By Emilio Parodi
MILAN (Reuters) - The governor of the northern Italian region of Lombardy wrote to local officials on Tuesday telling them not to accept irregular migrants sent from other parts of Italy as his right-wing party stepped up its campaign against immigration.
"It is unthinkable to send more immigrants to Lombardy before rebalancing the way they are distributed," regional governor Roberto Maroni from the anti-immigrant Northern League party wrote in a letter made public by his administration.
The Northern League, which consolidated its position as the strongest party on the right of Italian politics in last month's regional elections, has used the migrant crisis to attack Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's government.
Lombardy, the economic powerhouse of Italy and home to the business capital Milan, has led regions in the rich north in resisting quotas of migrants sent from overcrowded reception centres in the south, where most arrive by boat from Africa.
The interior ministry in Rome, which is responsible for accommodating the constant flow of migrants, has so far rejected calls from northern regions to freeze transfers.
The migrant crisis has become an increasingly divisive issue in Italy, which is struggling to pull out of a years-long recession that has left millions either unemployed or stuck in poorly paid temporary jobs.
Maroni, who was interior minister in the government of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, said Lombardy had the third-highest percentage of migrants in its reception centres of any region in the country.
"Already more than a fifth of regular immigrants present in Italy live in Lombardy, many of them looking for work," he said.
Milan city officials say the numbers of migrants who arrive in the city on their own, hoping to reach countries in northern Europe actually outweigh those who arrive in government-organised transfers from reception centres elsewhere in Italy.
The city's historic central railway station has been heavily frequented by groups of African and Syrian refugees, sheltering under its sweeping archways while they wait to continue their journey.
Italy has been on the front lines of the Mediterranean migrant crisis, seeing more than 50,000 people arrive this year, mostly in overcrowded fishing boats and rubber dinghies.
It has called repeatedly for more assistance from the European Union but has so far made little headway in persuading other EU countries to take in more of the arrivals.
(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Hugh Lawson)