Italy called for migrant centres to be set up in Africa to stop a tide of asylum-seekers fleeing toward western Europe, as Rome raised pressure on its European Union partners to take a tougher approach to immigration.
The new Italian government closed ports to charity ships operating in the Mediterranean, saying the EU must share the burden of disembarking migrants plucked from the waters, mostly off the Libyan coast.
Italy has taken in 650,000 boat migrants since 2014. Its new approach aggravated EU tensions over immigration policy and created concern among investors.
“Reception and identification centres should be set up…,” Italy’s anti-immigration interior minister, Matteo Salvini, said on a visit to Libya.
Meeting his counterpart in Libya’s internationally-recognised government Abdulsalam Ashour and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeg, Salvini thanked the Libyan coastguard for its “excellent work” rescuing and intercepting migrants.
The Tripoli-based government, which does not control the whole country, is unwilling to host reception centres itself. Maiteeg said while his government was ready to tackle migration, “we reject any migrant camps in Libya”.
After returning to Italy, Salvini said centres should be south of Libya in Niger, Mali, Chad and Sudan.
He said the EU should fund efforts in Africa to stop uncontrolled migration to Europe.
As EU leaders prepare to discuss immigration policy in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, Italy’s refusal to accept charity-run rescue ships stranded hundreds of Africans at sea, their rescuers waiting for an EU country to accept them.
Rescue ship Lifeline, with more than 230 migrants aboard, is in international waters in the Mediterranean. A private cargo ship, the Alexander Maersk, is waiting to be assigned a port since it picked up 113 migrants off southern Italy, the ship owner said.
Earlier this month, a vessel carrying over 600 migrants was stranded before it was accepted by Spain.
EU TENSIONS ERUPT
At their summit, EU leaders will agree to tighten external borders, give more support to Libya and look at creating “disembarkation” centres. A draft of their statement showed no agreement on distributing asylum seekers around the bloc.
Italy’s anti-immigration stance, criticised by human rights groups who say it risks lives at sea, sharpened EU divisions , which took in over a million refugees and migrants in 2015.
It irritated France, with European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau telling Rome international law obliged it to let the Lifeline dock. Salvini responded by calling the minister “ignorant”.
Tensions reached Germany where Chancellor Angela Merkel faces a revolt by her Bavarian conservative allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU), who want a tougher line on immigration.
The risk that Merkel’s allies could desert her on migration unnerved investors, who sold off Italian bonds and bought German Bunds, which tend to perform strongly in times of trouble in the euro zone.
CSU General Secretary Norbert Blume told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung it was time to act but added: “None of us wants to call into question the conservative alliance or the government.”
The coalition is due to meet to discuss the immigration dispute.
In Italy, Salvini’s actions and rhetoric are popular with voters, with his right-wing League party gaining ground in municipal elections.
Salvini’s opponents accuse him of playing on fear, noting crossings have fallen sharply since last July, after the previous government targeted people-smuggling networks and Libya’s EU-trained coastguard stepped up interceptions.
Around 11,000 migrants arrived in Italy from Libya so far this year, down more than 80% from the same periods in 2016 and 2017, Italian interior ministry data shows.
Interceptions of migrant boats by Libya’s coastguard surged over the past week, with almost a thousand African asylum-seekers picked up in one day.
The interceptions were criticised by human rights activists because of dire conditions migrants endure in widely lawless Libya, where they often face physical abuse including torture and rape.
Salvini said Italy would give 20 patrol boats to the Libyan coastguard. “We’ll do all we can to make sure it’s Libyan authorities patrolling Libyan waters,” he said, accusing some private rescue organisations of helping human traffickers.
He played down reports of inhuman conditions in Libyan detention centres. He did not rule out abuses at informal camps saying the UN refugee agency assured him rules were respected at official centres.