozza, where Salvini was due to appear can hold a maximum of 5,570 people. The “sardines challenge” was launched by four friends and specifically sought to attract 6000 individuals to protest against Salvini and the anti-human rights platform he has been prominently leading. The friends put out the call through Facebook, other social media platforms and through word of mouth. In the event, some 15,000 people answered the call and assembled to make their voices heard. They were packed so tightly into the main square of Bologna, that they subsequently became known as the sardines.

sardine realistic.png

The reasons why so many were willing to publicly refute what Salvini and the Lega represent can be traced to the increasingly harsh policies Italian authorities have been pursuing against the acceptance of immigrants on Italian territory[1] and the numerous successful attempts to perpetrate a narrative of “us” against “them” amongst the wider Italian population. The right-wing populist narrative deployed by Salvini routinely characterises immigrants and asylum seekers as responsible for the many frustrations and resentments experienced by many Italians in these times of austerity and crisis.

The name “Sardine” does not only symbolise the act of being a numerous and tight-knit group. It also seeks to convey the peaceful nature and aims of the protest movement. In fact, this movement’s genesis was spontaneous and sought only to demonstrate popular and ordinary peoples’ opposition to the policies of Salvini and the Lega. It has also sought to show support for an alternative future based upon an attitude of respect and tolerance. The message of the “sardines” is clear: in this current, divisive, political climate, it is better to hold tight in mutual respect than to lose each other in divisive hatred.

What significance do these events have for the actual implementation and guarantee of human rights in Italy, especially in regard to immigrants and asylum seekers who often arrive illegally in the country?

In order to answer this question, it is important to understand the context and the level of protection afforded to these individuals’ human rights. Firstly, Italy has been repeatedly criticized by various international organizations, most notably Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for its repeatedly poor treatment of immigrants and asylum-seekers. Criticism of Italy’s human rights record has also been levelled by the European Court of Human Rights, in respect of regarding the case of Khalifia and Others vs Italy, (2016). Further criticism has also been levelled by  the United Nations’ Human Rights Council in its Universal Periodic Review in August 2019, which highlighted several areas of particular concern regarding Italy’s lack of institutional provision for combatting a range of forms of discrimination and ill-treatment, as well as Italy’s repeated denial of entry of rescue vessels into Italian ports[2]. Consequentially, it can be deduced that the response of the Italian government to the ever-growing issue of illegal immigration and asylum seekers has not been particularly focused on guaranteeing and protecting their human rights up to this point.

The intolerance and viciousness exhibited by various right-wing populists in their depiction of and attitudes towards immigrants and asylum-seekers manifests itself in numerous ways, from the irresponsible speeches of politicians to hate crimes committed by more “ordinary” people. It can be difficult to avoid becoming despondent and depressed at the spectacle of such intolerance and hatred. However, against this backdrop, the sardines offer an example that populists do not speak for all of the people. In fact, there are countless numbers of people who are ready and willing to protest in support of some of the most vulnerable in our midst.

In respect of Italy and writing as an Italian, I personally feel reassured by the sardines. They serve to support the idea of ​​living in a country that retains a desire to say “no” to hatred and intolerance. So-called ordinary people, who are not part of any elite or establishment can be passionate supporters of human rights and to insist on seeing immigrants and asylum-seekers as, first and foremost, fellow human beings.

The protection of human rights often requires more than simply the existence of legal commitments, which governments can ignore. Political support also has a vital role to play. The sardines deserve the support of the wider human rights movement and offer an example to follow for all of us.

Giulia is presently studying the MA Theory and Practice of Human Rights, here at the University of Essex. She possesses a BA in International Relations and Modern Languages, also from Essex. She has a passion for political and social phenomena and movements, is firmly confident of the possibility of governing conflicts with the tools of knowledge and reasonableness.