Italy toughens tone on NGO migrant rescue boats

Italy has warned NGOs operating migrant rescue boats in the Mediterranean they will not be allowed to continue if they do not sign up to new rules governing their operations.

Italy toughens tone on NGO migrant rescue boats
Italy's Interior Minister Marco Minniti is clamping down on migrant rescue ships. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

“If NGOs do not sign up (to a new code of conduct), it is difficult to see how they can continue operating,” Interior Minister Marco Minniti said in an interview with Turin daily La Stampa.

Minniti's warning came a day after Italian authorities impounded a boat operated by German aid organisatiion Jugend Rettet on suspicion its crew effectively collaborated with people traffickers in a way that facilitated
illegal immigration.

The aid organisation, which has only been operational for a year, declined to comment on the substance of detailed allegations made against it by Italian prosecutor Ambrogio Cartosio.

“For us the rescue of human life is and will be our top priority, so we are very sorry we will not be able to operate in the search and rescue zone at the moment,” the organisation said in a statement on social media.

“We can only assess all the accusations currently being made after we have gathered all the information and can assess the situation.”

Italian authorities had been monitoring Jugend Rettet's boat, the Iuventa, since October.

Its crew is suspected to taking on board dinghy loads of migrants delivered directly to them by people traffickers and allowing the smugglers to make off with the vessels to be used again.

At least one such meeting allegedly took place only 1.3 miles off the Libyan coast, according to the prosecutor's file, the contents of which were published by Italian media.

The crew are suspected of having flouted the authority of the Italian coastguard, which oversees rescue operations in the zone, out of humanitarian zeal rather than for any other motives.

Under the code of conduct, boats like the Iuventa would notably have to have an Italian police officer on board monitoring their activities.

Only three of the nine NGOs involved in search and rescue operations have so far agreed to abide by the code: Save The Children, Malta-based MOAS and Spain's Pro-Activa Open Arms.

The latter said on Thursday it regarded the new rules as unnecessary but acceptable as they would not involve any “significant change or impediment” to its rescue operations.

Among those who have refused to sign is the Nobel Prize-winning organisation Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

Minniti meanwhile said a sharp fall over recent weeks in the number of migrants arriving in Italy following rescues was an indication that efforts to beef up the Libyan coastguard and cooperation with local mayors was bearing fruit.

“In recent days we have begun to see light at the end of the tunnel,” the minister said. He revealed plans for further talks this month with Libyan mayors on economic development initiatives and with Chad, Niger and Mali on measures to reduce the number of migrants leaving those countries in the hope
of reaching Europe.


Italy’s Salvini declares war on mafia after migrant worker deaths

Italy's hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on Tuesday declared war on mafia networks exploiting foreign agricultural workers after 16 died in two crashes in the country's south.

Italy's Salvini declares war on mafia after migrant worker deaths
Matteo Salvini talks with a delegation of foreign farm labourers in Foggia. Photo: Roberto D'Agostino/AFP

The two near-identical crashes, which came within 48 hours of each other outside the city of Foggia in the Puglia region, have put a spotlight on the plight of foreign seasonal tomato-pickers during harvest season.

“It's a mafia problem. In Foggia… there is mafia criminality that I intend to eradicate street by street, town by town, by all means legally available,” Salvini said at a press conference in Foggia on Tuesday.

Salvini, who is also co-deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right League, said his anti-migrant campaign would starve criminal gangs of people to exploit.

He also blasted “unfair competition” from what he calls imports “forced” by the European Union, a favourite target of his.

The Foggia province hosts thousands of African migrants who spend the summer harvesting season picking tomatoes in blazing temperatures alongside workers from eastern Europe, typically Romanians, Bulgarians and Poles.

Although most of those working in the fields in Italy have regular papers, they rarely receive the benefits and salaries required by law, and many live in squalid conditions.

They are often at the mercy of day labourer recruiters — sometimes linked to organised crime — who operate as intermediaries and collect a portion of the workers' pay.

Fourteen workers — all non-EU citizens — were killed on Monday when the van taking them home from work smashed into a lorry transporting harvested tomatoes.

On Saturday, four African farm workers were killed in another collision with a tomato truck.

That crash provoked dozens of African workers living in one of the province's shanty towns to go on strike on Wednesday morning and march to Foggia.

'Uncontrolled migration'

On Tuesday Salvini said that mafia networks had benefited from “uncontrolled immigration”.

“If there were not thousands of desperate people to exploit, they would have more trouble doing business,” he said.

The 45-year-old also announced his intention to tackle the “importing of slaves” from within Europe, asking for more stringent checks from his Bulgarian and Romanian counterparts.

Salvini said that Italy's traffic police have seized 300 vehicles in the area in recent months, most of which were “vans registered in Bulgaria and without insurance”, adding that the service had only 116 officers to control the province's roads.

He said that some Italian farmers should be labelled “outlaws because some use mafia methods to enrich themselves”.

Salvini also claimed that the EU had helped create the situation that led to the use of what Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called “slave labour” after his own visit to Foggia.

“If Europe didn't force us to accept the importing of Tunisian tomatoes, Moroccan oranges, Burmese rise and Canadian wheat maybe it would be easier for our farmers to live,” Salvini said.