Italian Defense Minister Guido Crosetto said on Monday that the rising number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean is part of "hybrid warfare" waged by Russia using mercenaries as proxies on countries supporting Ukraine.
"I think it is now safe to say that the exponential increase in the migratory phenomenon departing from African shores is also, to a not insignificant extent, part of a clear strategy of hybrid warfare that the Wagner division is implementing, using its considerable weight in some African countries," Crosetto said in a statement.
Wagner is believed to be operating in several African countries, including Libya, Mali, and the Central African Republic. The group has been heavily involved in Russian efforts to capture the city of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine.
"Just as the EU, NATO and the West have realised that cyber attacks were part of the global confrontation that the war in Ukraine opened up, they should now understand that the southern European front is also becoming more dangerous every day," Crosetto said.
Increase in people arriving from Africa
Some 20,000 people have reached Italy so far this year, compared to 6,100 in the same period of 2022, Italian interior ministry figures show.
In the past weekend alone 1,200 people reached Italian shores.
It is a problem for Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's government, which was elected on a staunchly anti-immigration platform.
Earlier this month she called on fellow EU leaders to do more to halt illegal immigration.
She said criminal gangs and people traffickers should not be able to control the flow of migrants and warned of unprecedented pressure from the number of people trying to reach Europe.
Her defense minister has now called on NATO to help Italy face the rise in migrant arrivals.
"The Atlantic Alliance becomes stronger if the problems arising from collective choices are also shared, but it runs the risk of cracking if the countries most exposed to retaliation of various kinds are left alone," Crosetto said.
Wagner says migrant crisis not its making
He warned that "uncontrolled and continuous immigration" has the potential "to hit the most exposed countries, above all Italy, and their geostrategic choices."
Italy is a strong supporter of Ukraine, sending aid and weapons to help it defend itself against Russia's invasion.
In an expletive-laden voice message posted on his Telegram channel, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin responded, "We have no idea what's happening with the migrant crisis, we don't concern ourselves with it."
But Italy's foreign minister Antonio Tajani told Italian news agency ANSA, many migrants came from areas "controlled by the Wagner group."
Meloni's hard-right government policy of treating migrant boats as a law enforcement issue, rather than a humanitarian one has been critcized in the past.
Especially after a deadly shipwreck on February 26 in which more than 70 people died.
lo/ar (AFP, dpa, Reuters)