"Lampedusa is the gateway to Europe, it cannot be the refugee camp of Europe," said Salvini.
Italy's controversial former interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has tried to put migration on the agenda ahead of the country's snap election next month.
He visited Italy's southernmost island, Lampedusa, and claimed just 15% of current migrant arrivals qualify as refugees.
Salvini also voiced concern that a migrant reception centre on Lampedusa was nearing collapse due to overcrowding, calling it “unworthy of a civilized country”.
The centre has a capacity of around 350, but there are currently 1,500 people staying there.
"Lampedusa is the gateway to Europe, it cannot be the refugee camp of Europe," Salvini told reporters after a visit to the island on Thursday.
"Who has the right to come to Italy, comes by plane, not on a boat at the risk of his life. Who does not have the right, does not come", added the leader of the League political party, which wants asylum requests to be made in the countries that the migrants are leaving.
Italy's forthcoming election
Salvini is pledging a return to his tough-on-immigration policies should the right-wing coalition win the 25 September parliamentary vote.
The early elections were forced 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 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 the charges were thrown out in another.
“I remember that in 2018, 2019, immigration was absolutely under control. The fight against human traffickers and smugglers was absolutely effective," Salvini said.
While his League led the right-wing coalition in Italy's 2018 election, it sank in popularity after joining Draghi’s consensus government.
It is now lagging badly in the polls behind another right-wing coalition partner, the far-right Brothers of Italy led by Giorgia Meloni.
That leaves Salvini fighting for political relevance. If the right-wing coalition wins the 25 September vote, the leader of the party with the most votes would be tapped as premier to form a new government.
Is migration a problem in Italy?
The central Mediterranean is the deadliest migration route in the world, with nearly 20,000 deaths and disappearances since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Italy has recorded more than 42,000 migrant landings since 1 January, compared to nearly 30,000 in the same period last year and 14,400 in 2020.
And the pace doesn't seem to be slowing down. The NGOs SOS Méditerranée, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Sea-Watch have rescued more than 1,000 people at sea in recent days.
MSF's Geo Barents ship is currently transporting 659 people, including more than 150 children.
After nine days at sea, the Italian authorities allowed it to dock in the port of Taranto, MSF announced on Thursday.
"This prolonged period of blockage at sea is one of the longest ever experienced by our team. This must not happen again," the NGO tweeted.
In a joint statement issued on Wednesday, the NGOs called on the EU to resume search and rescue activities to help them respond to the influx of migrants.
The EU ended its controversial operation to combat human trafficking in the Mediterranean in 2020, replacing it with Operation Irini on maintaining the UN arms embargo on Libya.
"The removal of European search and rescue resources (...) has proven to be deadly and ineffective in preventing dangerous crossings," regretted Xavier Lauth, director of operations of SOS Méditerranée.