Italy’s new coalition government had a diplomatic row on its hands on its first full working day on Monday after Matteo Salvini, the interior minister, accused Tunisia of sending “convicts” in migrant boats across the Mediterranean.
Mr Salvini, the head of the anti-migrant, hard-Right League and also a deputy prime minister, made the remarks on Sunday during a visit to Pozzallo, a port in Sicily where rescued migrants are brought ashore.
It was his first official trip – the government was only sworn in on Friday, ending three months of political deadlock.
Angered by the comments, the Tunisian government called in the Italian ambassador on Monday, expressing “profound amazement for the remarks of the Italian interior minister regarding immigration.”
Tunis said Mr Salvini’s comments “do not reflect the cooperation between the two countries in the management of immigration and indicate an incomplete knowledge of the various mechanisms of coordination that exist between the Tunisian and Italian authorities”.
During his visit to a migrant reception centre, Mr Salvini said he could see no reason why Tunisians were turning up on Italian shores because Tunisia was “a free and democratic country where there is no war, famine or pestilence.”
The North African country was deliberately encouraging its “convicts” to try to reach Europe, he claimed. He used an Italian word that can also mean “felons” or “good-for-nothings”.
Mr Salvini was due to be in Luxembourg on Tuesday for a meeting of EU home affairs ministers, who will discuss the EU’s asylum system.
But he cancelled what would have been his debut on the international stage because the upper house of the Italian parliament will hold a confidence vote in the new coalition, an uneasy alliance between The League and the Five Star Movement.
He said an Italian delegation would attend instead and would vote against proposed EU reforms because “instead of helping Italy, they will further penalise us and the other countries of the Mediterranean, favouring the interests of northern Europe.”
Mr Salvini has vowed to make good on his election campaign promise to swiftly step up the pace of migrant repatriations.
He claims there are up to half a million unauthorised migrants in Italy and that the country can no longer afford to care for them.
Just a few thousand failed asylum seekers were expelled last year and that is far too little, he said.
At the present rate of repatriations, it would take 80 years to resolve the problem, he said.
He has demanded that other EU states accept far large numbers of refugees for resettlement.
“Either Europe gives us a hand to make our country safer, or we will have to choose other avenues,” he wrote on Twitter on Monday.
Italy will no longer be "Europe’s refugee camp" and “the party is over” for migrants, Mr Salvini said.
In the last five years, around 700,000 migrants and refugees have been rescued at sea and brought to Italy, with concerns over migration fueling the rise of The League.
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The party won 17 per cent of the vote at the general election in March but that support has now surged to 28 per cent, polls suggest.
The diplomatic row came as the death toll from a migrant boat that sank off the Tunisian coast at the weekend rose to more than 100.
A total of 68 survivors were rescued from the boat, but it was believed to be carrying more than 180 people.