Italy’s government moves to block migrant rescue ships as distress calls reported

Italy's new interior minister signed a directive on Tuesday seeking to ban two migrant rescue ships from entering Italian waters, as more vessels issued distress calls off the coast of Sicily.

Italy's new interior minister is seeking to block the Ocean Viking rescue ship from entering Italian waters.
Italy's new interior minister is seeking to block the Ocean Viking rescue ship from entering Italian waters. Photo by NICOLAS TUCAT / AFP.

New minister Matteo Piantedosi, a close ally of anti-immigrant League party leader Matteo Salvini, signed a document on Tuesday banning the Ocean Viking and Humanity 1 rescue ships from entering Italian territory, according to media reports.

The conduct of the two ships, which are currently carrying 326 rescued migrants, is not “in line with the spirit of European and Italian rules on border security and control and the fight against illegal immigration,” the directive stated.

It added that “the prohibition of entry into territorial waters is being evaluated,” according to Skytg24, indicating that the directive is provisional and not immediately binding.

Piantedosi’s move came hours before the alarm was sounded that another two fishing boats stranded off the coast of Sicily were carrying several hundred people in distress.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Italian coastguard said it had rescued 1,000 people from the boats and recovered two bodies.

While the coastguard will be able to dock in Italy, the short-term future of the two humanitarian vessels is uncertain.

The Ocean Viking is a Norwegian ship run by the SOS Méditerranée association, while Humanity 1 flies a German flag and is managed by the NGO SOS Humanity.

The embassies of both countries were reportedly contacted by the interior ministry regarding the possible ban, which Luca Casarini, head of mission of the Italian rescue organisation Mediterranea Saving Humans, called “a violation of international conventions.”

Piantedosi has been described in the Italian press as the ‘right-hand man’ of current deputy PM Salvini, co-drafting Salvini’s infamous anti-migrant ‘security decrees’ during the latter’s tenure as interior minister from 2018-2019.

Salvini is currently charged with kidnapping and abuse of office after he blocked several migrant rescue shops from disembarking in Italy in 2019 under the League’s “closed ports” policy.

In an opening address to parliament on Tuesday, Italy’s new prime minister Giorgia Meloni said she wanted to “stop illegal departures and break up human trafficking,” adding that her government intends to propose an EU naval operation to block departures from North Africa.

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Italy’s Meloni in Libya to discuss energy, migration

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni arrived Saturday in the Libyan capital Tripoli for talks on energy as well as the thorny issue of migration, Libyan state media said.

Italy's Meloni in Libya to discuss energy, migration

Meloni’s trip — her second to a North African country this week — is the first by a European leader to war-battered Libya since her predecessor Mario Draghi’s visit in April 2021.

State television said the Italian premier was received by Abdelhamid Dbeibah, who heads the Tripoli-based, UN brokered Government of National Unity which is contested by a rival administration in the east.

Libya and its former colonial power Italy are key trade partners, particularly in energy, where Italian giant Eni plays a major role in tapping into Africa’s largest known oil reserves.

Meloni was accompanied by Eni chief Claudio Descalzi, who is expected to sign a deal with Libya’s National Oil Company to develop two Libyan offshore gas fields.

Eni will invest $8 million in the two fields, NOC chief Farhat Bengdara said in televised remarks this week, adding they are expected to produce 850 million cubic metres of gas.

Meloni visited Algeria on Monday seeking supply deals from Africa’s top gas exporter to help reduce reliance on Russia after it invaded Ukraine last year.

During her trip to Libya, she is also expected to discuss the issue of migration amid rising numbers of irregular migrants from Libya to Italy.

Libya has been wracked by years of conflict and division since a NATO-backed revolt toppled dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.

The country is a conduit for thousands of people each year fleeing conflict and poverty across Africa, seeking refuge across the Mediterranean in Europe.

Meloni’s far-right government took office in October, vowing to stop migrant landings in Italy, which reached more than 105,000 in 2022.

The central Mediterranean route is considered the world’s most treacherous, according to the International Organization for Migration, which estimated that 1,377 migrants had disappeared on that route last year.