ROME (AP) — European rescue boats were bringing hundreds of migrants saved at sea to Italian ports Sunday, prompting the country’s center-right politicians to vow that their regions won’t shelter any more of them.
Arriving were many of the nearly 3,500 migrants rescued a day earlier in the Mediterranean Sea from unseaworthy boats launched by Libya-based smugglers.
Newly-elected Liguria Gov. Giovanni Toti was among the north-based Italian politicians refusing to accept more migrants while asylum requests are evaluated. Toti’s candidacy was backed by his mentor, former center-right Premier Silvio Berlusconi, and by the anti-immigrant Northern League party, which was bolstered by results in the regional balloting a week ago.
A longtime League leader, and Lombardy governor, Roberto Maroni, asked followers on Twitter if they agreed with him that “Lombardy mayors must refuse to welcome clandestine migrants” sent by the national government or else face regional funding cuts as punishment.
Mayors of cities and towns in the south have warned for months they’ve run out of room for migrants who disembark in Sicily and other southern ports after rescues by Italian and other European military vessels, as well as cargo ships and boats run by humanitarian organizations.
Fueling pledges to welcome no more migrants in their regions was a warning Saturday from Britain’s defense secretary, Michael Fallon, that the numbers of migrants coming to Italy’s shores could increase further. Aboard the British warship HMS Bulwark in the search-and-rescue mission, Fallon said hundreds of thousands of migrants were believed to be in Libya and could take smugglers’ boats across the Mediterranean this summer.
A U.N. refugee agency official, Carlotta Sami, on Sunday called such figures speculation, but stressed that certainly “thousands” of migrants were in Libya hoping to leave by sea.
Italian authorities investigating Libya-based smuggling operations say reliable intelligence is hard to come by, given Western diplomats have long left Libya, wracked by violence following the 2011 demise of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.
At the G-7 summit in Germany Sunday, British Prime Minister David Cameron said his nation would not “walk on by” when people were in danger. He said the summit will see discussion about “how we try and put a Libyan government together” as a way to combat the trafficking.
European Union leaders have been grappling for a strategy to combat the traffickers in Libya. Germany, with two ships in the search-and-rescue mission Saturday, said four smuggler boats were destroyed after a total of 1,411 migrants were taken to safety.
Rome-based investigators, meanwhile, are alleging systematic kickbacks for public contracts to feed and shelter migrants.
Last week, 44 people, including local politicians from the center-left to the center-right in the Rome area, were arrested for alleged corruption. The probe examined contracts for social services, including for asylum-seekers at a migrant center in Sicily. In intercepted phone calls, one suspect is heard referring to migrant shelters as a “cow to milk” for money.
Geir Moulson in Berlin and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report
Frances D’Emilio can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/fdemilio