Italian anti-immigration leader Matteo Salvini warned Thursday his country would not host "the refugee camp of Europe" as he visited a migrant centre on the tiny island of Lampedusa on a campaign stop for September elections.

Dozens of overcrowded boats have arrived in recent days on Lampedusa, whose location off the Tunisian coast has made it a landing point for thousands of migrants who cross the central Mediterranean each year.

Salvini, who leads Italy's League party, has made stopping the arrivals the cornerstone of his platform ahead of general elections on September 25, where he is expected to gain power as part of a right-wing alliance.

"Lampedusa is the gateway to Europe, it cannot be the refugee camp of Europe," he told reporters after visiting the island's migrant reception camp.

Salvini deplored conditions in the centre, which has a capacity of around 350 but which he said hosted 1,500 people this week, saying they were not "worthy of a civilised country".

Italy's Matteo Salvini has put stopping migrant boats at the heart of his campaign for September 25 elections
Italy's Matteo Salvini has put stopping migrant boats at the heart of his campaign for September 25 elections AFP / Andreas SOLARO

He promised that if his coalition wins next month, it would "return to controlling and protecting the borders and give a welcome to those who really flee war".

Like his political ally, Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni, Salvini wants to shift processing centres to countries where migrants set off, notably in north Africa.

"Who has the right to come to Italy, comes by plane, not on a boat risking his life. Those who do not have the right, do not come," he said.

Rescue charities have picked up more than 1,000 people in the central Mediterranean in the past few days
Rescue charities have picked up more than 1,000 people in the central Mediterranean in the past few days Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) via AFP / Handout

The central Mediterranean is the world's deadliest migration route, with almost 20,000 deaths and disappearances since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Many of those who survive end up on Italy's shores. The interior ministry has counted more than 42,000 migrant landings so far this year, up from almost 30,000 in the same period in 2021.

When he was interior minister in 2019, Salvini blocked several charity rescue ships carrying migrants from disembarking in Italy, under his party's "closed ports" policy.

The move saw him prosecuted in Sicily on charges of kidnapping and abuse of office, in an ongoing trial he has worn as a badge of honour.

Surveys suggest immigration is less of a concern for Italians than the rampant inflation squeezing already stagnant wages.

Migrants wait to board a ferry from the island of Lampedusa to Sicily
Migrants wait to board a ferry from the island of Lampedusa to Sicily AFP / Filippo MONTEFORTE

But Salvini is racing to boost the League's support, which stands at around 13 percent -- far behind the 23 percent of Meloni's post-fascist party.

The two parties are on course to enter government together in an alliance with Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, but their individual vote share will determine who wields the most power.

Salvini's visit sparked a clean-up at the Lampedusa reception centre, and AFP reporters saw around 200 migrants boarding a ferry to Sicily on Thursday, as part of regular ferries laid on by the government to ease overcrowding.

But many locals appeared unmoved by his arrival and the accompanying media circus.

"Many politicians have come to Lampedusa. Most of them make promises," said Salvatore Maggiore, a 47-year-old florist and ex-fisherman.

But he said many local people felt "abandoned", echoing concerns here about a lack of public services, notably health facilities.

The European Union ended its controversial operation to counter people trafficking in the Mediterranean in 2020, replacing it with Operation Irini, which is focused on policing the UN arms embargo on Libya.

Rescuing migrants is as a result largely left up to individual states, and a number of charities run rescue ships.

But the NGOs complain that countries ignore distress calls or even work with Libyan authorities to send migrants back.

SOS Mediterranee, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Sea-Watch -- who have picked up more than 1,000 people in the central Mediterranean in recent days -- warned Wednesday that the EU must step up.

The mayor of Lampedusa, Filippo Mannino, said the problem was too big for his island alone.

"There are some years that a few more migrants arrive and others when they arrive a few less, but the problem persists," he told AFP.

"What we are asking is that Europe should take charge of this problem. Europe and Italy."

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