Migration will be top of the agenda when Italy’s hard-line Interior Minister Matteo Salvini meets US Vice President Mike Pence during a trip to Washington.
Speaking ahead of their meeting on Monday, the anti-immigrant Italian politician told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that he has been “following closely” the US “approach against illegal migration” but added that separating children from their parents is where he would draw the line.
“We try as far as possible not to divide families, children by law cannot be sent away from the country,” Salvini, who is also Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister, said in an interview Thursday. “That said, I cannot teach President Trump how to deal with things – I’m happy with how we’re dealing with our migration crisis in Italy.”
The Trump administration’s so-called “zero tolerance” policy has resulted in thousands of people being taken into federal custody after crossing the southern US border. Many families have been separated – often from their parents, and officials are trying to reunite potentially thousands of separated families.
Salvini shares Trump’s concerns about Iran, saying Italy has stopped working on an economic basis with the Middle Eastern country.
“This is a country that believes that they can erase another country (Israel) from the face of the earth,” Salvini said. “This cannot be someone we can have a dialogue with,” adding that the Iran nuclear deal, from which the US is partially withdrawing from, should “be reconsidered.”
Salvini told CNN he hopes to also speak to Pence about the “political situation in Libya, Iran, Venezuela” and potential partnerships between both countries.
Since coming to power in 2018, the 46-year-old has turned into a major player in Italy’s fractious coalition government – consisting of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and Salvini’s hard-right League.
He has since spearheaded a series of anti-immigrant policies and implemented law and order measures reminiscent of Italy’s fascist past, such as dismantling migrant and Roma camps.
Under Salvini, illegal immigration to Europe via Italy has fallen massively. Just over 23,000 irregular crossings from North Africa to Italy were detected last year, an 80% decrease from 2017.
The minister’s latest salvo is the promotion of a decree that could see migrant rescue ships face fines of up to $57,000 for entering Italian waters without authorization.
UN investigators said the decree would “seriously undermine the human rights of migrants,” but Salvini doubled down on the decision, accusing rescue organizations such as Sea-Watch of not following the law and working “together with human traffickers.”
He said vessels were “saving people close to Tunisia or Malta, far from Italy” but were traveling “twice as long” in order to reach Italy and disembark migrants on its shores.
“Saving lives is not a right, but a duty for everyone. After that, you need to follow laws, international conventions, orders from various forces at sea,” he added.
Sea-Watch has previously challenged the interior minister’s closure of ports to rescue ships run by NGOs and has defended its rescue of migrants in distress at sea. “We have not broken any law, on the contrary, we have once more upheld the law of the sea and the Geneva Refugee Convention!,” it said in a Facebook post.
“Sea rescue is not a crime,” added the organization, which is suing Italy in the European Court of Human Rights for barring its ships from docking.
Italy’s standoff with migrant rescue ships reached its apex last summer when a number of vessels, some carrying hundreds of people, were stuck out at sea for days with nowhere to dock. Earlier this year, Sea-Watch accused Italian authorities of inventing irregularities to block its ship from leaving the port of Catania, delaying its return to patrolling the Mediterranean Sea.
Salvini reiterated his inflammatory rhetoric about migrants during the interview, falsely claiming that “there are neighborhoods in [the French city of] Marseille where Sharia [law] is implemented.” He added that he agreed with comments once made by the Archbishop of Bologna that it was better to have “migration from countries which culturally speaking are closer to ours.”
In last month’s European parliamentary elections, Salvini’s League party picked up more than 34% of the vote, while coalition partners Five Star lost ground.
On Thursday, France’s Marine Le Pen unveiled a new far-right group in the European Parliament that included Salvini’s party, Reuters reported.
The newly named Identity and Democracy (ID) group is the fifth-largest grouping in the European Parliament.
But Salvini ruled out early elections in Italy off the back of the League’s electoral success.
“I have no other ambitions, but to keep the promises I’ve made,” he said. “We can maybe talk about this in a few years’ time.”