Mi­grant res­cue-ship stand­off raises ten­sions across Europe

Times Colonist - - World - COLLEEN BARRY and TRISHA THOMAS

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.

KENNY KARPOV, SOS MEDITER­RA­NEE VIA AP

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.

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