A group of more than 600 migrants appear to have become the first subjects of the new Italian government’s tough immigration stance without having even set foot on Italian soil.
A charity rescue vessel carrying 629 people is currently stranded in the Mediterranean after Matteo Salvini, the new Italian interior minister, reportedly refused to allow it to dock at Italian ports.
Mr Salvini, whose far-right League Party’s tough line on immigration won it a record number of votes in March’s election, has promised to deport half a million illegal migrants from Italy.
He was sworn in as the country’s interior minister on 1 June after the formation of an awkward anti-establishment coalition.
The vessel, the Aquarius, which is operated jointly by Medecine Sans Frontiers and SOS Medeterranee, was refused a port of disembarkation by the Italian authorities despite having been told to rescue the migrants by the same co-ordination centre.
The vessel was told to ask Malta to provide a disembarkation port, but Malta has also refused.
Among the migrants on board are 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 children and seven pregnant women. The crew say they have enough food for another two to three days at sea.
The migrants were rescued in several separate operations in the Mediterranean over the past 24 hours – all of which had been carried out at the request of the Italian authorities who are now refusing disembarkation.
Speaking to Sky News, SOS Medeterranee’s Nick Romaniuk said: “At 07h00, the Italian Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) called our ship to ask them to proceed to a boat in distress. Aquarius complied. At 15h30 they called again to say that European Union maritime patrol aircraft had spotted 2 rubber boats and asked Aquarius to change course to carry out the rescues.”
Mr Romaniuk explained: “When Aquarius arrived they launched the rescue boats. Both rubber (migrant) boats were in bad condition and one broke apart as the team was arriving. Around 40 people were in the water. The team stabilised the situation and bring the people to safety on Aquarius.
“After that, we conducted three transfers from Italian Coast Guard vessels and one from an Italian merchant vessel. All of these events were co-ordinated by the MRCC in Rome. Now there are 629 people on board and the Ministry of Interior has said Aquarius cannot disembark in Italy because the ports are ‘closed’.”
The Aquarius appears to have become caught in a political tussle with worrying consequences. The Italian Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre operates as part of the Italian Coast Guard. It is not run by the interior ministry which is now under the control of Mr Salvini with his hard line on immigration.
Within hours of being sworn in, Mr Salvini was reiterating his pledge to deport half a million illegal migrants, most of whom would have arrived on rescue vessels but then failed to claim asylum in Italy.
“The good times for illegals are over… Get ready to pack your bags,” Mr Salvini said, adding that the rescue charities were “substitute people-smugglers”.
By Sunday evening there had been no official comment by the Italian interior ministry or the Maltese government which is also understood to have declined to allow the vessel to dock.
The complexities and conflicting views on how to cope with the continued exodus of migrants from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, via Libya, to Europe have divided political opinion across the EU.
The rescue charities insist their role is simply to save lives and that returning people to Libya is not an option because of the dire security situation in the country.
However, critics say the presence of rescue charities in the Mediterranean encourages more migrants to attempt the crossing.
The rescue of 2 rubber boats turned critical when one boat broke apart in the darkness, leaving over 40 people in the water. After rescuing 229 people from these boats, the #Aquarius then took 400 more people, rescued earlier by Italian navy, Italian coastguard & merchant vessels pic.twitter.com/b289C3aOly
— MSF Sea (@MSF_Sea) June 10, 2018
UPDATE: The #Aquarius is continuing to head North with 629 people who were rescued & transferred on board last night under the coordination of the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre. The Aquarius is currently still waiting for a port of safety to be assigned. pic.twitter.com/su4BHwwEv7
— MSF Sea (@MSF_Sea) June 10, 2018
A controversial decision by the European Union to provide funding for the Libyan coast guard was supposed to improve their ability to carry out interceptions and rescues before migrants leave Libyan waters. But many migrant boats, coordinated by smugglers, are still getting through.
Between January and May this year, more than 22,500 migrants had reached European shores: 42% arrived in Italy from Libya and the remainder were divided between Greece, from Turkey (38%) and Spain, from Morocco (20%), according to then International Organisation for Migration, the UN Migration Agency.
Conditions for migrants who are either held in smuggler-run camps in Libya or sent back there from failed attempts to reach Europe are grim.