After a six-day standoff at sea, a ship carrying 177 rescued migrants was allowed to dock in an Italian port Monday. But the country’s hardline interior Minister Matteo Salvini is refusing to let them disembark until other European countries agree to take them in — and is threatening to return them to Libya if a solution can’t be found.
"The ship may land in Italy, as long as the 177 migrants are distributed, in a spirit of solidarity by the EU, which is made up of 27 countries,” said Salvini, the head of the far-right, anti-immigration Lega Party, on Italian television Monday.
“Let them pay us this courtesy to play their part, given that we have taken in more than 700,000 people who came by sea.”
He then reiterated a threat to send the 177 back to Libya, where they had departed on human trafficking ships en route to Italy — a move Salvini said would break the smugglers' business model.
However, returning the migrants would violate international laws which prevent asylum seekers being returned to countries where they would be in danger of persecution.
Aid agencies have called on Italy to immediately allow the migrants to disembark in the port of Catania, accusing Salvini of taking them hostage in his standoff with European neighbors.
“They need assistance as soon as possible,” said Giovanna Di Benedetto, a spokeswoman for Save The Children. “Some of them have suffered several months, if not over a one year, of imprisonment in Libya's detention camps.”
The standoff — the latest over rescue ships attempting to dock in Italy — began Wednesday, when Italian coastguard ship Ubaldo Diciotti rescued 190 migrants, mostly from Eritrea and Somalia, from an overcrowded boat about 17 sea miles from the island of Lampedusa.
Italy — whose hardline new government has pledged to close its borders to illegal migrants since it came to power in June — refused to allow the ship to dock, arguing the migrants should disembark in the tiny Mediterranean island nation of Malta, as the ship had first passed through Malta’s search and rescue zone.
When Italian authorities interviewed thirteen of the migrants who were evacuated from the ship for emergency medical treatment, they said that Maltese vessels had directed the ship outside its search-and-rescue area.
The government in Valletta said the migrants had refused its help because their desired destination was Italy.
Italy’s Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli said Sunday that Malta should face fines from the EU for failing to perform the rescue at the earliest opportunity. "Malta's behaviour is once again unqualified and deserving of sanctions,” he wrote on Facebook.
Italy has received more than 650,000 migrants brought by smugglers across the Mediterranean since 2014, prompting growing anti-migrant sentiment which has fuelled the rise of Salvini’s party. Migrant flows into the country have tapered off recently as a result of Libyan efforts to crack down on smuggling rings, backed by European Union support.
The EU has said it is in talks with member states to find takers for the migrants on board the Diciotti, but would not say where they would likely end up.
Last week, France and the European Union brokered a deal for 141 migrants on board the private rescue vessel the MV Aquarius to be distributed across European countries, after another standoff between Italy and Malta over who should be responsible for them.
Malta agreed to allow the charity-funded Aquarius to dock last Tuesday after the deal was reached for France, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain to take the migrants — 67 of whom are under 18 years old.
Cover image: Migrants waits to disembark from Italian coast guard vessel "Diciotti" as they arrive at the port of Catania, Italy, August 21, 2018. (REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello)