19:15 GMT20 February 2020
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    Amid a rising wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in Italy and as hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers from North Africa and the Middle East have landed in the country in recent years, controversial comments about migrants made by Italy's new Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini have prompted strong criticism from Tunisia.

    During a local campaign stop in Sicily on Monday, Salvini, who is also a deputy prime minister in the new coalition government sworn in on Friday, said that even though Tunisia was a free and democratic country without "wars, epidemics, famines or pestilence," it "isn't exporting gentlemen, it seems more often they're exporting convicts," Deutsche Welle reported.

    The Tunisian Foreign Ministry has expressed its "great surprise" at Salvini's comment, which came shortly after at least 48 migrants were reported to have drowned when their boat capsized off the Tunisian coast.

    Addressing a crowd of supporters at a campaign rally for his League party at Pozzallo, one of the main arrival points for refugees and migrants making the dangerous crossing from North Africa, Matteo Salvini said that Italy can’t afford to support the hundreds of thousands of African migrants who have arrived in the country in recent years.

    He said that Italy and Sicily will no longer be what he calls "Europe's refugee camp" and promised to reduce the number of arrivals and increase the number of expulsions.

    He added that because they agree to work for less, migrants undermine the working condition of Italians, many of whom are forced to settle for lower pay or lose their jobs.

    READ MORE: Salvini, Italy's "Farage" Threatens Brussels With "Italexit" Ahead of Elections

    Even though Tunisia has largely stopped human-smuggling operations, almost 3,000 Tunisian migrants have reached Italy’s shores since January – more than from any other country.

    An opinion poll by the Ipsos agency published on Saturday in the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera showed support for the anti-immigrant League party had jumped to 28.5 percent, up from the 17 percent the party garnered during the March 4 election.

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    Tags:
    Salvini, comments, protest, migrants, Lega Nord Party, Matteo Salvini, Italy
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