Italian ship rescues migrants as Rome vows crackdown

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Italian ship rescues migrants as Rome vows crackdown
Rescued migrants on the Dutch-flagged rescue vessel Sea Watch 3 in January 2019. Federico Scoppa/AFP

An Italian charity ship rescued 49 migrants at sea off Libya Monday, prompting a fresh crackdown from Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on ships which rescue migrants off the coast of north Africa and bring them to Italy.


"The ports have been, and remain, CLOSED", Salvini said on Twitter, as his office released an eight-page directive on the laws regarding rescue operations – laws it said some aid vessels had been breaking.

The minister, who also heads up the anti-immigrant League party, has repeatedly declared Italian waters closed to NGO rescue vessels, leaving several of them stranded at sea in the past in a bid to force Europe to take its share of asylum seekers.

While he acknowledged in his directive that helping those who lives are in danger was a "priority", he warned that there must be "sanctions" for those who "explicitly violate international, European and national rescue regulations".

"Nor must the real risks that the group of migrants may conceal individuals involved in terrorist activities... be overlooked".

The "passage of rescue ships in Italian territorial waters" was "detrimental to the order and security of the Italian State", he said.

NGO ships have drawn fire from Rome by attempting on occasion to stop migrants being taken back to crisis-hit Libya, which human rights organisations insist cannot be considered safe for repatriations.

‘The closest safe port’

"Mare Jonio has just rescued a rubber boat in distress that was sinking with around 50 people on board," the Mediterranea collective of aid groups and associations that runs the ship said on Monday evening.

"We have formally asked Italy, under whose flag we sail and which legally and geographically bears responsibility, to indicate a port for disembarkation," it added.

As of Tuesday morning the ship was anchored a mile and a half out from the Italian island of Lampedusa surrounded by three Italian patrol boats, two from Italy’s financial police force (Guardia di Finanza) and one from the coast guard, having been refused authorisation to disembark.

The situation is the first such stand-off between the Italian government and an Italian-flagged ship.

Volunteers aboard the Mare Jonio pulled the 49 migrants – including 12 minors – from their dinghy some 40 nautical miles off the coast of Libya.

The ship’s crew had described Lampedusa as “the closest safe port” and said they wanted to “disembark people who’ve escaped from the Libyan concentration camps”.

Mediterranea insisted those rescued by the Mare Jonio were "saved twice: from the shipwreck, and from the risk of being captured and returned to the torture and horrors from which they were fleeing."

According to Ansa, the Mare Jonio crew appears to have defied a direct order from the Guardia di Finanza refusing the ship entry into Italian territorial waters.

'Violation of maritime law'

"It has happened that ships... have come to the aid of migrants in non-Italian SRRs (Search and Rescue Regions) and have disregarded the orders of the competent SAR (Search and Rescue) authorities," Salvini said in his directive.

Ships rescuing migrants in areas of the Mediterranean that fall under Libyan responsibility, during operations not coordinated by the command centre in Rome, have no right to seek Italy as a port of safety, he said.

He accused the ships in question of "carrying out the rescue on their own initiative and then heading towards European maritime borders... in violation of international maritime law".

Salvini also took issue with charity ships that set sail for Italy rather than other ports.

"Nor are the Italian coasts the only possible landing places in the event of rescue events, given that the Libyan, Tunisian and Maltese ports can offer adequate logistical and health assistance... (and) are closer in terms of nautical miles".

Rome, with the support of the EU, has been training the Libyan coast guard since 2017 to intercept boats as part of a controversial deal that has seen a sharp drop in migrant arrivals to Italy.

NGO ships have drawn fire from Rome by attempting on occasion to stop migrants being taken back to crisis-hit Libya, which human rights organisations insist cannot be considered safe for repatriations.

Some 348 migrants have been brought to safety in Italy so far this year, compared to 6,161 in the same period last year.

"Despite a dangerously low SAR (search and rescue) capacity in the Mediterranean due to Italy & EU policy, people continue to risk their lives to seek safety," tweeted Doctors Without Borders.

Some 234 people have died in the Mediterranean in 2019, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).


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