Illegal flows of migrants are damaging all countries across the Mediterranean, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Sunday, as she sought to forge a broad alliance of nations to fight human trafficking.
Softening her past hard-line rhetoric, Meloni told an international conference in Rome that her government was open to taking in more people through legal routes as "Europe and Italy needed immigration."
But she said more needed to be done to prevent migrants trying to make the perilous Mediterranean crossing via unauthorised means.
"Mass illegal immigration harms each and every one of us. No one benefits from this, except criminal groups who get rich at the expenses of the most fragile and use their strength even against the governments," she said.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen echoed Meloni's point about offering legal routes into the 27-nation European Union (EU).
The EU and Tunisia, a major departure point for migrants, last week signed a "strategic partnership" deal that includes cracking down on human traffickers and tightening borders.
Europe has pledged 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) in aid to help Tunisia with its battered economy, with 100 million euros speficially earmarked for tackling illegal migration.
"We want our agreement with Tunisia to be a template. A blueprint for the future. For partnerships with other countries in the region," von der Leyen told the conference.
The EU could work with countries such as Tunisia in expanding their production of renewable energy to the benefit of all, she added.
Mohamed al-Menfi, head of Libya's Presidential Council, called for help from richer nations.
"We are ready to participate in the effective way to stop the suffering of migrants," he said.
POPE SPEAKS OUT
Speaking to crowds in nearby St. Peter's Square earlier on Sunday, Pope Francis called on European and African governments to help migrants trapped in desert areas in north Africa and to ensure that the Mediterranean was never again "a theatre of death" for those attempting to cross.
Conference host Italy is struggling to cope with the number of unauthorised migrants arriving in centres such as its far southern island of Lampedusa.
However, it also has an ageing and declining population and needs additional workers to support its economy.
Earlier this month, Italy pledged to issue 452,000 new work visas for non-EU nationals from 2023 to 2025, increasing the number of permits available each year to a high of 165,000 in 2025. In 2019, before COVID struck, Italy issued just 30,850 visas.
Arrivals in Italy are surging this year with over 83,000 people coming ashore so far compared with around 34,000 in the same period in 2022.
"We have to solve the migratory issue at its roots," Foreign Ministry Antonio Tajani said.
"We have to confront each other on the big issues of climate change, the fight against terrorism, diseases, poverty."