MILAN (AP) — Italy’s former interior minister Matteo Salvini is campaigning to get his old job back with a stop Thursday on Italy’s southernmost island of Lampedusa, the gateway for tens of thousands of migrants who arrive in Italy each year through of the dangerous central Mediterranean sea.
Salvini is sounding the alarm that the migrant reception center on the island, which would rather be known as a summer tourist destination, is “collapsing”, with more than 1,500 people crammed into a space he estimates is designed for 357.
“An absolute shame for Italy and Europe,” Salvini said, accusing his successor of concealing the true number of migrants coming through Lampedusa on transports to Sicily and elsewhere.
Salvini is making immigration a key part of his campaign for Italy’s parliamentary elections next month. The Sept. 25 vote came after his right-wing anti-immigration League party, along with two other parties, won support for outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s 17-month-old pandemic unity government.
During Salvini’s short but dramatic tenure as interior minister in 2018-19, migrant arrivals in Italy plummeted as he pursued deterrent policies, including imposing long government delays in assigning safe ports to rescue ships. He is currently on trial in Sicily, accused of kidnapping in one such case.
While his League led the right-wing coalition in Italy’s 2018 election, it fell in popularity after joining Draghi’s government. It is now lagging behind another right-wing coalition partner in the polls, the far-right Brothers of Italy led by Giorgia Meloni.
Now, Salvini is fighting for his political relevance. If the right-wing coalition wins the September 25 vote, the leader of the party with the most votes will be chosen as prime minister to form a new government and smaller parties will vie for cabinet seats. Meloni is seeking to become Italy’s first female prime minister.
Not everyone on the island of Lampedusa wants to buy into Salvini’s election rhetoric. The island’s mayor is concerned about the impact on tourism and insists the current system of transporting migrants to Sicily and beyond prevented the emergencies experienced during the peak arrival years of 2014 to 2016.
“The critical element is not to slow down or block transport to the mainland,” said Mayor Filippo Mannino.
Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman for the Italian offices of the International Organization for Migration, said that while migrant arrivals were up this year by about a third compared to 2021, they were still well below the 120,000 to 180,000 recorded annually from 2014-2016. .
“These are not emergency numbers. We are not facing a numerical emergency. But we are facing a humanitarian emergency,” Di Giacomo said, citing 905 people who died or went missing at sea this year.
David Lohmueller in Lampedusa, Sicily, and Paolo Santalucia in Rome contributed.
Follow all AP stories on global migration issues at https://apnews.com/hub/migration.