Italian right calls for end to migrant rescue programme
By Benjamin Fox
Italian right-wing politicians have called for the country's programme to rescue North African refugees from the Mediterranean sea to be scrapped after figures suggested that 1,100 immigrants had been rescued in the past two days.
The figures are the highest since Italy launched a naval operation known as "Mare Nostrum" (Our Sea) last October to rescue would-be migrants at sea in the wake of two shipwrecks off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa which killed more than 600 people.
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Since its creation, Mare Nostrum has rescued more than 20,000 people from the Mediterranean at an estimated cost of €9 million a month, according to Italian media reports.
Following the Arab Spring in 2011, which sparked a series of revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, hundreds of thousands of refugees and economic migrants have attempted to cross the Mediterranean sea into Europe.
The issue is likely to become a focal point in Italy's European election campaign over the coming weeks after Matteo Salvini, head of the anti-immigration Northern League party, called for the operation to be scrapped, saying "Italian citizens end up financing the people smugglers and an invasion of our coasts."
Meanwhile, Maurizio Gasparri, a former minister in Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, described the programme as an "expensive and maniacal operation" which "must be immediately stopped," in a statement on Tuesday (22 April).
The Italian government continues to call for more EU help in patrolling the Mediterranean, together with greater burden-sharing of refugees between EU countries. Southern states Portugal, Spain and Malta have also called for greater financial support from the EU.
Migratory pressure across the Mediterranean "is far from diminishing, it is increasing", said ministers from Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain, following a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Spain last week.
For its part, the EU's border patrol agency Frontex has provided €7.1 million for its Italian operations so far this year out of a total budget for 2014 of €89 million.
Angelino Alfano, Italy's interior minister, has said that more than 60,000 migrants will land in Italy from North Africa this year, a higher number than ever before.
“This is not just an Italian issue, we will fight in Europe to defend this border properly,” he said last week, calling for more EU assistance.
However, Senator Luigi Manconi from the governing centre-left Democratic Party, head of the human rights committee in parliament, has played down the scale of the problem and criticised the Italian government's response.
"We are not facing an invasion, absolutely not. We have to criticise ourselves for not putting in the necessary measures in time," he said.