Italy is promising to send more migrants who do not qualify for asylum back home, either by force or with their consent, as a fourth year of mass arrivals of migrants by sea began at a record-setting pace.
The number of migrants setting off to reach Italy by boat from Africa has risen more than 50 percent so far this year, after half a million people arrived during the past three years.
The registration of all the newcomers and new border restrictions mean increasing numbers of irregular migrants are staying in Italy rather than moving onto wealthier Northern Europe as they have done in the past.
The center-left government's push to ramp up returns is meant both to deter migrants from risking the dangerous journey and to stem criticism from far-right parties like the Northern League that are capitalizing on anti-immigrant sentiment a year ahead of a national vote.
For similar reasons, the European Union's executive is pressing all 28 member states to return more migrants ahead of elections this year in the Netherlands, France and Germany, where far-right parties, which are also anti-EU, are gaining support.
"The goal is to increase forced returns very significantly and send a strong message to anyone thinking of migrating to Europe," Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti said on Thursday, confirming plans to build new detention centers to keep migrants from disappearing before being deported.
Italy deported 5,800 people last year and a similar number in 2015, a fraction of the 335,000 people, both refugees and migrants, who arrived during that period.
But very few were sent home voluntarily, though it is a decades-old practice that is both cheaper and easier than using force, because Italy only launched its program to help those who volunteer to go home in September.
So-called assisted voluntary returns do not require heavily guarded detention centers and a nightmare of red tape as with forced deportations, which also can lead to ugly scenes of people being dragged onto planes.
Far more migrants in Germany and Sweden went home voluntarily last year, often with money in their pockets, than were shipped home empty handed, evidence that Italy missed an opportunity to reduce the number of irregular migrants - estimated at a half million - living here.
"We were late," Minniti said of the delay in setting up an assisted returns program, Reuters reported.
Amounts and procedures for assisted returns vary from country to country but the idea is the same - that if word spreads in the countries people are setting out from that some are choosing to come home, others will not make the risky and expensive journey in the first place.