MILAN (AP) — Italy's hard-line interior minister on Tuesday closed a migrant center in Sicily he called the largest in Europe, as he underlined the decrease in migrant arrivals since the populist government took office a year ago.
Matteo Salvini told reporters in Mineo, Sicily that the number of migrants in centers across Italy has gone down from 182,000 a year ago to 107,000. Asylum requests had halved to about 30,000, he said.
The center in Mineo has been slated to close for years, with prosecutors uncovering illegal activities inside including an alleged Nigerian drug trafficking ring. It was also part of a huge bribery and kick-back scandal involving migrant housing. Mineo at one point held as many as 4,000 migrants.
Salvini said that its closure would free up hundreds of thousands of euros a day in public money as well as law enforcement resources — even though one of the reasons that the previous government didn't close Mineo was due to its role as an employer and economic driver for the area.
Interior Ministry figures show that 3,073 migrants arrived in Italy so far this year, many from Tunisia and Pakistan. That compared with 17,000 in the same period last year and 85,000 a year earlier. Those figures include 47 migrants brought to shore in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo early Tuesday by Italy's financial police.
Salvini has refused to allow humanitarian rescue ships into Italian ports, resulting in dozens of stand-offs since the populist government took office in June 2018. But some migrant boats continue to arrive in Italy on their own, and are dubbed "ghost arrivals" by the media.
Salvini insisted that every arrival was counted.
"They can be big, medium or small, NGO, children, wooden boats, sail boats, paddle boats. The interior ministry counts them all. There is no such thing as 'ghost ships,'" Salvini said.
Earlier Tuesday, Salvini sent a letter to his counterpart in Tunisia notifying him that repatriations would be accelerated.