Italy called on Monday 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 much tougher approach to immigration.
However, the internationally-recognised government of Libya rejected suggestions that the centres be sited in the country, the departure point for most migrants trying to reach Europe by sea.
The new Italian government has closed its ports to charity ships operating in the Mediterranean, saying the EU must share the burden of disembarking the hundreds of migrants who are plucked from waters each month, mostly off the Libyan coast.
Italy, which lies close to Libya, has taken in 650,000 boat migrants since 2014. Its tough new approach has aggravated EU tensions over immigration policy, undermined Europe’s Schengen free-travel area and created concerns among EU investors.
“Reception and identification centres should be set up (in or to) the south of Libya,” Italy’s anti-immigration interior minister, Matteo Salvini, said on a visit to Libya on Monday.
Speaking to reporters after meeting his Libyan counterpart, Abdulsalam Ashour, and the country’s deputy prime minister, Salvini thanked Libya’s coastguard for its “excellent work” in rescuing and intercepting migrants.
In a statement, he added that the EU should fund efforts in Africa to stop uncontrolled migration to Europe.
The Tripoli-based government, which does not control the whole of Libya, was unwilling to host reception centres. Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeg said that while his government was ready to tackle migration, “we completely reject any migrant camps in Libya”.
As EU leaders prepare to discuss immigration policy in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, Italy’s refusal to accept charity-run rescue ships has 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 stuck in international waters in the Mediterranean. And a private cargo ship, the Alexander Maersk, has been waiting to be assigned a port since it picked up 113 migrants off southern Italy on Friday, the ship owner said.
Earlier this month, a vessel carrying more than 600 migrants on board was stranded before it was accepted by Spain.
EU TENSIONS CLIMB
Italy’s anti-immigration stance, criticised by human rights groups who say its risks lives at sea, chimes with calls elsewhere in the EU which took in more than a million refugees and migrants in 2015 alone.
The tensions have reached Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel faces a revolt by Bavarian conservative allies who want to take a tougher line on immigration from Africa.
“The chancellor is working with European partners to discuss European solutions,” government spokesman Steffen Seibert said on Monday, after she and several other EU partners failed to find a way through at a weekend meeting.
The risk that Merkel’s allies could desert her on migration has unnerved investors, who sold off Italian bonds on Monday and bought safe-haven German Bunds, which tend to perform strongly in times of trouble in the euro zone.
However, the tougher line demanded by the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) has failed to win much popular support, according to an opinion poll which showed it on track for its worst ever performance in regional elections in October.
Andrea Nahles, leader of the Social Democrats, the junior partner in the German coalition, said she doubted Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the CSU were still capable of governing together.
The coalition is due to meet on Tuesday to discuss the immigration dispute.
In Italy, Salvini’s actions and rhetoric have been popular with voters, with his right-wing League party extending its political reach in a second round of municipal elections on Sunday.
Salvini’s opponents accuse him of playing on fear, noting that crossings have fallen sharply since last July, after the previous Italian government targeted people-smuggling networks and Libya’s EU-trained coastguard stepped up interceptions.
Around 11,000 migrants have arrived in Italy from Libya so far this year, down more than 80 percent from the same periods in 2016 and 2017, Italian interior ministry data shows.
For a graphic on migrant sea crossings http://tmsnrt.rs/2r3fFjQ
Interceptions of migrant boats by Libya’s coastguard have surged over the past week, with almost 1,000 African asylum-seekers picked up in one day on Sunday.
The interceptions have been criticised by human rights activists because of the dire conditions facing migrants in widely lawless Libya, where they often face physical abuse including torture and rape.
“We’ll do all we can to make sure it’s the Libyan authorities that patrol Libyan waters,” Salvini said, accusing some non-government rescue organisations of helping human traffickers.
France has criticised Italy’s approach, telling Rome on Monday that international law obliged it to let the stranded migrant rescue vessel Lifeline dock.