Italy’s anti-immigration former interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has warned that his country will not host "the refugee camp of Europe" as he visited the island of Lampedusa on a campaign stop for elections in September.
In recent days dozens of overcrowded migrant boats have arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa, whose location off the Tunisian coast has made it a landing point for thousands of migrants who cross the central Mediterranean each year.
Matteo Salvini, who leads Italy's League party (La Lega), has made stopping the arrivals the cornerstone of his platform ahead of general elections on September 25, where he is expected to gain power as part of a right-wing alliance.
"Lampedusa is the gateway to Europe, it cannot be the refugee camp of Europe," Salvini said after visiting the island's migrant reception camp, Italy’s largest.
Salvini strongly criticized conditions in the center, which has a capacity of around 350 but which he said hosted 1,500 people this week, saying they were not "worthy of a civilized country".
Controlled borders, closed ports
He said that if his coalition wins next month, it will "return to controlling and protecting the borders and give a welcome to those who really flee war." According to Salvini, just 15% of current arrivals qualify as refugees.
Like his political ally, Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni, Salvini wants to shift processing centers to countries from where migrants set off, mainly north Africa.
"Who has the right to come to Italy, comes by plane, not on a boat risking his life. Those who do not have the right, do not come," he said.
"We cannot thow open the doors of Italy to thousands of clandestine migrants who are not fleeing war."
Arrivals in Italy
The central Mediterranean is the world's deadliest migration route, with almost 20,000 deaths and disappearances since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Many of those who survive end up on Italy's shores. According to figures from the interior ministry there have been more than 42,000 migrant landings so far this year, up from almost 30,000 in the same period in 2021.
When he was interior minister in 2018-2019, Salvini blocked several charity rescue ships carrying migrants from disembarking in Italy, under his party's "closed ports" policy. At the same time, migrant arrivals in Italy dropped sharply.
"I think in 2018-2019 Italy was a safer country, more protected, more normal, more European," Salvini said.
Surveys suggest Italians are more worried about inflation than immigration. But Salvini is racing to boost his party's support, which stands at around 13% – far behind the 23% of Meloni's party.
The two parties are on course to enter government together in an alliance with Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, but their individual vote share will determine who holds the most power.
More than a month and a half out from the polls, Salvini's visit to Lampedusa prompted a 'clean-up' at the reception center, according to AFP. Reporters saw around 200 migrants boarding a ferry to Sicily on Thursday, as part of regular ferries laid on by the government to ease overcrowding.
Not everyone on Lampedusa welcomed the former interior minister’s visit.
A number of aid workers and activists held a sit-in ahead of Salvini's arrival, displaying banners disputing his depiction of an island swamped by migrants.
"Whoever comes to Lampedusa doesn't see migrants. There is no emergency. The only emergency is for the migrants who are at the (migrant center)," said Luca Casarini, an activist and chief of mission on the Mare Jonio Italian rescue ship. He accused Salvini of pedalling propaganda to gain votes ''on the skin of people ... who die at sea, who are much worse off than us.''
Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesperson with the Italian offices of the International Organization for Migration, said while migrant arrivals are up this year by about one-third over 2021, they are still well below the 120,000 to 180,000 registered annually from 2014-2016.
"These are not emergency numbers. We are not facing a numerical emergency. But we are facing a humanitarian emergency,'' Di Giacomo said, citing 905 people who have died or gone missing at sea this year.
With AFP, AP