A ship with more than 200 migrants and refugees on board is being blocked from entering Italian waters, the second time in two weeks that a new anti-immigrant government in Rome has turned away a vessel carrying people rescued from drowning in the Mediterranean.
The ship – named Lifeline and operated by the German aid group Mission Lifeline – had 234 people on board whom its crew pulled from the Mediterranean.
Matteo Salvini, the Italian interior minister and one of the country\s two deputy prime ministers, had previously indicated that the ship may not dock in Italy and that Malta should take it in.
Italian Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli said on Friday on his Facebook page that Malta had refused to take in the ship, calling the decision “absurd” and “inhumane”.
He also posted a photo of an email from the Maltese Armed Forces saying the “Lifeline” was not in an Search and Rescue (SAR) situation. The Maltese email also said the ship “has not manifested any distress”.
In response, a Maltese government spokesperson told dpa news agency that “the operation was initially handled by the Rome rescue coordination centre, with the Libyan authority assuming responsibility of the [search-and-rescue] cases. In these cases, Malta was neither the coordinating nor the competent authority.”
220 deaths in three days
Salvini on Thursday said the ship had acted improperly by taking on board migrants that the Italian coastguard had assigned to the Libyan coastguard to rescue. Salvini said the rescue was in Libyan waters, which Lifeline denies.
“We ask humanly and politically that Malta finally opens one of its ports and lets these desperate people disembark” and then seize the ship, Salvini said.
Maltese Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia said on Friday that Salvini “should get his facts straight” and that Malta was not involved, as the rescue took place between Libya and Lampedusa.
In a similar incident last week, Salvini barred the French NGO-run Aquarius ship with more than 600 rescued people on board from docking in Italy, triggering a dispute across the European Union.
Malta also refused to allow the rescue ship into its port and after much delay, the Aquarius eventually docked in Valencia, Spain.
Spanish Education Minister Isabel Celaa said in a statement on Friday that Josep Borrell, Spain’s minister for foreign affairs, had spoken with authorities in Malta to offer aid for another ship turned away by Italy. Borrell had also spoken to Italian officials, she added.
The latest incident comes as the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said on Thursday that 220 people had drowned off the coast of Libya in recent days while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
The figure was a “conservative estimate,” UN spokesman William Spindler said in Geneva on Friday.
Salvini, also the head of the far-right League party, is making good on an election promise to go after rescue ships run by aid groups, which he has likened to taxi services that help the people-smugglers.
In a video posted to Facebook on Thursday, Salvini criticised Mission Lifeline for not heeding the instructions of Italian or Libyan authorities.
“They risk the lives of the migrants on the dinghy, refuse to listen to Italian and Libyan authorities and intervene so they can load this valuable cargo of humans – of human flesh – on board,” Salvini said.
German rescue organisation Sea-Eye responded to the news on its Twitter feed, writing: “220 people die within three days and Matteo Salvini is talking about ‘human flesh.’ Horrific.”
Mission Lifeline said on Friday that it still has not been assigned a port, despite its requests. It said it picked up additional migrant passengers during another rescue overnight, and currently was heading north with 234 on board. It said it had responded to a request for help by a merchant vessel to help rescue 113 people.
“The latest drownings show how important our sea rescue efforts are, and that not a single rescue ship can be missed,” said Axel Steier, the Mission Lifeline founder.
“The rescue of human lives must be prioritised before border control.”
Italy’s three-week-old populist government doubled down Friday on its tough stance against migrants, insisting it could not take “one more” refugee and warning the migration crisis could put the bloc’s survival at stake.
Just two days before a mini summit on the issue in Brussels, it dug its heels in on campaign promises to stop the influx of migrants, threatening to seize rescue ships or barring them from its ports.
“We cannot take in one more person,” Salvini told the German weekly Der Spiegel. “On the contrary – we want to send away a few.”
Rome had briefly weighed boycotting Sunday’s mini-summit, but finally agreed to attend after reassurances from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Italy had been riled because a leaked draft statement focused more on the redistribution of the migrants once they had arrived in Europe, rather than on securing Europe’s borders.
But the government was placated after Merkel told them the text had been shelved.
More than 640,000 migrants have arrived in Italy since 2014, many of whom made their way northwards to join family or to countries perceived as providing more assistance until Italy’s neighbours enacted stricter border controls.
Arrivals are down some 80 percent this year to around 14,500, as people have turned to other routes.
News of rescue ships being turned away from European ports comes as the EU bloc grapples to find a solution to the refugee crisis.
UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi called on the EU on Friday to “find a new and united approach” to migration and asylum, saying it was achievable.
Grandi, in a statement issued in the face of an EU summit at the end of next week, said that guarantees were needed so that people in distress at sea are rescued and taken ashore in a predictable way.
Europe is no longer caught in the crux of a large Mediterranean migrant influx, as in 2015, he said.
“Today I am urging European states to seize this opportunity to find a new and united approach that answers the shared needs of all countries to be able to manage their borders and their migration policies, in a way that simultaneously upholds the European and international asylum standards that emerged from the Second World War,” he said.__Al Jazeera