New Italian government closes ports to NGO ships

MILAN (AP) — Italy’s new far-right led government adopted a measure Friday formalizing the closure of its ports to rescue ships run by humanitarian groups as four vessels with more than 1,000 migrants continued to press for a safe port.

Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi told reporters Italy would allow a German migrant rescue ship to arrive in Sicily to land minors and those with medical emergencies, but he said the ship must then return to international waters with the rest of the migrants.

Piantedosi said the German-flagged Humanity 1, carrying 179 people, “forced the situation by entering into territorial waters.” But he emphasized Italy’s position that it is the flag country of each charity-operated ship that must intervene to provide a safe port — and not Italy.

The fate of the other ships was not addressed, but Piantedosi said France had indicated it “could accept the possibility to disembark” the Norway-flagged Ocean Viking, which has 234 people on board.

The Humanity 1 was on its way to the Sicilian port of Catania, Piantedosi said, adding it would be allowed to remain in Italian waters only long enough to disembark minors and people needing medical care.

The move came after France and Germany asked Italy’s new government to grant a safe port to more than 1,000 people rescued by humanitarian groups in the central Mediterranean, some of whom have been stuck at sea for more than two weeks.

The posture adopted by Premier Giorgia Meloni’s new government marks a return to the anti-NGO position adopted by Matteo Salvini, now a deputy premier, when he was interior minister in 2018-2019.

Salvini, currently the infrastructure minister in charge of ports, welcomed the new decree in a Facebook post, saying it would ensure that “foreign ships cannot arrive solely in Italy with their illegal immigrants.”

“If there are minors or the sick on board they may disembark, as it should be. All of the others aboard a German ship leave Italian waters and go toward Germany,” Salvini said.

Humanitarian groups caring for the rescued migrants on four ships in the central Mediterranean have sounded the alarm about deteriorating conditions, including people sleeping on floors in the cold and spreading fevers. A German charity, Mission Lifeline, reported that its ship was in “extreme danger” with 95 rescued people on board, half of them women and children, and bad weather forecast.

Piantedosi drafted new measures contending the non-governmental groups violated procedure by not properly coordinating their rescues, setting the groundwork for Italy to close the ports.

At the same time, Italian authorities continue to allow the arrivals of people rescued at sea by Italian patrols, including 456 arriving in Calabria on Thursday and some 6,000 over the last week.

Charities have denied circumventing procedures, and say it is their duty to rescue people in distress at sea. According to the U.N. refugee agency, coastal states are obligated to accept people from rescue ships “as soon as practicable,’’ and governments should cooperate to provide a place of safety for survivors.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said Friday that international law makes clear that Italy, as the closest port, “must let the ship in.” He cited the Ocean Viking operated by the group SOS Mediterranee, which has one of its headquarters in France.

“We have no doubt that Italy will welcome the ship … that Italy will respect international law,” he told French news broadcaster BFM TV.

He also said France and Germany have told Italy that they are both ready to receive some of the migrants so Italy won’t “bear the burden alone.”

The German Foreign Ministry also asked Italy to intervene quickly to help those aboard the German-flagged Humanitarian 1. The boat was carrying 100 unaccompanied minors as well as a 7-month-old baby, the SOS Humanity charity said.

“They continue to be exposed to the elements, having to spend the cold nights on deck. Still, they are sleeping on the floor while winds and waves are increasing,’’ said spokesman Wasil Schauseil, adding that the state of limbo was adding to their mental stress. Fever was also spreading among the rescued people, with COVID tests turning up negative.

Also at sea is the Doctors Without Borders-run ship Geo Barents, also flagged by Norway, with 572 people on board, including 60 unaccompanied minors as well as families with children and the elderly. Another German-based charity, Mission Lifeline, said that its ship Rise Above picked up 95 people in three operations Thursday, and that neither Italy nor Malta had responded to requests for a port.

“The proportion of women, children and babies is unusually high, comprising about half of the people on board. We are particularly worried about the health of the eight babies as well as the small children. Many had been at sea for days at the time of the rescue and are extremely exhausted,” said Heremine Poschmann, a Mission Life spokeswoman.

The Rise Above “is in extreme danger,” Poschmann said, with bad weather forecast in the coming hours and with 104 people total on board a relatively small boat at 25 meters (82 feet) long. Normally they would transfer rescued people immediately to other bigger charity boats, but the other three are already at capacity, she said.

The migrants rescued at sea have mostly traveled through Libya, often being subjected to torture by human traffickers along the way, as they seek a better life in Europe.


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