An Italian charity ship has rescued about 50 people at sea off Libya, prompting Rome to warn it was ready to “stop once and for all” such private vessels from bringing rescued migrants to Italy.
Italy’s hardline interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has repeatedly declared Italian waters closed to NGO rescue vessels and has left several of them stranded at sea in the past in an attempt to force the rest of Europe to take more asylum seekers.
“Mare Jonio has just rescued a rubber boat in distress that was sinking with around 50 people on board,” the Mediterranea collective of aid groups and associations that runs the ship said on Twitter.
Volunteers aboard the Mare Jonio pulled the migrants – reportedly including 12 minors – from a dinghy 40 nautical miles off the coast of Libya.
A Libyan coastguard vessel had approached the dinghy while the rescue was under way but left the rescuees to the Mare Jonio, which was expected to request permission to bring them to Italy.
It was not immediately clear whether the Mare Jonio had defied an order from the command centre in Rome telling it to leave the rescue to the Libyans.
Italy, with the support of the EU, has since 2017 been training the Libyan coastguard to intercept boats as part of a controversial deal that has led to a sharp fall in numbers arriving in Italy.
NGO ships have drawn fire from Rome by attempting on occasion to stop migrants being taken back to crisis-hit Libya, which human rights organisations insist cannot be considered safe for repatriations.
The Italian interior ministry said it was “working on a directive to reiterate the procedures that must be followed” after sea rescues.
“Saving lives remains a priority, but immediately afterwards the orders of the national authorities of the competent territory must be obeyed, according to the international rules of search and assistance at sea. Any deviance from those rules can be read as a premeditated action to bring illegal immigrants to Italy and facilitate human trafficking,” it warned, adding that Salvini was “about to sign a directive” on the issue.
Should the Mare Jonio be refused permission to dock, it would be the first such standoff between the Italian government and an Italian-flagged ship.
The Mare Jonio is the only privately run rescue ship operating in the central Mediterranean. The others are either undergoing repairs, docked for a crew change or blocked by administrative or judicial hurdles.
This year 348 migrants have been brought to safety in Italy, compared with 6,161 in the same period last year.
Médecins Sans Frontières tweeted: “Despite a dangerously low SAR [search and rescue] capacity in the #Mediterranean due to #Italy & #EU policy, people continue to risk their lives to seek safety.”
In 2019 234 people have died in the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).