Italy plans stronger moves to stop migrants, but cracks appearing in coalition

Italy’s government plans to throw more resources into its fight against boat migrants, an official said on Tuesday, as the number of new arrivals gathers speed, putting pressure on Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

After a sharp fall in migrant arrivals in recent months, numbers have picked up since June, with people-smugglers increasingly towing packed boats deep into international waters to escape especially the Italian-funded Libyan coastguard.

Previously the underpowered rubber dinghies had been pushed to sea from local beaches, which made it relatively easy for the Libyans to stop them before they left their territorial waters.

Italy is planning to boost its own sea and air patrols to try to spot traffickers before they leave local waters, and will give 10 motorboats to the Libyan coastguard.

Salvini also wrote to his Tunisian counterpart urging him to do more to stop departures from Tunisia and to accept back swiftly those caught fleeing.

Over the past 18 months, the largest number of migrants entering Italy have come from Tunisia, a change from previous years when the new arrivals came mainly from sub-Saharan Africa.

Since the start of 2019 more than 3,100 migrants have reached Italy, with nationals from Tunisia topping the list, followed by Pakistan, Ivory Coast, Algeria, Iraq and Bangladesh.

More than two-thirds of these have been picked up at sea relatively close to land by the Italian navy and coastguard, or else have come to shore directly.

Only about 10% have been transferred to Italy so far this year by charity rescue ships. This followed moves by Salvini to shut the nation’s ports to NGOs.

However two boats recently defied the ban, bringing migrants into Lampedusa.  Germany-flagged Sea-Watch 3 and Italian sailboat Alex have both been impounded and their owners face fines of around €50,000. But the move seems to have worked well for Sea Watch, as the charity saw donations surge in the wake of the arrest of Sea Watch 3’s captain.

As a result Salvini was reported to want to raise the threshold for potential fines €1m. However, Salvini does not control the courts, which have leaned towards a less hardline approach. Also, it was unclear whether the League’s coalition senior partner, 5-Star, would accept such a rise. Salvini complained at the weekend that 5-Star ministers were not helping enough to tackle the sea-borne migrants. He said that he felt “left alone” in his fight. The response from 5-Star leader Luigi Di Maio was: “Salvini feels alone? Then let’s send him a teddy bear”.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called a meeting of ministers on Wednesday “to coordinate action by the various ministers and to avoid any overlaps or misunderstandings arising, according to the PM’s office.