ROME – Heartened by recent election successes by an anti-immigrant party, Italian politicians based in the north vowed Sunday not to shelter any more migrants saved at sea, even as hundreds more were being rescued in the Mediterranean from smugglers' boats in distress.
Elsewhere in the country, however, corruptions investigations have revealed that some local officials gleefully see a cash cow in the shelters.
After nearly 3,500 migrants were rescued in a single day Saturday by an array of European military vessels, well over 1,000 more were being plucked to safety from at least 14 boats that ran into difficulty Sunday shortly after smugglers set off with them from Libyan shores, said a U.N. refugee agency official, Federico Fossi. Two German military ships brought a total of some 1,400 people to Sicilian ports Sunday, a day after they were rescued.
Mayors of Sicilian and other southern towns have warned for months they've run out of room for migrants, and thousands of the rescued are being resettled in shelters in central and northern Italy while their asylum requests are processed. The migrants flee poverty, persecution and war in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Among the north-based Italian politicians refusing to accept more migrants Sunday was newly-elected Liguria Gov. Giovanni Toti. 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 balloting for governorships a week ago.
In Lombardy, whose capital is Milan, Italy's financial center, longtime League leader, Gov. 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.
Fueling pledges to welcome no more migrants in their regions was a warning Saturday from Britain's defense secretary, Michael Fallon, that hundreds of thousands of migrants might be in Libya, poised to attempt the perilous sea crossing over the summer months.
Another U.N. refugee agency official, Carlotta Sami, called such figures speculation. But Northern League leader Matteo Salvini cited the huge figure when he spoke about "an alarm" of a flood of migrants.
Also pledging his region won't accept more rescued migrants was Veneto Gov. Luca Zaia, a Northern League proponent who scored a resounding victory for a second term in the May 31 vote. "First of all, we must do away with the illusion that we can support and manage a biblical exodus," he said in an interview in Corriere della Sera daily Sunday.
Zaia contended his northeastern Veneto region, home to many family-run or medium-sized businesses, had no more room for migrants.
According to Interior Ministry figures, as of early May, Veneto was sheltering some 3,000 rescued migrants, or 4 percent of the national total. By comparison, Sicily, where unemployment is chronic, was sheltering 16,000 migrants for 22 percent of the total, while the more affluent region of Lazio, including Rome, had about half that number, for 12 percent, and Maroni's Lombardy had some 6,600, or 9 percent of the total.
While these politicians in the north were saying no to more migrants, corruptions investigations have showed that other Italian politicians and local officials see the shelters as a way to make money.
Last week, 44 people, including local politicians from the center-left to the center-right in the Rome area, were arrested for investigation of alleged corruption or tampering with public contract bidding. The Rome-based probe, which netted dozens of arrests a few months ago in an earlier chapter, examined public contracts for social services, including for asylum-seekers at a migrant center in Sicily.
In intercepted phone calls, one suspect was heard referring to migrant shelters as a "cow to milk" for money.
Rome daily La Repubblica on Sunday reported that prosecutors in Florence, the Tuscan capital, and in Bari and Catania in the south were also scrutinizing contracts for feeding and sheltering migrants. It put costs this year at more than 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion), about 40 percent more than was spent last year, when Italy rescued 170,000 migrants from smugglers' boats in the waters off Libya.
Most of the migrants want to reach family or other support networks in northern Europe. They are supposed to stay in Italy until asylum applications are evaluated, although thousands slip away from the shelters and make their way to Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and elsewhere.