Published: August 14, 2019
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is working to prevent two rescue ships operated by French and Spanish charities from bringing more than 500 migrants to Italy in the latest Mediterranean stand-off.
Ocean Viking, which is run by French non-governmental groups (NGOs) Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee, picked up 356 migrants off Libya since Friday, while Spanish boat Open Arms saved 160 people.
Both vessels are in the central Mediterranean, within easy sailing distance of the Italian island of Lampedusa and are seeking safe port to disembark the mainly African migrants.
Salvini, leader of the far-right League whose popularity soared since he took office last year and launched a fierce anti-immigration crackdown, said the boats were not Rome’s problem.
“I am at work in the ministry to prevent more than 500 migrants from disembarking from two NGO boats, one French and one Spanish,” Salvini wrote on Facebook.
“I will let you know how this ends. I will not give up.”
Earlier this month, Salvini introduced a new law hiking fines for ships entering Italian waters without authorisation to up to a million euros (928,329 pounds). It also provides for arrest of captain ignoring orders to stay away and calls on naval authorities to seize their boats.
Buoyed by success in the polls, Salvini is looking to trigger an early election by bringing down the Italian government, confident he will emerge as prime minister from any new vote. As such, a high-profile clash with foreign charities will bolster his anti-migrant credentials.
Salvini said Libya offered to take back the migrants aboard the Ocean Viking and said Open Arms should go to Spain.
Doctors Without Borders ruled out taking migrants to violence-plagued Libya, saying migrants are routinely tortured and abused there. Open Arms called for the European Union to co-ordinate the re-distribution of migrants around the bloc.
The United Nations’ refugee agency called on European governments to intervene, warning storms were approaching.
“To leave people who fled war and violence in Libya on the high seas in this weather would be to inflict suffering upon suffering,” said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean.
“They must be allowed to dock immediately and allowed to receive humanitarian aid.”
Spain said Italy should deal with immediate care.
“International law states a rescue takes place in the closest safe port. Without doubt, right now that means Italy. If it was us, we would do it,” Spain’s acting development minister Jose Luis Abalos told Telecinco television.
He also said Europe needed to forge a “wider” policy to handle migrant arrivals from Africa.
Italy has taken in more than 600,000 boat migrants since 2014, but new arrivals have fallen sharply over the past two years, with the decline accelerating over the past year.
Latest figures say 4,265 migrants reached Italy so far in 2019, down 78% on the same period in 2018 and 96% down on 2017 levels. source