Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Sunday that she is trying to build a broad international alliance to fight human trafficking and that illegal migrant flows harm all countries in the Mediterranean.
Meloni, known for her tough stance against migrants, softened her rhetoric at an international conference in Rome. "Europe and Italy needed immigration," she said, adding that the government was open to taking in more people legally.
But she added that more needs to be done to prevent the dangerous crossing of migrants across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.
Drawing attention to human trafficking, Meloni said: "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."
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen echoed Meloni's point about offering legal routes into the 27-nation European Union (EU).
Last week, the EU and Tunisia signed a "strategic partnership" agreement on tough measures against people smugglers and tightening borders. It pledged €1 billion ($1.1 billion) in aid to Tunisia.
"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.
Von der Leyen said she would like to work with countries like Tunisia, where migrants are leaving, to expand renewable energy production for the benefit of all.
Addressing the crowd in St. Peter's Square early Sunday, Pope Francis called on European and African governments to help everyone so that people stranded in the desert in North Africa and trying to cross the Mediterranean will never again experience the "theater of death."
Mediterranean countries, especially Italy, which hosted the conference, are struggling to cope with unauthorized migrants. Yet European countries with aging populations need migrants. For this, they are trying to create regular migration plans.
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 to around 34,000 in the same period in 2022.