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Anger as Italy accused of illegally rejecting migrants rescued at sea

Humanitarian aid groups said Italy had broken international law by preventing hundreds of asylum seekers from disembarking from boats over the weekend.

Anger as Italy accused of illegally rejecting migrants rescued at sea
People holding a banner reading "open ports" demonstrate in Catania against the Italian government’s refusal to allow 35 people to disembark the rescue ship Humanity 1, on November 6th, 2022. (Photo by Giovanni ISOLINO / AFP)

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.

People disembark from the rescue ship Geo Barents on November 6th 2022 in the port of Catania, Sicily (Photo by Giovanni ISOLINO / AFP)

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.

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”.

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.

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POLITICS

Italy’s government to continue sending weapons to Ukraine in 2023

Italy's new government issued a decree on Thursday to continue sending weapons to Ukraine through 2023, continuing the previous administration's policy of support to Kyiv.

Italy's government to continue sending weapons to Ukraine in 2023

The decree extends to December 31, 2023 an existing authorisation for “the transfer of military means, materials and equipment to the government authorities of Ukraine,” according to a government statement.

Since taking office in October, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has repeatedly voiced her support for Kyiv while underlying the importance of the Atlantic alliance.

In her first speech to parliament, the leader of the Brothers of Italy party pledged to “continue to be a reliable partner of NATO in supporting Ukraine.”

Her predecessor Mario Draghi was a staunch supporter of Kyiv, but the issue of sending arms to Ukraine split the biggest party in parliament during his coalition government, the Five Star Movement.

That friction led to the early elections that brought Meloni to power.

Parliament now has 60 days to vote the decree into law.

READ ALSO: Outcry in Italy after Berlusconi defends Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

Despite Meloni’s efforts to reassure her Western allies of Italy’s support for the EU’s and NATO’s Ukraine strategy, including sanctions on Russia, the close ties to Russia of her two coalition partners have come under scrutiny.

Both Matteo Salvini of the League party and former premier Silvio Berlusconi, who leads Forza Italia, have long enjoyed warm relations with Russia.

In October, an audio tape of Berlusconi was leaked to the media in which the former premier described how he had received a birthday present of vodka from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the tape, he also expressed concerns about sending weapons and cash to Kyiv and appeared to blame the war on Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Berlusconi later issued a statement saying his personal position on Ukraine “does not deviate” from that of Italy and the EU.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Salvini, too, has come under fire for his relations with Moscow, including a report that he dined with Russia’s ambassador to Rome just days after that country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Salvini, who has criticised EU sanctions as ineffective, has long admired Putin, even wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the Russian leader’s face.

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