Italy's new hardline interior minister Matteo Salvini arrived yesterday in Sicily, one of the country's main refugee landing points, to push the anti-immigration platform that propelled him to power.
The head of the far-right League is on the road seeking to rally support for his party's candidates in municipal elections later this month, as part of a broader effort to boost the traditionally secessionist party's profile in the country's poorer south.
But immigration is Salvini's primary bugbear and the newly minted deputy prime minister in Italy's populist coalition government added a stop in migration hotspot Pozzallo.
The port town in Sicily's south is on the front line as one of the main landing points for refugees fleeing war, persecution and famine across North Africa and the Middle East.
A controversial agreement between Italy's former center left government and authorities and militias in Libya has triggered a fall in overall arrivals of some 75 percent since the summer of 2017. But so far this year Italian authorities have still registered more than 13,500 arrivals.
The most recent came late Friday, just hours after Salvini took his oath of office, with some 158 people, including nine children, landing in Pozzallo after being rescued by a humanitarian boat in an operation coordinated by the Italian coast guard.
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 is over, get ready to pack your bags," he said 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 organizing rescues at sea, which he has regularly accused of complicity with people traffickers.
He added during a stop in Catania that the new government would "not take a hard line on immigration but one of common sense."
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, of which there were just 6,500 in 2017, Salvini will have to increase the number of detention centers and sign agreements with origin countries, many of which are not eager to take refugees back.
In a bid to find funds, Salvini is eying the billions of euros set aside every year to deal with the demands of the asylum seekers.
In 2017, the former government announced a budget of some 4.2 billion euros for migrants, of which 18 percent is for rescues at sea, 13 percent for health care, and 65 percent for migrant reception centers, which host some 170,000 people.
The centers in particular attract Salvini's ire. The vast majority of existing centers are run by cooperatives or NGOs who were promised 25-35 euros per day for each person they provide with lodging, clothes and other services including legal aid or psychological support.
Salvini will be in Luxembourg tomorrow for a meeting of EU interior ministers with the agenda set to be dominated by discussion of the EU's controversial Dublin rule, whereby would-be refugees must file for asylum in the first bloc member-state they enter. The accord heavily penalizes Italy, which has seen more than 700,000 migrants arrive since 2013.
Previously, the vast majority would continue their journeys to northern Europe, but the introduction of EU-backed processing centers 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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