Italy’s new government put its hardline anti-immigration policy to the test this weekend, as it prevented hundreds of people from getting off rescue boats and claiming asylum in Italy.
Opponents of the policy described it as “selective disembarkation” after some, including children and the sick, were allowed off the ships but others were not.
A father carrying a baby in a purple beanie was among the first to get off Geo Barents, a ship run by medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
He was one of the 357 people allowed off on Sunday. Italy refused entry to 215 others.
Earlier in the day authorities accepted 144 people including children and the sick from the German-flagged Humanity 1, but rejected 35 adult male migrants, the charity SOS Humanity said.
The ship was then “ordered to leave the port of Catania”, but its captain refused, it said.
The charity said Italian authorities had decided after conducting a “brief medical examination” that the 35 adults were “healthy” but said there was “no translator present to assess their mental and physical condition, nor was there a psychological evaluation”.
“Furthermore, the 35 survivors have the right to apply for asylum, and to a formal asylum procedure, which can only be carried out on land”.
The organisation said it would be taking legal action and appeals against the government’s policy would be submitted to courts in Rome and Catania on Monday.
Amnesty International urged Italy to stop discriminating, saying “the law of the sea is clear; a rescue ends when all those rescued are disembarked in a place of safety”.
Italy was “violating its international obligations”, the rights organisation said.
MSF said the “selective and partial disembarkation” was illegal and accused politicians of “playing with (migrants’) lives”.
The Humanity 1 and Geo Barents were two of four ships that had requested a safe port. The Ocean Viking and Rise Above had been seeking safe harbour off the coast of Sicily; on Tuesday, the Rise Above was permitted to dock in Reggio Calabria and 89 people were disembarked.
1/4 🔴Breaking: On Monday, SOS Humanity takes legal action against the decree of the Italian government & the prevention of the disembarkation of 35 rescued people from the #Humanity1! Italy's actions violate European law & the Geneva Refugee Convention. pic.twitter.com/mAaPlG8mTc
— SOS Humanity (international) (@soshumanity_en) November 6, 2022
A photographer on the Ocean Viking said there was “tension among the survivors”, who were rescued 16 days ago and faced yet another cold night on deck as the weather worsened.
As the vessels waited, Alarm Phone, a group running a hotline for migrants needing rescue, said it had been alerted to “a large boat carrying about 500 people in distress” in the Mediterranean.
Italy’s new government has vowed to introduce hardline policies to block asylum seekers making the perilous boat crossing from North Africa to Europe.
The move is led by prime minister Giorgia Meloni – who once said Italy should “repatriate migrants back to their countries and then sink the boats that rescued them” – and anti-immigrant League leader Matteo Salvini, who is already facing charges for kidnapping migrants after he blocked 147 people from disembarking a ship as interior minister in 2019.
Italy’s new interior minister, League member Matteo Piantedosi, claimed that countries whose flag the NGO-run ships fly must take the refugees and migrants instead, and that those who do not “qualify” would have to “leave territorial waters”.
At an event in Rome on Monday Piantedosi responded to criticism by saying the government was treating migrants “with humanity but firmly based on our principles.”
He said migrants on other ships had been welcomed into Italian ports, and those left on board were being “constantly monitored by the competent authorities”.
Sources close to transport minister Matteo Salvini, who controls the ports, said they would be “provided with the assistance necessary” to do so.
Italy’s only Black MP Aboubakar Soumahoro, who was present as those chosen from the Humanity 1 disembarked, slammed the “selection of shipwrecked migrants”.
Selezionare naufragi è in contrasto con Convenzione #ONU diritto del mare. La mancanza di mediatori culturali, inoltre, crea vizi di forma nella procedura. Se i restanti naufraghi verrano respinti, violando art.19, impugneremo questa decisione in tutte le sedi opportune. pic.twitter.com/kI2VkFvwpj
— Aboubakar Soumahoro (@aboubakar_soum) November 6, 2022
Opposition politicians said Piantedosi should offer an explanation to parliament.
NGOs say Italy is in breach of international law on rescue at sea, according to which anyone in danger at sea must be rescued and that the rescue is considered complete only upon disembarkation in the nearest safe port.
The Humanity 1 and Mission Lifeline charity’s Rise Above sail under the German flag. The Geo Barents and SOS Mediterranee’s Ocean Viking are registered in Norway.
The Norwegian foreign ministry said Thursday it bore “no responsibility” for those rescued by private Norwegian-flagged ships in the Mediterranean.
Germany insisted in a diplomatic message to Italy that the charities were “making an important contribution to saving human lives” and asked Rome “to help them as soon as possible”.
Over 87,000 people have arrived seeking shelter in Italy so far this year, according to the interior ministry – just 14 percent of those were rescued at sea and brought to safety by charity vessels.