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Dozens of migrants rescued at sea as Italy closes key migrant centre

Andreas Solaro, AFP | Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini at the Mineo migrant welcome centre, July 9, 2019.

Italy's hard-line interior minister Matteo Salvini on Tuesday closed a migrant centre in Sicily he called the largest in Europe, while underlining the decrease in migrants since the populist government took office a year ago.

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Salvini, who is also deputy prime minister, 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. He also added that asylum requests had halved to about 30,000.

The centre 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.

Salvini 'demonstrating he's in control'

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. These figures include the 47 migrants brought to shore in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo early on Tuesday by Italy's police.

More migrants rescued at sea

Salvini’s announcement came as the Alan Kurdi migrant rescue boat saved another 44 lives -- including women and children -- from their stricken vessel in the Mediterranean.

Malta has agreed to take in those rescued and is sending a vessel to pick them up, the German charity Sea-Eye and ship’s operator said on Tuesday.

It brings the total number of people rescued by the Alan Kurdi ship to over 100 in recent days after it picked up 65 shipwrecked migrants last week.

Those migrants were also taken to Malta, with Italian ports closed to humanitarian rescue ships on Salvini’s orders.

Stand-offs

There have been dozens of stand-offs with rescue ships attempting to dock in Italy 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.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP)

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