Sunday 16 December 2018

Fresh wave of migrants strains the unity of Italy's new populist coalition

Some of the 67 migrants rescued at sea disembark from the Italian coast guard ship. Photo: AP
Some of the 67 migrants rescued at sea disembark from the Italian coast guard ship. Photo: AP

Nick Squires

Italy's treatment of a group of asylum seekers rescued in the Mediterranean exposed simmering tensions within the country's populist government yesterday.

The 67 migrants were plucked from the sea this week by an Italian-flagged merchant ship, then transferred to a coastguard patrol vessel and disembarked in Trapani, Sicily on Thursday.

Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister and head of the hard-right League party, had delayed their disembarkation for hours, calling for police to question two African migrants alleged to have made death threats against the crew of the Vos Thalassa because they feared being sent back to Libya.

But in a rare intervention, Sergio Mattarella, Italy's president, demanded the migrants be allowed off the ship for humanitarian reasons. The request was acted on by Giuseppe Conte, the prime minister, a former law professor who was picked as a neutral intermediary between the League and its coalition partners, the Five-Star Movement.

Mr Salvini expressed "regret and amazement" at the intervention by the president.

But Luigi Di Maio, the head of Five Star and also a deputy prime minister, said the head of state's decision should be respected.


Mr Salvini's strident rhetoric and his decision to ban NGO rescue ships from Italian ports has led to a dramatic rise in support for the League.

But it has been criticised by some MPs from the Five-Star Movement, which has a strong centre-left element, straining the coalition.

Roberto Fico, a high-profile Five Star figure, has spoken out against Mr Salvini's decision to force NGO rescue ships to head to Malta and Spain.

"I would not close the ports," he said two weeks ago during a visit to Pozzallo, Sicily, praising "extraordinary work" done by humanitarian groups in the Mediterranean.

Publicly the two parties insist there are no differences, but the extraordinary rise of Mr Salvini and the League is a direct threat to Five Star, which was the senior partner with more votes at the general election.

The migrants who disembarked in Sicily denied that they had made threats to the crew. "We didn't attack anyone," a spokesman said.

Meanwhile, a fresh crisis loomed yesterday with the arrival in the Mediterranean of a boat carrying 450 asylum seekers, which Mr Salvini said was Malta's responsibility. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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