Giorgia Meloni has admitted that her efforts to control immigration have been “disappointing”, a year after she was elected Italy’s first female prime minister.
The leader of the hard-Right Brothers of Italy party, who was elected in September 2022 partly on the basis of her pledge to crack down on unauthorised migration, said she had hoped to do much better on the issue.
Far from putting a dent in the arrivals, the number of migrants has surged. More than 132,000 have reached Italy so far in 2023 compared with 70,000 in the same period in 2022.
“Clearly we hoped for better on immigration, where we worked so hard,” she told Italian television, ahead of Monday’s one-year anniversary of her election victory. “The results are not what we hoped to see. It is certainly a very complex problem but I’m sure we’ll get on top of it.”
The Meloni government has shown itself to be as powerless as previous administrations to stop the exodus of boats from Tunisia and Libya, with ministers describing it as “an invasion of biblical proportions”.
Funding for Tunisia
The government had a small success on Friday when the European Commission announced that it was unlocking €127 million (£111 million) in funding for Tunisia, part of a deal signed in July 2023 in which the North African country will receive financial assistance in return for stopping migrant boats crossing the Mediterranean.
Ms Meloni was instrumental in drawing up the accord, along with Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Commission. Critics pointed out, however, that much of the funding would come from ongoing programmes that were drawn up before the migrant deal was signed.
The sight of thousands of migrants, mostly sub-Saharan Africans, arriving on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa and overwhelming its small reception centre has dealt a stinging blow to the promises Ms Meloni made a year ago to resolve the problem.
Ministers admit that cutting the number of arrivals is a key priority. “The government’s problems right now are immigration, inflation and the economy,” said Guido Crosetto, the defence minister.
Ms Meloni has called for an EU naval blockade to intercept and turn back migrant boats, but the Mr Crosetto was sceptical whether that would work. Warships would simply end up rescuing migrants from their leaky vessels and “doing the work of the NGO boats” by transporting them to European shores.
Ms Meloni’s main coalition partner, Matteo Salvini of the anti-immigration League party, has been dismissive of EU efforts to manage the surge of arrivals and is agitating for a tougher approach.
‘Deal with it ourselves’
Andrea Crippa, deputy head of the League, said on Sunday that diplomatic efforts to stop the boats, including the accord with Tunisia, had so far failed.
“We are going to have to deal with it ourselves, using the means available to Italy,” he said. “We need to return to the repatriation policy.”
Mr Crippa, described by one newspaper as “the League’s bulldozer” for his forthright comments, said Italy was still not receiving enough help from the EU. The Meloni government is trying to boost the repatriation of migrants who are not eligible for asylum, including by building new detention centres and extending the time that migrants can be held there.
The centre-Left Democratic Party, the main opposition force, said earlier this week that “on immigration, the Italian Right has failed.
“It continues on a path that is demagogic and consciously cynical, but above all totally ineffective both in the respect and safeguarding of human rights, and for the protection of Italy’s interests,” the party said.
The Italian press was no less damning.
La Repubblica, a Left-leaning daily, said on Sunday that the government’s policy on unauthorised migration had been “a huge flop”.
It said that the government’s policies, “from the proposed naval blockade to closing the ports, from mass repatriations to pacts with African dictators, have brought about one of the worst ever results, certainly for a government that had promised to stop the boats”.
The centrist Corriere della Sera newspaper commented: “After a year in power, Giorgia Meloni is like a football team in the Champions League for the first time: at the end of the first half, it has not scored a goal. Now the second half is about to start and the public is murmuring ‘I’d hoped for better’.”