The U.N. Monday urged Italy’s new government to reverse its decision to leave more than 600 migrants stranded on a rescue boat in the Mediterranean.
The far right and populist coalition, recently sworn in, said over the weekend that all of its southern ports are now shut to migrants, many who make the perilous trip to Europe from the north African.
“Enough. Saving lives is a duty, but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp isn’t. We’re closing the ports,” Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy's anti-immigrant Lega party and Italy’s new interior minister, said Sunday.
The ship carrying 629 people — including seven pregnant women and 123 unaccompanied children — was left drifting in international waters Monday, between Malta and Sicily. Called Aquarius, the vessel belongs to French charity SOS Mediterranée, who on Saturday rescued the migrants.
Italy said Sunday that Malta should take the refugees, but the Maltese government turned them away, accusing the Italian government of violating international norms governing the seas as the rescue was coordinated from Rome.
Rescue workers on board the ship said there was only enough food to feed the migrants until Monday night, adding that the passengers remained completely unaware that they are at the center of a diplomatic standoff.
The U.N. Refugee Agency spoke out Monday, saying there is “an urgent humanitarian imperative,” to have the boat dock. Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR’s special envoy for the Central Mediterranean, said: “People are in distress, are running out of provisions and need help quickly. Broader issues such as who has responsibility and how these responsibilities can best be shared between States should be looked at later.”
The standoff brings into sharp focus the impact Italy’s new populist government could have on the migrant crisis that has threatened to overwhelm Europe.
What happens next?
Italy’s government looks unlikely to back down in the first real test of its anti-immigrant policies. “Malta takes in nobody. France pushes people back at the border, Spain defends its frontier with weapons. From today, Italy will also start to say no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration,” Salvini wrote on his Facebook page.
A group of mayors in southern Italian towns, including Palermo in Sicily where the boat wants to dock, have slammed the policy, saying they are willing to defy the government’s decision.
“We have always welcomed rescue boats and vessels who saved lives at sea. We will not stop now,” Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of Palermo, said. “Salvini is violating the international law. He has once again shown that we are under an extreme far-right government.’’
However, without the cooperation of the coast guard, the mayors’ calls are unlikely to have any significant impact.
The migrants were brought to Italy because SOS Mediterranée rescued them in the Libyan search-and-rescue area, and the effort was headed up by the rescue coordination center in Rome.
Italy is the main point of arrival for migrants traveling from Africa, with new boats setting out daily from the north African coastline. All other countries in the region have closed their borders in a bid to prevent migrants from traveling further north.
According to the UNHCR, Italy has already accepted more than 13,700 refugees from sea in 2018, and while that is still a significant number, it's much fewer than the number by this point in 2017.
In total, more than 600,000 people have arrived in Italy from North Africa in the past five years, with as many as 500,000 of them remaining in the country.
Last year the Italian government considered closing the ports when 11,000 migrants flooded into the country in just five days.
What does Italy’s new government want?
Italy’s open-door policy toward migrants has already changed significantly in the past 12 months. In November, Italy and its EU partners signed a controversial pact with the Libyan government, which would see the EU help the Libyan coast guard intercept migrants and help them return them to Libya.
The U.N. labeled the deal “inhumane.”
The new coalition government under Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte brings together far-right and populist politicians who campaigned on an anti-immigrant plank. They want to boost the amount of time it takes to process refugees and agree to an automatic system whereby all EU countries take an equal share of those arriving on Italy’s shore.
Cover image: The ONG Aquarius comes into the Port of Catania on May 10, 2018 in Catania, Italy. (Fabrizio Villa/Getty Images)