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Meloni, Italy’s anti-immigrant leader, swims in turmoil as migrant flows spike under her watch

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni rose to power after years of harsh rhetoric about the dangers of allowing illegal immigrants to enter the country. She's now in charge, but the number of migrants is growing.

PALERMO, Sicily (CN) — After nearly a year at the helm, the anti-immigrant far-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is facing her first major political crisis after thousands of migrants aboard dozens of small boats began overwhelming the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa this week.

The arrival of so many migrants is undermining Meloni's image as the ardent champion of Italy's right-wing nationalists who see migration as Italy's biggest threat.

“It is becoming a bigger and bigger source of political embarrassment for her and also it's starting to create some tension within the ruling coalition,” said Wolfango Piccoli, an analyst at Teneo, a London-based political risk firm.

By Wednesday, more than 7,000 migrants, most of them fleeing poverty and conflict in Africa, had reached Lampedusa, overwhelming an island with a population of 7,000.

Although the island has long been a destination for migrants due to its proximity to North Africa, this week's influx was seen as among the most chaotic in many years. Filippo Mannino, the island's mayor, declared a state of emergency as he blasted Meloni and European Union leaders for not doing enough to help.

The scenes from Lampedusa were chaotic. Videos showed aid workers struggling to house and feed all the migrants crowding into the migrant center. A 5-month-old girl drowned when her boat turned over close to shore. Police at times had to use force to contain crowds. Migrants were seen clambering over walls to get out of the center, built to house 400 people.

By Friday, boats continued to arrive, with reports saying about 300 more migrants had made it to the island. More migrant boats, many of them leaving from Tunisia, were expected to continue arriving in the coming days.

To ease Lampedusa's crisis, large vessels have been ferrying migrants to other ports in Sicily, where they are then taken to processing centers elsewhere in Italy. Early Friday morning, a bus carrying about 80 migrants to Piedmont in northern Italy crashed just north of Rome, killing two bus drivers and injuring 25 passengers.

All of this is particularly problematic for Meloni, as the leader of the ultra-nationalist Brothers of Italy, a party that has long made stopping the flow of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants a core part of its political message, which critics call xenophobic.

But Meloni's record on stopping migrants is turning out to be the opposite of what she promised.

This year, Italy has recorded more than 126,000 people who've arrived seeking asylum in the European Union. Last year, Italy had about 66,000 such arrivals; in 2021, there were about 42,000.

Meloni's plan to stop migrants relies on paying African nations to keep people from leaving for Italy. This policy has been blasted as inhumane and a violation of humanitarian laws.

In July, she traveled to Tunisia with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to sign a migration deal with Tunisia's authoritarian leader, Kais Saied.

But this week, most of the boats arriving in Lampedusa reportedly left from Tunisia, leading her critics to blast the deal with Tunis. This year, more than half of the migrants who've arrived in Italy left from the North African nation.

“The deal with Tunisia is not working because the arrivals from Tunisia this year are up 360%,” Piccoli said. “They will have to review the whole deal.”

Piccoli said Meloni is facing trouble for the first time in her premiership. On top of the increase in migrants, Italy's economy is showing signs of slowing down. “So, it is a bit of a double blow," the analyst said.

Still, she enjoys strong support in polls and her opponents on the left are fractured and weak, Piccoli added.

But the crisis over Lampedusa is opening cracks within her coalition.

Meloni is the head of a government that includes Matteo Salvini, the leader of another radical party on the right, the League.

And what's happening in Lampedusa has opened a window for Salvini to criticize Meloni and score political points against a rival who managed to take his place as Italy's most popular right-wing politician.

Relishing this moment to present himself as truly tough on immigration, Salvini has called the influx of migrants to Lampedusa “an act of war” against Italy by human smugglers and suggested the Italian navy needs to patrol the Mediterranean waters and push boats back to Africa.

In 2018, then serving as interior minister, Salvini drew condemnation by forbidding non-governmental humanitarian vessels from unloading people they had picked up at sea at Sicilian ports. That decision landed him in trouble with Italian prosecutors, who filed criminal charges against the minister.

On Friday, Salvini was in Palermo, the capital of Sicily, for a hearing in the trial over his vessel blockade. He used the occasion to rail against migration. His supporters held a banner outside the court that read: “Hands off Salvini: The only one to stop illegal immigrants.”

After three days of silence, on Friday evening Meloni released a video in which she said Italy would take extreme measures to handle the influx of migrants and she invited von der Leyen, the EU head, to go to Lampedusa with her to see how bad the situation is. She added that Europe and Italy cannot take in millions of people seeking to flee Africa's problems by finding refuge in Europe. Instead, she said Europe must provide asylum only to those who can be legally defined as refugees and that a system for assessing asylum claims should be established in Africa. She also urged the EU to move quickly to finalize the deal with Tunisia, which stipulates giving Tunis $286 million to stop migrants.

The chaos on Lampedusa poses political risks for Meloni as right-wing news outlets, including Frances's Fox-like CNEWS, run stories from the island about the dangers of untrammeled migration and portray the migrants as only seeking entry to Europe to take advantage of welfare systems.

On Friday, Marion Maréchal-Pen, a rising star among far-right circles and the niece of France's far-right presidential contender Marine Le Pen, toured Lampedusa and blamed liberals for encouraging migrants to make the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean.

Piccoli said Meloni faces difficult decisions on how to handle the wave of migrants. For example, she would risk angering EU leaders if she tried to impose blockades or use harsh tactics against migrants.

Since becoming prime minister, Meloni has unexpectedly moderated her far-right politics and not antagonized Brussels and Washington, a balancing act that has won her a lot of praise in her first year in office.

“It is difficult to be tough,” Piccoli said. “It would create complications in terms of European partners. It would create backlash if suddenly we started seeing pictures of migrants drowning. She's a bit trapped here at the end of the day.”

Still, Piccoli said Meloni's government could try to speed up procedures for determining which migrants are eligible for asylum and which can be deported. She could also work to establish more centers to house and process migrants, he added.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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