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Italy's Meloni gets tough on migrants

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ROME — Italy's right-wing government has launched a crackdown on immigration, passing measures to give authorities power to detain migrants for as long as 18 months, and ordering the construction of new centers to house them.

The hard-line reforms follow a surge in arrivals by boat this month, with more than 10,000 people landing on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, a number greater than its usual resident population.

Lampedusa, just over 100km off the coast of Tunisia, is the gateway to Europe for many migrants seeking a new life.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni came to power a year ago promising to curb immigration but arrivals have almost doubled in 2023, year on year, according to government data.

On Monday, the Rome cabinet passed measures to increase the length of time illegal migrants can be held from three to 18 months, according to an official in the prime minister's office. Ministers also approved the construction of new detention centers intended to hold all those who arrive without a visa until they are deemed to have a right to asylum or are repatriated.

"We will have all the necessary time not just to do the necessary checks but also to proceed with the repatriation for those without the right to international protection," Meloni said. The battle against immigration is "an epochal battle for Italy and Europe," she said.

On Friday in a video message she said that coups, natural disasters, grain war and jihadism, as well as an economic crisis in Tunisia, had contributed to "unsustainable immigration pressure" on Italy. The conditions "could cause tens of millions of people to seek a better life in Europe, she claimed. "Evidently, though, Italy and Europe cannot take in this enormous mass of people."

She said she wanted to "send a message" to would-be migrants. "It does not make sense to trust traffickers, because they will take a lot of money, put you on a boat that is unfit for the journey and once you get here you will be detained and sent back." 

The Lampedusa crisis provided the perfect excuse for Meloni to appease her base with the crackdown on migration.

The new measures are intended to work in combination with a plan to fight trafficking with increased surveillance, and a European naval mission to block departures announced by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Sunday during a visit to the island with Meloni.

The leader of the opposition democrats, Elly Schlein, called the increase in detention times "a hateful choice." In a letter to La Repubblica she said such measures in the past had not helped increase repatriations. She called for "safe and legal" ways to reach Europe.

Repatriation efforts have not been successful in the past. Between 2014 and 2020, only around 20 percent of those who subjected to a repatriation order left the country, according to the OpenPolis think-tank.

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