Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, is calling on the European Union to “defend its border” against migrants arriving from Africa, and suggested that Italy was ready to “renegotiate” its financial commitments to the bloc if more was not done to help Italy handle the migrant crisis.
The bombastic former radio host, who has emerged as Italy’s de facto prime minister since the arrival of the new populist government, also pointed a finger of blame at “human traffickers and do-gooders” who he said were responsible for deaths on the Mediterranean.
“The aim is to protect the external border, not to share the problem among European countries but to solve the problem at the source,” Salvini said on Wednesday. “If anyone in the EU thinks Italy should keep being a landing point and refugee camp, they have misunderstood.”
The remarks came as Salvini’s hardline approach against migrants –he is also calling for the expulsion of non-Italian Roma, an ethnic minority– has won the blessing of his major coalition partner, Luigi Di Maio, the head of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.
Di Maio on Wednesday said he agreed with Salvini’s stance that NGOs who save migrants ought to be denied entry into Italian ports, signalling a major and possibly permanent shift in Italian policy despite legal experts saying such blocks are a violation of humanitarian laws.
“We save the migrants with our navy, with our coastguard, but the NGOs [should] go elsewhere,” Di Maio said.
The populist government’s approach could mean thousands more lives lost on the Mediterranean, where migrants seeking to make their way to Europeare already facing treacherous conditions and widespread human rights abuses.
But the Italian government suggested the wind was at its back and that its approach was winning favour in Europe. If the EU did not act, Salvini suggested that Italy was ready to take its own drastic measures.
“The air in Europe is changing and we are optimistic,” Salvini said following a meeting with his Austrian counterpart, Herbet Kickl, and the Austria vice-chancellor, Heinz Christian Strache. “We are also extremely confident about the Austrian (EU) presidency and we trust in the good sense of our European colleagues, in part because we don’t want to have to renegotiate Italian financing to the European Union.”
The issue is expected to be discussed by Salvini, Di Maio and Giuseppe Conte, the Italian prime minister, at a meeting on Wednesday. Salvini, who is traveling to Libya in the coming days, said Italy was preparing a proposal that would strengthen the EU border and curtain migration, but did not provide further details.
Salvini last week decided – in what appeared to be a unilateral decision – to block the arrival of NGO ship the Aquarius, which had more than 600 migrants on board. The move forced the Aquarius to divert its route, and the migrants were sent to Valencia in Spain.
“Spain has opened its ports, France did too. In Spain they celebrated, fine. But we could not celebrate every six hours,” Di Maio said.
Data released by the OECD shows that Italy saw a 34% drop in the number of migrants arriving in 2017 to 119,000, due in large part to a controversial deal struck between the last Italian government and the Libyan coastguard. Under the terms of the deal, Italy has helped to train Libyans to stop migrants and return them to Libya, where they have faced detention and inhumane living conditions, including rape and torture.
But despite the drop in arrivals, the populist government, which has in effect been led by Salvini since it came into power, has made the issue of migration and the expulsion of ethnic minorities a top priority. In his role as interior minister, Salvini has control over immigration, asylum and domestic security.
Salvini also said 800 people had died trying to make their way to Italy so far, and that their deaths were the fault of smugglers and “do-gooders” – a possible reference to the NGOs who rescue migrants and who have been accused of encouraging migrants to make the dangerous journey across the sea.