By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) – Italy wants a United Nations arms embargo on Libya to be lifted to help the North African state battle people smugglers and halt the flow of migrants seeking a better life in Europe, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said on Thursday.
Salvini, leader of the far-right, anti-immigration League, told reporters he did not want to see any more migrant boats leave Libyan shores bound for Italy, adding that European allies needed to do much more to help shut down the sea route.
“My aim is not to have even one boat come here,” he told reporters after talks with Libyan Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeg. “The goal is for people who have the right to come to Italy, to come here by plane, preferably in first class.”
More than 640,000 migrants have landed on Italian shores since 2014. Although the numbers have fallen dramatically in the past year, Salvini has pushed migration to the top of the political agenda, helping propel his party into government.
He said one of his priorities was to see the lifting of the arms embargo on Libya, which was introduced in 2011 as the country descended into turmoil following the downfall of its long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi.
“People smugglers and arms smugglers obviously ignore it and arm themselves as they wish, while the only ones who are blocked are the legitimate authorities,” he said, adding that two Libyan naval boats were stuck in an Italian port because of sanctions.
Maiteeg echoed the call. “We do not accept that people say Libya is not helping with immigration but at the same time keep in place an embargo that is hindering us.”
Salvini issued instructions on Thursday to Italian commissions responsible for processing migrants’ requests for permission to stay, telling them to be careful not to issue too many permits on the grounds of humanitarian protection.
He noted that these had increased by 28 percent so far this year. “I have personally asked for speed and attention in welcoming those who are really fleeing from war, but also that those who don’t have the right to stay should be blocked,” he said in a tweet, writing the last word in capital letters.
Salvini visited Libya last month soon after taking office and said he would visit the country again shortly, as well as other North African states.
“If we don’t block the flows from the south, it is a problem for everyone, so I hope next Thursday to awaken Europe’s conscience on the need to intervene urgently,” he said, referring to a scheduled meeting of EU interior ministers. “The situation is dangerous.”
A recent group of new migrants to Italy had been expelled, he said, with the government setting aside more resources for mass deportations. But he said he wanted humanitarian corridors to be made available for genuine asylum seekers.
“I have always said I am in favour of humanitarian corridors and will continue to be so. I want a regulated, safe and sound immigration process for those who have a right to come to Italy.”
(Editing by Catherine Evans and David Stamp)