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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Italy's Salvini in Sicily to push new hard line on migration

The visit is a chance to boost League's image as municipal elections loom and to promote the core issue of the far-right party

Leader of the League party and Italian Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, poses for a photo as he walks through the crowd on the occasion of celebrations for Italy's Republic Day, in Rome Saturday, June 2, 2018. (Claudio Peri/ANSA via AP)
Leader of the League party and Italian Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, poses for a photo as he walks through the crowd on the occasion of celebrations for Italy's Republic Day, in Rome Saturday, June 2, 2018. (Claudio Peri/ANSA via AP)

Italy's new hardline interior minister Matteo Salvini will be in Sicily on Sunday at one of the country's main landing points for refugees in a bid to reinforce the anti-immigration platform that propelled him to power.

The head of the far-right League is on the road to back his party's candidates in municipal elections this month. His campaigning is also part of a broader effort for raise the traditionally secessionist party's profile in the country's poorer south.

But immigration is Mr Salvini's primary target, and the newly appointed deputy prime minister in Italy's populist coalition government has added a stop in the migration hot spot of Pozzallo.

The port in Sicily's south is one of the main places where military and humanitarian-funded boats bring refugees fleeing war, persecution and famine across North Africa and the Middle East.

A controversial agreement between Italy's former centre-left government and authorities and militias in Libya has triggered a fall in overall arrivals of about 75 per cent since last summer. But since the start of this year, Italian authorities have registered more than 13,500 arrivals.

The latest came late on Friday, just hours after Mr Salvini took his oath of office, with 158 people, including nine children, landing in Pozzallo after being rescued by a humanitarian boat in an operation co-ordinated by the Italian coastguard.

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Mr Salvini had said after being sworn in that he would ask his ministry's experts "how to reduce the number of arriving migrants and increase the number of expulsions".

"The good times for illegals are over - get ready to pack your bags," he said on Saturday at a rally in Italy's north.

"Countries need to start doing their job, and no more smugglers should be docking in Italian ports," he said in a swipe at the NGOs organising rescues at sea, which he has regularly accused of complicity with people traffickers.

Mr Salvini's fellow deputy prime minister, leader of the anti-establishment Five Star movement Luigi Di Maio, has also called rescue NGOs "taxis on the sea" although his rhetoric on immigration is more measured than that of the League.

To speed up deportations - there were just 6,500 last year - Mr Salvini will have to increase the number of detention centres and sign agreements with origin countries, many of which are not eager to re-receive their citizens.

In a bid to find funds, Mr Salvini is eyeing up the billions of euros set aside every year to deal with the needs of asylum seekers.

Last year, the former government announced a budget of about €4.2 billion (Dh18bn) for migrants, of which 18 per cent is for rescues at sea, 13 per cent for health care, and 65 per cent for migrant reception centres, which host about 170,000 people.

The centres, in particular, have attracted Mr Salvini's anger.

The vast majority of existing centres are run by co-operatives or NGOs that were promised €25 to €35 per day for each person they provide with lodging, clothes and other services including legal aid or psychological support.

Mr Salvini will be in Luxembourg on Tuesday for a meeting of EU interior ministers with the agenda set to be dominated by discussion of the EU's controversial Dublin rule - that stipulates would-be refugees must file for asylum in the first bloc member-state they enter.

The accord heavily penalises Italy, which has had more than 700,000 migrants arrive on its shores since 2013.

In early years the vast majority would continue their journeys to northern Europe but the introduction of EU-backed processing centres to ensure migrants are identified at their first European entry point and tighter border controls installed by France, Switzerland and Austria are now creating roadblocks along this well-worn route.

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