Italian authorities ordered the seizure of a charity-run migrant rescue ship Tuesday, saying it illegally dumped tons of potentially toxic waste in Italian ports. But humanitarian groups see it as a politically motivated move to block these missions from bringing North African migrants to Europe.
The charities that operate the Aquarius vessel, which has rescued tens of thousands of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa, have denied the allegations, saying the probe is just the latest attempt by Italy to shut down their humanitarian activity. They say they will appeal the order in Italian courts.
In a statement, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) called the seizure request a “disproportionate and unfounded measure, purely aimed at criminalizing lifesaving medical-humanitarian action at sea.”
“This latest attempt by the Italian authorities to stop humanitarian lifesaving search and rescue at any cost is sinister,” said Karline Kleijer, MSF’s head of emergencies.
“After two years of defamatory and unfounded allegations of collusion with human traffickers, judicial investigations, and bureaucratic obstacles against our humanitarian work, we are now accused of organised crime aimed at illicit waste trafficking.”
The preventive seizure of the ship has been ordered in response to a probe by prosecutors in Sicily, who suspect that 24 tons of potentially hazardous waste, including food leftovers, clothing from rescued people, and medical waste, were dumped over a period of two and a half years in 11 Italian ports.
MSF said in a statement that its waste management in ports had always followed standard procedures, and that Italian authorities had never raised issues with its practices since it began operations in 2015.
The Aquarius, the only remaining privately-run rescue vessel patrolling the migrant route between Libya and Italy, has been caught in a long-running feud with Italy, which intensified when a new coalition government, including the hard-line Lega party, came to power in June.
One of the new government’s first acts was to close the country’s ports to migrant rescue vessels, which Lega leader Matteo Salvini has accused of running a “taxi service” for human traffickers transporting African migrants from Libya to Italy.
The vessel has been stuck in the French port of Marseille for months after it was deregistered by Panama – following political pressure from Italy, according to the charities that operate the ship. Italy has denied pressuring Panama to deregister the ship.
In total, 24 people are under investigation in the probe, and authorities have also ordered some of the vessel’s bank accounts frozen, requesting the seizure of 460,000 euros ($525,000).
Salvini, Italy’s Deputy Premier and Interior Minister, tweeted Tuesday that the seizure order was further vindication of his decision to block the Aquarius from Italian ports.
"I was right to stop the NGOs' ships. I not only stopped the trafficking of migrants but also, according to what has emerged, of toxic refuse.”
SOS Mediterranee, the other charity that operates the Aquarius, called on French authorities to “show restraint” in implementing the seizure order.
The group’s head of operations, Frederic Penard, said Italy’s campaign against the Aquarius had deprived the region of an essential search and rescue service for migrants. “The tragic current situation is leading to an absence of humanitarian search and rescue vessels operating in the central Mediterranean, while the mortality rate is on the rise,” he said.
More than 2,000 people have perished in the Mediterranean this year, although the numbers of both total arrivals and deaths have fallen following efforts to stem human trafficking from Libya. More than 4,500 died making the crossing in 2016.
Cover: Migrants disembark the Aquarius vessel, as others wait to leave the ship after arriving to Messina, Sicily island, Italy, Sunday, June 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)