Matteo Salvini has for more than a week refused to let 148 migrants disembark a rescue boat docked in an Italian port. Now the country’s anti-immigrant interior minister is facing a probe into their potential kidnapping.
Salvini, the leader of the far-right Lega party, has been locked in a high-stakes stand-off with the European Union and his country’s own president over the fate of the migrants, who were rescued from an overcrowded boat on the Mediterranean last Wednesday.
Despite calls to allow the migrants on board to leave the vessel for humanitarian reasons, Salvini has insisted they will not set foot on Italian soil.
On Wednesday, Luigi Patronaggio, a prosecutor in Sicily where the ship is docked, boarded the vessel, then announced he had opened a kidnapping probe against “unknown” persons for detaining the migrants against their will.
In a radio interview Thursday, a defiant Salvini shot back, saying he was not concerned about the probe.
“There’s a court that is investigating whether those illegally on board the ship have been kidnapped,” Salvini said. “I’m not unknown. My name is Matteo Salvini... I’m the Interior Minister and I think it is my duty to defend the security of this country’s borders.”
Salvini sees the fate of the 148 migrants on board the Diciotti as a key test of his pledge to stop the flow of illegal migrants into Italy across the Mediterranean, as an estimated 650,000 have done in recent years. Since the Diciotti picked up the boatload of desperate migrants last Wednesday, most of whom hail from Eritrea and Somalia, 13 have been allowed off for medical treatment, before 27 unaccompanied minors were also allowed to leave the ship Wednesday night.
But Salvini has vowed that no one else would be allowed to set foot on Italian soil, and that they would only be allowed off the ship if other European countries agreed to take them, or they will be sent back to Libya, the main departure point for smugglers’ boats to Italy.
“In Italy, no way, like in Australia,” he said in a Facebook video Thursday, referring to Australia’s hardline immigration policy that sees all arrivals by boat turned away to offshore detention centers. “Italy is no longer Europe's refugee camp.”
Salvini’s hardline stance, which he says is in adherence with the mandate given to him by voters in March’s general election, has set him at odds with other key power brokers, including Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella, and members of Lega’s coalition partner, the Five Star Movement.
Mattarella, whose role is largely ceremonial, made a rare political intervention last month to defuse a similar standoff by allowing nearly 70 migrants off the Diciotti after another rescue.
Salvini said Wednesday he wouldn’t allow a repeat of that, vowing to resign if the migrants were allowed to leave the ship.
“Either you change the country, or you change the minister,” he said in a video message.
The standoff has sent the European Union scrambling to find a solution, with officials from a dozen countries convening an emergency meeting Friday to try to negotiate who will accept the migrants.
Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s other deputy prime minister and leader of the Five Star Movement, threatened Thursday that his government will suspend funding to the European Union next year unless other countries offer to accept the migrants.
Cover image: Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini visits the Morandi motorway bridge site one day after a section collapsed in Genoa on August 15, 2018. (PIERO CRUCIATTI/AFP/Getty Images)