The fates of 53 desperate migrants rescued while crossing the Mediterranean hung in the balance Friday, after Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, vowed their ship would not be allowed to dock in his country’s ports — and should be sent back to a literal war zone instead.
The group of migrants — which includes nine women and four minors — were rescued by the Sea-Watch 3, a ship operated by a German humanitarian NGO, from a rubber dinghy in distress about 47 miles (76 km) off the Libyan coast Wednesday.
Salvini, an anti-immigration hardliner who says his country’s ports are closed to rescue boats, is insisting the ship disembark the migrants in the closest major port of Tripoli, Libya — currently the scene of fierce militia fighting and an unfolding humanitarian crisis. But Sea-Watch is refusing to comply, saying such a move would breach international laws stating that rescued people should be taken to a safe port.
“Tripoli is not a port of safety. It is a crime to forcibly return rescued people to a country at war, where they face unlawful imprisonment and torture,” the group said in a statement. According to the United Nations, more than 650 have been killed since a battle for Tripoli broke out in April.
Observers say the uncertain fate faced by the Sea-Watch 3’s passengers is the product of an increasingly hardline campaign by Italy and other European states to close their doors to migration across the Mediterranean, in part by criminalizing the work of the NGO-operated rescue vessels working to save lives in the region. The crackdown — which has seen rescue boats seized by officials, subjected to criminal investigations, and stripped of their flags of convenience, rendering them unable to sail — has succeeded in forcing the ships from carrying out what the United Nations says is vital humanitarian work.
Of the 10 NGO rescue boats that once plied the waters of the Mediterranean, only Sea-Watch remains active.
“I am terrified of what will happen in the summer months if Salvini continues to criminalize search and rescue crews”
Federica Mameli, a Sea Watch spokeswoman, told VICE News Friday that instead of Tripoli the ship had headed towards the Italian island of Lampedusa, where it was currently offshore. The NGO’s defiance drew a fierce response from Salvini on Friday, who said the group was “kidnapping women and children in the middle of the sea.”
Salvini has accused rescue ships of being “sea taxis” for migrants, and of working in cahoots with human traffickers; on Wednesday, he threatened to use a tough new security decree — which bans ships considered a risk to security or public order from Italy’s territorial waters, on penalty of a 50,000 euro fine ($56,500) — against Sea-Watch.
The impact of Italy's crackdown
Italy’s campaign against the rescue boats has involved significant criminal cases being launched against crews who have rescued drowning immigrants. Ten crew members from one vessel, the Iuventa, are facing potential jail sentences of up to 20 years in Italy if found guilty of charges of aiding illegal immigration.
Dariush Beigui, the Iuventa’s former captain and among those facing charges, told VICE News that Italy’s crackdown on rescue boats had created the conditions for many more migrant drownings. With the Sea-Watch 3, the only NGO rescue boat still plying the Mediterranean, now locked in a standoff looking for a safe port, there's “no rescue ship is left in the area," he said. "We could help, but we are not allowed to."
“I am terrified of what will happen in the summer months if Salvini continues to criminalize search and rescue crews.” Beigui said.
Carlotta Sami, spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency in Italy, told VICE News that the NGO rescue boats played an “essential and vital role” in saving lives on the Mediterranean.
While a controversial deal between Italy and Libya to help Libyan coast guards intercept migrants leaving its shores has led to a sharp overall reduction in the numbers making the crossing — just 2,144 migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year, compared to 15,448 by the same point last year — the death rate for those attempting the crossing appears to have risen significantly, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration. Roughly one in seven crossings have proven fatal so far this year, compared with about one in 27 last year.
The pattern of departures from Libya disproved the claim from Salvini and others that the presence of the rescue boats created a powerful “pull factor” for illegal migration, Sami said. Figures from Italy’s Institute for International Political Studies suggest that on days in 2019 when no rescue boat has been operative, an average of 85 people a day have tried to cross the Mediterranean, with the number dropping to 76 on days when a rescue boat was present.
She said the directive to disembark the migrants in Libya was untenable, as it went against international law requiring migrants to be delivered to a safe port.
“The situation is so bad in Libya that we’ve been asking European countries to evacuate people from there,” she said. “The situation there has worsened. Nobody should be returned to Libya.”
But Salvini is insistent that the migrants, who hail from African countries including Ivory Coast, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Libya and Burkina Faso, will not be welcomed on his shores. On Twitter, he brushed aside a statement from Sea-Watch’s lawyer Thursday that they were preparing to sue him for defamation for labelling them a “pirate ship.”
“The abusers of the NGO are suing me? How scary,” he tweeted. “For the smugglers and their accomplices, the Italian ports are and remain CLOSED.”
Cover Image: The ship Sea Watch arrives at the port of Catania on January 31, 2019 in Catania, Italy. (Photo by Fabrizio Villa/Getty Images)