Fresh from rows in Europe, Matteo Salvini headed to Tripoli with migration top of the agenda
Italian minister in Libya to press anti-migrant case
Matteo Salvini used his first foreign visit as Italy's hardline interior minister to demand an asylum reception centre on Libya’s southern border to cut the flow of migrants into Europe.
Mr Salvini vowed to tackle the issue of “undercover illegal immigration” during talks with senior Libya officials in Tripoli in a demonstration of the political priorities of the new populist government in Italy.
He said the reception centre would help stop Libya from becoming a funnel for migrants seeking to travel to Europe and described the current situation as an “emergency” despite numbers seeking to flee war and hardship in Africa and the Middle East falling dramatically from the height of the crisis in 2015.
“The Italian government will uphold the need to protect the frontiers to the south of Libya, because neither Libya nor Italy can be alone in shouldering the burden of the illegal immigration,” he said during news conference with Libya’s deputy prime minister Ahmed Maiteeg.
The EU is making plans to set up screening centres in a number of North African countries including Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt as part of the programme to cut migrant arrivals.
Italy is seeking to build on a deal struck with Libya in 2016 to stem the numbers of people trying to make the crossing from the north African coast. The deal – endorsed by the EU – saw Italy train and finance the Libyan coastguard to intercept vessels and return migrants.
Libyan coastguards picked up nearly 1,000 African migrants on inflatable boats and recovered ten bodies in a series of operations on Sunday, according to officials. Nearly 2,000 mainly African migrants have been brought back to Libya in the last week.
The policy has been controversial, with the Libyan authorities accused by rights campaigners of torture, imprisonment and slavery of those seeking to flee to Europe. Mr Salvini, however, promised to help Libyan authorities assert control over its territory waters, in a snub to foreign rescue ships operating in the area. Mr Salvini said he would convey the message to Europe “that Libya is not a problem but a great opportunity”.
The short visit to Libya followed an emergency weekend summit hosted by the European Union on migration which was overshadowed by a row between Mr Salvini and the French president Emmanuel Macron.
Mr Salvini described Mr Macron as arrogant and told him to “stop the insults” after the French leader had demanded that countries be fined for refusing to take migrants.
Mr Macron’s comments were prompted by the Italian government’s refusal this month to allow a rescue ship, the Aquarius carrying more than 600 people picked up from the Mediterranean, to land at its ports and forced it to detour to Spain.
The French leader said that the turmoil over migration was politically-driven. Only 42,000 people have arrived by sea so far this year - with both Italy and Spain receiving more than 16,000 – compared with more than one million migrants arriving in Europe in 2015, according to UN figures.
Following the controversy over the Aquarius, a second ship, the Dutch-flagged Lifeline with 230 migrants on board, was stranded in international waters on Monday after Malta and Italy again traded barbs over who was responsible.
Countries such as Italy and Greece have long complained that the EU is not doing enough to share the load of migrants landing predominantly on their shores. Italy proposed a quota system, but right-wing government in countries such as Hungary, Poland and Austria have railed against taking more migrants.
Italy is seeking to scrap what it calls “obsolete” rules and it wants to end the rule that sees the country that rescues migrants also being the one that processes asylum claims.
European leaders are due to meet later this week to try to thrash out a broader deal but the mini-summit revealed the extent of divisions within the 28-member bloc, with no pan-EU deal expected on the issue. The discussions have implications across Europe, with populist coalition partners of Angela Merkel seeking some form of deal on migration with the prospect of her feuding coalition breaking up over the threat.