By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) – 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.
Some 47 migrants were brought to shore before dawn by an Italian police patrol vessel, while a charity ship rebuffed by Italy picked up 44 people in the central Mediterranean and said they would be transferred to Malta later in the day.
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 were pushed to sea from local beaches, making it relatively easy for the Libyans to stop them before they left their territorial waters.
To clamp down on this, 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, who has built much of his political credibility on a drive to halt migrant flows, 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, some 3,126 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.
Barely 300 have been transferred to Italy so far this year by charity rescue ships following moves by Salvini to shut the nation’s ports to non-governmental organisations.
However two boats have defied the ban in the past two weeks, bringing migrants into Lampedusa. The German-flagged Sea-Watch 3 and Italian sailboat Alex have both been impounded and their owners face fines of around 50,000 euros ($56,000).
The Sea-Watch charity saw donations surge in the wake of this latest showdown and a government official, who declined to be named, said Salvini wanted to hike the threshold for potential fines to one million euros to counter this phenomenon.
It was not clear if his coalition partner, the 5-Star Movement, would accept such a rise. Salvini complained at the weekend that 5-Star ministers were not helping enough to tackle the sea-borne migrants, saying he felt “left alone”.
“Salvini feels alone? Then let’s send him a teddy bear,” 5-Star leader Luigi Di Maio said on Monday.
Looking to smooth the friction, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has called a meeting of ministers on Wednesday.
“The meeting was convened to coordinate action by the various ministers and to avoid any overlaps or misunderstandings arising,” Conte’s office said in a statement.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer and Chris Scicluna in Malta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)