MILAN — Italy’s former firebrand 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 arriving in Italy each year across the perilous central Mediterranean Sea.
Salvini is sounding the alarm that the migrant reception center on the island, which would rather be known as a summertime tourist destination, is “collapsing,” with more than 1,500 people crammed into a space designed, by his count, for 357.
“An absolute shame for Italy and for Europe,” Salvini said, accusing his successor of hiding the actual numbers of migrants coming through Lampedusa with transfers to Sicily and elsewhere.
Salvini is making immigration a key part of his campaign for Italy’s parliamentary election next month. The Sept. 25th vote came after his right-wing anti-migrant League party, along with two other parties, yanked their support for outgoing Premier 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 dropped sharply as he pursued policies of deterrence, including instituting long government delays in assigning safe ports to rescue ships. He is currently on trial in Sicily, charged with kidnapping in one such case.
While his League led the right-wing coalition in Italy’s 2018 election, it sank in popularity after joining Draghi’s government. It is now lagging in the polls behind another right-wing coalition partner, 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 Sept. 25 vote, the leader of the party with the most votes would be tapped as premier to form a new government and lesser parties will vie for Cabinet seats. Meloni is seeking to become Italy’s first female premier.
Not everyone on the island of Lampedusa is keen to be part of Salvini’s electoral rhetoric. The island’s mayor is worried about the impact on tourism, and insists the current system of transferring migrants to Sicily and beyond was averting the emergency situations experienced during peak arrival years of from 2014 to 2016.
“The crucial element is not to slow down or jam the transfer to the mainland,” Mayor Filippo Mannino said.
Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman with the Italian offices of the International Organization for Migration, said while migrant arrivals are up this year by about one-third over 2021, they are still well below the 120,000 to 180,000 registered 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 have died or gone missing at sea this year.