The move came after almost 10,000 migrants reached the southern Italian island of Lampedusa last week, dealing a blow to the credibility of right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who won office last year vowing to curb illegal immigration.
Meloni said at the start of a cabinet meeting on the situation that migrants awaiting repatriation should be detained for an initial six months, extendable to up to 18, up from three months now.
“That will be all the time needed not only to make the necessary assessments, but also to proceed with the repatriation of those who do not qualify for international protection,” Meloni said in her introductory speech.
Government sources said the cabinet approved that measure shortly afterwards, as well as the creation of more detention centres in remote areas. Meloni said Italy needed to increase the capacity of such facilities as they had been weakened by “years of immigrationist policies”.
Under Italian law, migrants facing repatriation can be held if they cannot be immediately expelled. Officials say a majority of migrants head to Italy for economic reasons and are therefore not eligible for asylum.
Meloni visited Lampedusa on Sunday with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who promised a 10-point EU action plan, but the measures resembled previous initiatives that have failed to make much impact. An agreement struck in July between the EU and Tunisia, from where many of the migrants set sail, has yet to take effect.
Almost 130,000 migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year, nearly double the figure for the same period of 2022. The migrants have come from countries including Pakistan, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Egypt, Burkina Faso and Bangladesh.