Italy's Meloni defends Britain's migration deal with Rwanda

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni meet in London

LONDON (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Friday Britain's plan to send illegal migrants to Rwanda was a deal between two free nations which are safeguarding the safety of the people, adding it was wrong to call it a deportation.

Meloni, who heads a right-wing government in Rome, was talking to reporters at the Italian embassy in London after a two-day visit to the British capital during which she met Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

"I think that talking about deportation or suggesting that Rwanda would be a country that does not respect rights and would be an inadequate or unworthy nation is a racist way of interpreting things," she said.

The British government is hoping to send thousands of migrants more than 4,000 miles away to the East African country as part of a 120 million pound ($150 million) deal.

More than 45,000 migrants arrived in small boats on the English south coast in 2022, and Sunak has made it a priority to deter asylum seekers crossing the English Channel from France in small boats.

This week lawyers for a group of asylum seekers challenged the British government's plan before the Court of Appeal in London, claiming it is unlawful because Rwanda is not a safe country.

Rome is also facing growing pressure from migrants crossing the Mediterranean, with a surge in arrivals compared to 2022. Almost 41,000 people have landed in Italy so far in 2023, against around 10,200 in the same period last year.

Following a deadly shipwreck in southern Italy in February, Meloni called on fellow European Union leaders to do more to halt illegal immigration and prevent further tragedies at sea.

(Reporting by Angelo Amante; Editing by Keith Weir and Nick Macfie)