ROME (AP) — Italy’s populist interior minister returned from a quick trip to Libya on Monday expressing confidence in his decision to close Italian ports to migrants while pressuring the rest of Europe to help the North African country secure its borders.
Matteo Salvini chose the Libyan capital of Tripoli for his first official visit abroad to hammer home his commitment to suppressing the mass migration that has fueled anti-migrant sentiment across Europe and brought his xenophobic League party to power.
Salvini called for United Nations-backed and European Union-funded centers to screen asylum applicants in nations that border Libya — primarily Chad, Niger and Sudan — but not in Libya itself or Italy.
He also vowed to help Libyan authorities assert control of their territorial waters to prevent Europe-bound migrants from departing and to keep migrant aid groups based in Europe out of the way.
“This is the point of absolute convergence with Libya: Block the business of clandestine migration,” Salvini told reporters in Rome after he returned home.
Libya was plunged into chaos following the 2011 uprising that ousted and led to the slaying of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The country now is split between rival governments — one, backed by the United Nations, based in Tripoli, the other in the country’s east — and each is supported by an array of militias.
It also has become a common jumping off point for migrants who try to cross the Mediterranean Sea to escape poverty and conflict in Africa and the Middle East. Other spots in North Africa also have become alternative points of departure for boats attempting to navigate the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain.
Spain’s Maritime Rescue Service reported that it rescued more than 600 people Monday, for a total of 1,400 in three days. Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska plans to travel to Morocco on Thursday to discuss the influx.
Libya’s coast guard rescued some 1,000 migrants on Sunday, including dozens of women and children. Ahmed Maiteeg, the deputy prime minister of the U.N.-backed Libyan government, said during a news conference with Salvini that all of them received humanitarian and medical aid and were taken to a naval base in Tripoli and a refugee camp in the town of Khoms.
Salvini praised the Libyans for their “excellent work” and vowed to halt European aid groups with rescue ships in the Mediterranean. The Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms complained that Italy refused its offer Sunday to help bring to safety the people who ended up with the Libyan coast guard.
Amnesty International condemned the Italian government for handing over responsibility for the mission to Libya, alleging the migrants would be tortured anew in Libyan detention centers.
Salvini denied migrants were being tortured, branding reports of widespread human rights violations in Libyan centers as “lies and rhetoric.” He said he toured a new U.N.-run facility due to open next month and that it had the same amenities as an Italian migrant holding center.
Italy is committed, he said, to “blocking the full-on invasion of those associations that would like to substitute the government and authorities, and in fact help illegal migrant traffickers.”
Salvini has accused private aid groups of operating as sea taxi services for Libya-based smugglers and closed Italy’s ports to their ships, including one from the German aid group Mission Lifeline that has been stuck off Malta since Thursday with 234 migrants aboard.
The Italian minister challenged France — a loud critic of his anti-migrant policies — to open its port in Marseille to the Mission Lifeline ship, saying: “There’s a boat full of migrants in Maltese waters that’s waiting to be welcomed.”
Late Monday, another ship with migrant passengers — the Danish-flagged container ship Alexander Maersk — was given permission to dock and disembark in Sicily after four days at sea.
The International Chamber of Shipping, an industry trade association, has voiced concern about Italy’s crackdown on non-governmental organizations, The chamber says the move will put a greater burden on commercial merchant ships to carry out rescues and ultimately affect trade.
Libya’s Maiteeg announced Monday that a migration and security conference will be held in Tripoli in September. Salvini readily endorsed the program.
He promised to return before then to hand over new equipment for Libya’s coast guard and said a technical committee would soon be meeting on Libya’s southern border to assess the creation of asylum-screening “hotspots” to prevent migrants from entering Libya in the first place.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini urged EU member states to contribute to an Africa trust fund to finance the screening centers, mirroring a 2015 deal that was designed to encourage Turkey to stop refugees setting out for the Greek islands.
Salvini said he thought a reasonable funding target for the African hotspots would be 6 billion euros ($7 billion, around double the cost of the Turkey deal.
Before Italy’s new coalition government was installed on June 1, Italy already worked to bolster the Libyan coast guard’s ability to patrol its coasts and to bring back migrants who launched from its shores.
Human rights organizations have criticized the practice, alleging that migrants are abused in Libya and the North African country hardly constitutes a “safe” port of call, as called for by international law.
Associated Press writer Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed to this report.