Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has said she was ‘astonished’ to learn of a German government initiative to finance migrant rescue charity groups operating in the Mediterranean in a letter to Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
A surge in migrant boat landings on the Italian island of Lampedusa earlier this month sparked a debate across Europe about how to manage arrivals.
The right-wing Meloni is pursuing a hard line against illegal immigration but Italy has seen a surge in migrant arrivals this year with some 133,000 coming ashore so far against around 69,800 in the same period in 2022.
As part of her efforts, Meloni’s government has sought to limit the activities of charity rescue ships operating in the central Mediterranean, the world’s deadliest sea crossing for migrants, drawing the ire of others within the EU.
Meloni’s letter is dated Sept. 23 and was made public on Monday after Defence Minister Guido Crosetto, a senior figure in Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, also took aim at Germany for supporting the charities in an interview on Sunday.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni (pictured) has said she was ‘astonished’ to learn of a German government initiative to finance migrant rescue charity groups operating in the Mediterranean in a letter to Chancellor Olaf Scholz
Meloni’s letter to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (pictured) is dated Sept. 23 and was made public on Monday after Defence Minister Guido Crosetto, a senior figure in Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, also took aim at Germany for supporting the charities in an interview on Sunday
The right-wing Meloni is pursuing a hard line against illegal immigration but Italy has seen a surge in migrant arrivals this year with some 133,000 coming ashore so far against around 69,800 in the same period in 2022. Pictured: A Italian Coast Guard boat carry migrants near the port of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, southern Italy, September 18
‘I have learned with astonishment that your administration – without coordinating with the Italian government – has allegedly decided to support with substantial funds non-governmental organisations engaged in the reception of irregular migrants on Italian territory and in rescues in the Mediterranean Sea,’ Meloni wrote.
She suggested on-land help would be better conducted in Germany than Italy.
She repeated her accusation – strongly denied by NGOs – that charity rescue boats acted a ‘pull factor’ for migrants making the deadly sea crossing from North Africa.
She said EU nations who wanted to help Italy manage irregular migration would be better to focus on ‘structural solutions’, including working with transit countries to stop the flows.
Crosetto said the NGOs only pick up around five percent of arrivals into Italy.
On Monday, a German foreign ministry spokesman said Berlin’s financial support for the NGOs ‘wasn’t a surprise for anyone’ as it was funding approved by parliament.
‘Our Italian partners were also informed at the time about it. It has taken some time for the various NGOs worthy of funding to be selected,’ they said.
That has now occurred and thus the funds are being distributed,’ the spokesman said during a regular government media briefing.
A surge in migrant boat landings on the Italian island of Lampedusa earlier this month sparked a debate across Europe about how to manage arrivals. Pictured: Boats used by migrants to cross the Mediterranean sea are abandoned on the beaches of Lampedusa, September 25
Wooden crosses made with the remains of boats used by migrants to cross the Mediterranean sea are seen in the cemetery where victims of shipwrecks are buried, on the island of Lampedusa, September 25
A spokesperson for the German foreign ministry said on Friday Berlin was implementing a parliamentary financial support programme for both civilian sea rescue and projects on land, and had completed the review of two applications.
It also said rescuing people at sea is a ‘legal, humanitarian and moral duty’.
The German foreign office confirmed to AFP news agency it was providing between 400,000 euros and 800,000 euros each to two projects relating to migrants.
The projects were ‘for the support on land in Italy of people rescued at sea and an NGO project for sea-rescue operations’, a spokesperson said.
The news of Germany’s funding sparked anger among Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigration League party, which shares power with Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party.
Meloni’s defence minister, Guido Crosetto, also weighed in, saying it was a ‘very serious’ move that put Italy ‘in difficulty’.
The criticism comes after Berlin temporarily stopped accepting migrants living in Italy, after Rome itself suspended EU rules governing the distribution of migrants.
Meloni last week signed off on new measures to lengthen the time migrants can be detained and increase the number of detention centres in an effort to deter them from embarking on sea crossings from North Africa.
Her government also ruled migrants would have to pay to avoid detention while their request for protection is being processed.
‘I believe that the efforts, including financial, of EU nations interested in providing concrete support to Italy should rather focus on building structural solutions to the migration phenomenon,’ Meloni said in her letter to Scholz.
She said Germany, governed by a centre-left coalition, should rather concentrate on assisting migrants on its own soil, adding that the presence of charity boats at sea can incentivise migrant trips that often result in shipwrecks and casualties.
The impact of the migrant crisis across Europe has been laid bare in a map
Migrants arrive in the harbour of Italian island of Lampedusa, on September 18, 2023
Migrants arrive at ‘Molo Favarolo’ in Lampedusa, southern Italy, September 18 2023
Thousands of people have perished while making the treacherous crossing from North Africa to Europe, with the Mediterranean in June described as a ‘mass graveyard’ after a boat carrying up to 750 migrants capsized.
In February, a migrant boat capsized off the coast of Italy, killing dozens of people, with survivors accusing traffickers of throwing children into the ocean to try and lighten their boat and escape the coastguard.
Over the weekend, Meloni admitted she had hoped to do ‘better’ on controlling migration, which has surged since her party won historic elections a year ago.
‘Clearly we hoped for better on immigration, where we worked so hard,’ she said in an interview marking the win, broadcast late Saturday on the TG1 channel.
‘The results are not what we hoped to see. It is certainly a very complex problem, but I’m sure we’ll get to the bottom of it.’
Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy party was elected in large part on a promise to reduce mass migration into Italy.
After 8,500 people arrived on the tiny island of Lampedusa in just three days earlier this month, Meloni demanded the EU do more to help relieve the pressure.
Brussels agreed to intensify existing efforts, and this week said it would start to release money to Tunisia – from where many of the boats leave – under a pact aimed at stemming irregular migration from the country.
But 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 that he dubbed an ‘act of war’.
While interior minister in a previous government in 2019, Salvini blocked several charity ships from disembarking rescued migrants in Italy, a move that saw him prosecuted in Sicily on charges of kidnapping.
Since taking office in October, Meloni’s government has restricted the activities of the ships, which it accuses of encouraging migrants, while vowing to clamp down on people smugglers.
Italian firefighters and Red Cross personnel gather at the scene where bodies of migrants washed ashore following a shipwreck, at a beach near Cutro, Crotone province, southern Italy, 26 February 2023
A view of part of the wreckage of a capsized boat that was washed ashore at a beach near Cutro, southern Italy, Monday, February 27, 2023
It has also sought to boost repatriation of arrivals ineligible for asylum, including by building new detention centres and extending the time migrants can be held there.
It emerged this week it would also be requiring migrants awaiting a decision on asylum to pay a deposit of 5,000 euros or be sent to a detention centre, prompting accusations the state was charging ‘protection money’.
The centre-left Democratic Party 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,’ it said in a note.