Italian anti-immigrant leader Matteo Salvini on Thursday takes his campaign for September elections to the tiny island of Lampedusa, the landing point for thousands of migrants trying to reach Europe.
Dozens of overcrowded boats have arrived in and around Lampedusa in recent days from north Africa, some landing directly and others requiring rescue by the local coastguard.
As often in the summer months, when the sea is calmer, the island’s facilities are overwhelmed, with more than 1,500 people said to be in a reception centre designed for 350.
Salvini, who leads Italy’s League party, 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.
“Italy cannot accept tens of thousands of immigrants who only bring problems,” he said on Wednesday, adding: “Italy is not Europe’s refugee camp.”
Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s outgoing government last week organised a ferry to take migrants to Sicily three times a week, and AFP on Thursday morning saw dozens of migrants being taken in buses to the port.
Salvini has accused the government — which he helped bring down last month by withdrawing his support — of trying to hide the problem before he arrives.
“If you give us your trust again, we will go back to protecting our borders. Stop the landings!” his party tweeted Thursday.
Trial for kidnapping
When he was interior minister in 2019, Salvini blocked several charity rescue ships carrying migrants from disembarking in Italy, under his party’s “closed ports” policy.
The move saw him prosecuted in Sicily on charges of kidnapping and abuse of office, in an ongoing trial he has worn as a badge of honour.
But surveys suggest immigration is less of a concern for Italians than the rampant inflation squeezing already stagnant wages.
And Salvini’s League has in recent months been overtaken in the polls by Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, who have also called for migrants to be stopped at the Libyan coast.
Her post-fascist party is topping opinion polls ahead of the election, and looks set to enter government in an alliance with Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.
– Desperation –
Tiny Lampedusa is known for its gorgeous beaches, but its location closer to Tunisia than Sicily has put it on the front line of migration into Europe.
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. The interior ministry has counted more than 42,000 migrant landings so far this year, up from almost 30,000 in the same period in 2021.
The numbers show no sign of slowing — rescue charities SOS Mediterranee, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Sea-Watch have picked up more than 1,000 people in the central Mediterranean in the past few days.
MSF’s ship Geo Barents, carrying 659 people on board, said Thursday it had finally been given permission to disembark in the mainland port of Taranto after nine days at sea.
“This prolonged period of blockage at sea is one of the longest ever experienced by our team. This must not happen again,” it wrote on Twitter.
It had previously reported that food rations were running low and that two people had tried to throw themselves overboard “in an act of desperation”.
Like Salvini, the charities have been the target of prosecution in Italy — but for alleged collusion with people traffickers, which they deny.
In a joint statement on Wednesday, SOS Mediterranee, MSF and Sea-Watch said they cannot cope with the numbers, urging the EU to resume search and rescue patrols — or warning more people would die.