Italy’s controversial former interior minister Matteo Salvini has tried to put migration on the agenda ahead of the country’s snap election next month.
He traveled to Italy’s southernmost island, Lampedusa, and claimed that only 15% of current migrant arrivals were considered refugees.
Salvini also expressed concern that a migrant reception center in Lampedusa was on the verge of collapse due to overcrowding, calling it “unworthy of a civilized country”.
The center has a capacity of about 350 people, but there are currently 1,500 people staying there.
“Lampedusa is the gateway to Europe, it cannot be Europe’s refugee camp,” Salvini told reporters after a visit to the island on Thursday.
“Who has the right to come to Italy, comes by plane, not on a boat at the risk of his life. Who does not have the right, does not come”, added the leader of the political party League, which wants demands asylum to be made in the countries that the migrants leave.
Next elections in Italy
Salvini pledges to return to his tough immigration policy if the right-wing coalition wins the September 25 parliamentary vote.
The snap elections were forced after his right-wing anti-migrant League party, along with two other parties, withdrew their support for the pandemic unity government of 17-month-old incumbent Prime Minister Mario Draghi.
During Salvini’s short but dramatic tenure as interior minister in 2018-2019, migrant arrivals to Italy fell sharply as he pursued deterrent policies, including lengthy government delays in allocating of safe harbors to rescue vessels.
He is currently on trial in Sicily, charged with kidnapping in one such case, while the charges were dismissed in another.
“I remember in 2018, 2019, immigration was absolutely under control. The fight against human traffickers and smugglers was absolutely effective,” Salvini said.
While his League led the right-wing coalition in the 2018 Italian elections, it lost popularity after joining Draghi’s consensus government.
He is now way behind in the polls behind another right-wing coalition partner, the far-right Italian Brothers led by Giorgia Meloni.
That leaves Salvini fighting for political relevance. If the right-wing coalition wins the September 25 vote, the leader of the party with the most votes would be chosen as prime minister to form a new government.
Is migration a problem in Italy?
The central Mediterranean is the deadliest migration route in the world, with nearly 20,000 deaths and disappearances since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Italy has recorded more than 42,000 migrant landings since January 1, compared to nearly 30,000 in the same period last year and 14,400 in 2020.
And the pace doesn’t seem to be slowing down. The NGOs SOS Méditerranée, Médecins sans frontières (MSF) and Sea-Watch have rescued more than 1,000 people at sea in recent days.
MSF’s Geo Barents ship is currently transporting 659 people, including more than 150 children.
After nine days at sea, the Italian authorities authorized him to dock in the port of Taranto, MSF announced on Thursday.
“This prolonged period of blockage at sea is one of the longest ever experienced by our team. This must not happen again,” the NGO tweeted.
In a joint statement issued on Wednesday, the NGOs called on the EU to resume search and rescue activities to help them respond to the influx of migrants.
The EU ended its controversial operation to combat human trafficking in the Mediterranean in 2020, replacing it with Operation Irini on maintaining the UN arms embargo on Libya.
“The withdrawal of European search and rescue resources (…) has proven to be deadly and ineffective in preventing dangerous crossings”, regretted Xavier Lauth, director of operations of SOS Méditerranée.