Italy will, for the first time in years, refuse to let a humanitarian ship carrying more than 600 migrants and refugees dock at its ports and has asked the Mediterranean island of Malta to open its doors to the vessel, government officials said Sunday.
The move by Italy's new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who is also head of the far-right League, represents an opening gambit to make good on his electoral promises to halt the flow of migrants into the country.
"Malta takes in nobody. France pushes people back at the border, Spain defends its frontier with weapons," Salvini wrote on Facebook. "From today, Italy will also start to say no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration."
More than 600,000 migrants have reached Italy by boat from Africa in the past five years. Numbers have dropped dramatically in recent months, but rescues have increased in recent days, presenting Salvini with his first test as interior minister.
"My aim is to guarantee a peaceful life for these youths in Africa and for our children in Italy," Salvini said, using the Twitter hashtag "We are shutting the ports."
However, Salvini does not have authority over the ports and it was not immediately clear if his line would hold. The mayor of Naples, who has repeatedly clashed with the League leader, said he would welcome in the humanitarian boat. "Naples is ready, without funds, to save lives," he said.
European charity SOS Mediterranee said on Twitter earlier on Sunday that its rescue boat Aquarius had taken on board 629 migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women.
The United Nations estimates that at least 500 people have died in 2018 trying to cross the central Mediterranean, following some 2,853 fatalities last year.
Salvini has accused the charities of acting as a "taxi service" for the migrants. On Friday, he called on NATO to help Italy defend its southern shores.