Italy approves new migrant detention as talk turns to naval blockade to prevent launching of boats

The measures approved by the Cabinet focused on migrants who don’t qualify for asylum and are slated to be repatriated to their home countries. The government extended the amount of time such people can be detained to the EU maximum of 18 months. It also plans to increase the number of detention centers to hold them, since capacity has always been insufficient and many of those scheduled to be returned home manage to head farther north.

Premier Giorgia Meloni announced the “extraordinary measures” after Lampedusa, which is closer to Tunisia in North Africa than the Italian mainland, was overwhelmed last week by nearly 7,000 migrants in a day, more than the island’s resident population. Italy has been offloading them slowly by ferry to Sicily and other ports, but the arrivals once again stoked tensions on the island and in political corridors, especially ahead of European Parliament elections next year.

Amid the domestic and EU political jockeying, Meloni resurrected campaign calls for a naval blockade of North Africa to prevent human traffickers from launching their smuggling boats into the Mediterranean. Meloni was on hand in Tunis in June when the European Commission president signed an accord with the Tunisian government pledging economic aid in exchange for help preventing departures.

A similar accord was signed years ago with Libya but human rights groups have blasted it as a violation of international maritime law, insisting that Libya isn't a safe port and that migrants intercepted by the Libyan coast guard are returned to detention centres where abuses are rife.

Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse
The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, left, and Italy's Premier Giorgia Meloni, right, address the media during a joint press conference. - Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse

Meloni visited Lampedusa on Sunday with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who took a hard line cheered by Meloni's supporters.

“We will decide who comes to the European Union, and under what circumstances. Not the smugglers," Von der Leyen said as she laid out a 10-point plan that included a pledge of support to prevent departures of smuggling boats by establishing “operational partnerships on anti-smuggling” with countries of origins and transit.

The plan envisages a possible “working arrangement between Tunisia and Frontex,” the EU border force with air and sea assets that currently assist search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, and a coordinating task force within Europol.

The Commission hasn't ruled out the possibility that a naval blockade is under consideration. “We have expressed the support to explore these possibilities" raised by Italy, Commission spokeswoman Anitta Hipper said Monday.

Under the deal von der Leyen signed with Tunisia, the EU pledged to provide funds for equipment, training and technical support “to further improve the management of Tunisia’s borders.” For example, the funds are helping to pay for the refurbishment of 17 vessels belonging to Tunisian authorities.

The latest influx is challenging unity within the EU, its member states and also in Meloni’s far-right-led government, especially with European elections looming. Some member countries have objected to the way von der Leyen pushed the Tunisia plan through and complain that they were not properly consulted.

But even in Italy, it's controversial. Vice Premier Matteo Salvini, head of the populist, right-wing League, has challenged the efficacy of Meloni's EU-Tunisia deal and hosted French right-wing leader Marine Le Pen at an annual League rally in northern Italy on Sunday. Just a few days earlier, Le Pen's niece and far-right politician Marion Marechal was on Lampedusa blasting the French government's response to the migration issue.

Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse
Rescued migrants stand in a boat of the Italian Finance Police before disembarking at the port of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, southern Italy, Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. - Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse

The French government of Emmanuel Macron has shifted right on migration and security issues, and on Monday, his interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, was heading to Rome for meetings. Darmanin said before he left that France would help Italy maintain its border to prevent people from arriving but was not prepared to take in migrants who have arrived in Lampedusa in recent days.

’’Things are getting very difficult in Lampedusa. That’s why we should help our Italian friends. But there should not be a message given to people coming on our soil that they are welcomed in our countries no matter what," he said on France’s Europe-1 radio.

‘’Our will is to fully welcome those who should be welcomed, but we should absolutely send back those who have no reason to be in Europe," he said, citing people arriving from Ivory Coast or Guinea or Gambia, saying there is no obvious political reason to give them asylum.