Italy’s new rightwing government is attempting to stop European charities landing migrants rescued from the Mediterranean at the country’s ports, in a first test of its campaign pledge to curb illegal migration from north Africa.
Rome’s tough new tactics have left migrants stuck for up to 14 days on board four ships operated by humanitarian charities, including Médecins Sans Frontières, SOS Méditerranée and SOS Humanity.
The vessels rescue migrants from overloaded, unsafe boats in the Mediterranean and ferry them to the closest safe harbours, usually in Italy.
On Saturday night, Italy permitted the Humanity 1, a ship operated by Berlin-based SOS Humanity, to dock at the port of Catania to put ashore 144 children, pregnant women, mothers accompanying young offspring and “vulnerable people” in need of urgent medical care.
However, the government barred 35 other migrants from disembarking, and on Sunday ordered the Humanity 1 to leave the port and Italian waters immediately.
The captain of the Humanity 1 refused, insisting maritime law obliged him to “bring all those rescued from distress at sea to a place of safety” and that leaving with rescued people still on board would constitute “an illegal pushback”, SOS Humanity said.
It said the rescued people had the right to “an individual protection assessment, which can only take place on land”, and that forcing the ship away amounted to violation of both European human rights law and the Geneva Convention on the treatment of potential refugees.
The NGO said on Sunday night that it was bringing a legal case against the Italian government to ensure the rights of those still stuck aboard the ship.
Meanwhile, MSF’s Norwegian-flagged Geo Barents vessel, with more than 570 people on board, was permitted to dock at Catania on Sunday afternoon but, as with the Humanity 1, could only put ashore people the Italian government deemed vulnerable or in need of care.
Italy allowed 357 of the Geo Barents’ passengers to disembark, but forced 215 to remain on the ship.
Amnesty International slammed Rome’s “creative interpretation” of the law of the sea and its efforts to push some rescued migrants back out to international waters.
Another two ships were still awaiting permission to enter Italy’s territorial waters to land rescued migrants, despite what the charities said were worsening conditions.
“The situation on board is becoming more and more unsustainable,” said Claire Juchat, a spokesperson for SOS Méditerranée, which has 234 rescued people aboard its Ocean Viking. “To leave people stranded at sea for 14 days is inhumane.”
The rightwing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy pledged ahead of its September election victory to staunch the flow of illegal migrants arriving from north Africa if it won power.
The new government has called for a pan-European approach to migration into the EU via the Mediterranean and has trained its sights on NGOs bringing people from unsafe boats to Italian ports.
Interior minister Matteo Piantedosi issued a decree last month declaring that the operations of the Ocean Viking and Humanity 1 contravened “the spirit of the European and Italian regulations on security and border control, and the fight against illegal immigration”.
Piantedosi later told the Corriere della Sera newspaper that the government wanted to signal to other European countries that Italy could not “take on migrants picked up at sea by foreign ships that systematically operate without prior co-ordination with authorities”.
Currently, he said, migrants rescued by NGO ships accounted for around 16 per cent of illegal migrants arriving in Italy across the Mediterranean.
“We will never derogate from our duty to rescue people at sea, but we believe the time has come for European solidarity to finally become real,” Piantedosi said.
Italy’s tough new approach has divided EU members. Following a complaint about Humanity 1’s activities, Berlin denied any responsibility for the ship and said Italy should urgently allow rescued people ashore.
However, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán declared that “we owe a big thank you” to Meloni’s government “for protecting the borders of Europe”.