MILANO– Italy’s former interior minister Matteo Salvini has made migration central to his election campaign during a visit on Thursday to Italy’s southernmost island, Lampedusa, a gateway for dozens thousands of people crossing the perilous central Mediterranean Sea into Italian territory each year.
Salvini has pledged to move testing centers for people seeking political asylum to North Africa, in a bid to prevent economic migrants from flooding into Italy. He said only 15% of current arrivals qualify as refugees.
He also expressed concern that the migrant center in Lampedusa, the largest in Italy, was on the verge of collapse due to overcrowding, calling it ‘unworthy of a civilized country’ “.
Salvini distinguished between those who qualify for asylum, saying “they can’t be massaged on the floor on mattresses in 40-degree heat”, and those who don’t: “We don’t we cannot open the doors of Italy to thousands of illegal immigrants who are not”. fleeing war,” he said.
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 think in 2018-19 Italy was a safer, more protected, more normal, more European country,” Salvini said. “Lampedusa is the gateway to Europe. This cannot be Europe’s refugee camp.
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 lagging far behind in the polls behind another right-wing coalition partner, the far-right Brothers of Italy 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.
Meloni is seeking to become Italy’s first female prime minister, but Salvini is not counting. And he insists that in both cases, the Minister of the Interior must come from his League.
Not everyone on the island of Lampedusa was keen to be part of Salvini’s election rhetoric.
The island’s mayor is concerned about the impact on tourism and insists that the current system of transferring migrants to Sicily and beyond was avoiding the emergencies experienced during peak arrival years from 2014 to 2016.
With daily new arrivals from Libya and Tunisia, migrants typically spend less than 24 hours on the island.
“The crucial element is not to slow down or block the transfer to the mainland,” Mayor Filippo Mannino told The Associated Press on Thursday.
A handful of aid workers and activists staged a sit-in in Lampedusa ahead of Salvini’s arrival, displaying banners challenging his depiction of an island awash with migrants.
“Anyone who comes to Lampedusa does not see migrants. There is no emergency. The only emergency is the migrants who are at the (migrant centre),” said Luca Casarini, activist and head of mission on the Italian rescue ship Mare Jonio. He accused Salvini of propaganda to win votes “on the skin of people… who die at sea, who are much worse off than us”.
Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesman for the Italian offices of the International Organization for Migration, said while migrant arrivals have increased this year by around a third compared to 2021, they are still well below 120,000. to 180,000 registered each year from 2014 to 2016.
“These are not emergency numbers. We are not facing a digital emergency. But we are facing a humanitarian emergency,” Di Giacomo said, citing 905 people who died or went missing at sea this year.
David Lohmueller in Lampedusa and Paolo Santalucia in Rome contributed.
Follow all AP stories on global migration issues at https://apnews.com/hub/migration.