Salvini claims ‘useful service’ for Italy at migrant trialFri, 12 Jan 2024 15:33:25 GMT

A defiant Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-right deputy prime minister, defended his hard line against illegal migration in court on Friday, saying he had done a “useful service” in blocking migrants from disembarking at an Italian port in 2019. Salvini, a partner in Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s coalition, is on trial on charges of deprivation of liberty and abuse of office for keeping 147 migrants at sea for several weeks on a ship operated by the Open Arms charity.The August 2019 blockade, which occurred while Salvini was interior minister in a previous government, made global headlines and drew condemnation from humanitarian groups.”What I did I did in full consciousness, I’m not inclined to offload my responsibility onto others. I believe I’ve done a useful service for the country,” he told the court in Palermo, Sicily.Salvini, also head of the League party, faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted in the trial, which began in October 2021. A populist known for an “Italians first” policy, the 50-year-old has repeatedly used attacks against illegal immigration to boost his political capital.In 2019, serving under prime minister Giuseppe Conte, he implemented a “closed ports” policy under which Italy refused entry to charity ships that rescue migrants stranded while crossing the Mediterranean.He cast it as a tough measure against traffickers who operate boats between North Africa and Italy and Malta, the deadliest migrant crossing in the world.In court Friday, Salvini read from a series of official emails and documents, seeking to demonstrate how the entire Conte government was behind the migration policy.At the time of the blockade, the League leader had been trying to unseat Conte, triggering a crisis in which Salvini himself left the government weeks later.Conte has previously testified in the trial that he tried to “exercise moral suasion” with Salvini, saying he considered that “the decision to keep them onboard had no legal basis”. – Dire conditions -The ship was stuck at sea for nearly three weeks before the migrants were finally allowed to disembark on the island of Lampedusa following a court order.Members of Open Arms have testified that the migrants’ physical and mental well-being reached a crisis point. Four desperate passengers jumped into the water as sanitary conditions onboard became dire, including a scabies outbreak.Salvini testified that, at the time, he understood that “the situation was not at risk” onboard the ship.And he claimed his policy delivered “results as never achieved before or since, not only in terms of fighting human trafficking but above all in terms of lives saved”.He told the court that migrant landings fell by 90 percent under the policy, introduced while Salvini was minister between mid-2018 and mid-2019, and that migrant deaths fell by half.Interior ministry figures show that around 120,000 migrants arrived on Italy’s shores in 2017, around 23,400 in 2018 and 11,500 in 2019. But migrant flows are influenced by many factors, including the political situation in North African nations from where many boats set off.Data from the UN’s migration agency shows that 2,337 migrants died or went missing across the entire Mediterranean in 2018 — not just in the waters off Italy — compared to 1,885 in 2019, 1,449 in 2020 and 2,048 in 2021.- European pressure -Salvini has long complained that Italy takes in a disproportionate share of migrants compared to its European neighbours — as has Meloni, who took office in October 2022.Questioned Friday by lawyers for civil parties in the case, Salvini said the Conte government had a policy of allowing migrants to disembark only once Italy had a guarantee from other EU countries that they would accept them.He said it “was a form of pressure” on European nations: “First the redistribution, then the landing, was absolutely the line of conduct of the government.”Salvini had faced a similar trial, accused of refusing to allow 116 migrants to disembark from an Italian coastguard boat in July 2019. But it was thrown out by a court in Catania in 2021.Meloni, leader of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party, has also vowed to stop the migrant boats. She has limited the actions of charity ships by making them perform just one rescue at a time and often assigning far-away Italian ports for docking.Last year more than 157,000 migrants landed on Italy’s shores, up from 105,000 in 2022, official figures show.