Migrant rescue-ship standoff raises tensions across Europe
POZZALLO, Italy — Italy’s populist government on Tuesday lashed out at France for criticizing its refusal to allow safe harbour for a rescue ship with 629 migrants, instead sending two military vessels to take on some of the migrant passengers in the waters off Sicily and escort the ship on a days-long voyage to Spain.
The standoff over the fate of the Aquarius, turned away by both Italy and nearby Malta but welcomed by Spain, has raised political tensions in Europe as the new Italian government wants neighbours to share more of the burden of migrant arrivals.
In a strongly worded statement, Premier Giuseppe Conte’s office said: “Italy cannot accept hypocritical lessons from countries that on the topic of immigration have always preferred to turn their heads.” It singled out France, whose leader earlier was quoted as calling Italy’s response “cynical,” as having adopted migrant arrivals policies “much more rigid and cynical.”
The government also said Italy had “never abandoned” the migrants as two patrol boats had accompanied the ship from the start.
Meanwhile, hundreds of the migrants aboard the Aquarius were being transferred to two ships operated by the Italian navy and coast guard, which will accompany the rescue ship to the Spanish port of Valencia about 1,500 kilometres away, a journey of three to four days. It was unclear when the voyage might begin.
The Italian military chased a boat hired by the Associated Press away from the Aquarius. The Aquarius also declined to engage, responding with a radio message: “I kindly ask you to stay away from the Aquarius and not to complicate the situation. Thank your for your understanding.”
Many of the migrants remained on the deck of the overcrowded rescue ship. Their safety was at risk for the longer voyage given the forecast of bad weather, said Mathilde Auvillain, a spokeswoman for the charity SOS Méditerranée that operates the ship with Doctors Without Borders.
A volunteer, Alessandro Porro, said the people on the ship — most of them from sub-Sahara Africa — welcomed the announcement that their destination would be Spain.
“The news was received with a certain sense of relief among our passengers. The fear of being brought back to Libya was very strong,” Porro said.
Doctors Without Borders, meanwhile, appealed to both Italy and Malta to reconsider their refusal to allow the stranded passengers landfall and then safe passage by other means to Spain.
Doctors Without Borders said the migrants — 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 children with family members and six pregnant women among them — were “exhausted and stressed” and warned of severe health risks to a significant number.
Fresh provisions including 950 bottles of water, 800 boxes of noodles and snacks, blankets, hats and socks were delivered to the Aquarius on Tuesday, SOS Méditerranée said.
Italy’s new anti-migrant, rightwing interior minister, Matteo Salvini, is making good on a campaign pledge to close Italian ports to non-governmental organizations that pick up migrants at sea, which he has likened to taxi services for migrant smugglers.
The dramatic move to block the arrival of the 629 migrants — some of whom had been rescued by the Italian Coast Guard and handed over to the Aquarius — comes as arrivals in Italy are at a five-year low: 14,441 since the beginning of the year, an 84 per cent decline over 2017.
Salvini, whose League is part of the populist coalition that took office June 1, promised voters that other European countries would be made to share the burden of caring for asylumseekers arriving in Italy on unseaworthy boats mostly from lawless Libya, while taking particular aim at the aid vessels.
“These are all foreign ships flying foreign flags that bring this human cargo to Italy,” Salvini told private television La7 on Monday.
“We have hosted 650,000 migrants in recent years alone, all of whom pass by Malta, an EU country, and the government says, ’Ciao, Ciao, go to Italy.’ … I am happy to have given a small, first response.”
Official ministry figures show that Italy has accepted 640,000 migrants since 2014.
While Salvini turned away the Aquarius, an Italian Coast Guard vessel with more than 900 migrants rescued in seven operations was expected to reach Italy’s shores on Wednesday.
The emergency was prompting vastly different reactions in European capitals.
Hungary’s radically antiimmigrant prime minister praised Salvini’s move. Viktor Orban said his initial reaction was a sigh of “Finally!” He called it “a great moment which may finally bring changes in Europe’s migration policies.”
French President Emmanuel Macron criticized what he called Italy’s cynicism and irresponsibility for leaving the migrants at sea, while also deflecting criticism for not allowing the ship to dock in France.
Migrants wave after being transferred from the Aquarius ship to Italian Coast Guard boats in the Mediterranean Sea. Italy’s new populist government refused them safe port in a bid to force Europe to share the burden of unrelenting arrivals.