Rescue Ship Poses New Test for Italy’s Hard-Line Migrant Policies


ROME — A rescue ship carrying 42 migrants floated in Italian waters off the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa on Thursday, further inflaming tensions between humanitarian groups and Italy’s populist government, which has adopted hard-line immigration policies.

The ship, the Sea Watch 3, is operated by Sea-Watch, a German nongovernmental organization, and flies a Dutch flag. It has been at sea for two weeks, awaiting instructions for a safe harbor at which to disembark the migrants, which it picked up in international waters off Libya. The vessel entered Italian waters Wednesday evening.

Although new Italian legislation forbids the ship from entering a port without authorization, the Sea Watch 3’s captain decided to move forward, citing an emergency situation. “We are entering Italian territorial waters out of a state of necessity,” Capt. Carola Rackete said in a radio communication with the port authorities in Lampedusa on Wednesday.

“I know what I’m risking, but the 42 survivors I have on board are exhausted. I’m taking them to safety,” Captain Rackete said on Twitter on Wednesday.

The Italian government has repeatedly declared its waters closed to migrants. The Sea Watch 3 initially rescued 53 people off Libya on June 12, but three days later, Italy allowed 10 of them — including children and two pregnant women — to disembark for medical reasons. Another migrant disembarked a week later on health grounds.

Captain Rackete’s decision unleashed the ire of the Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who has railed against immigration. “I won’t allow foreign NGOs to dictate the law on national borders for a country like Italy,” Mr. Salvini said in a radio interview on Thursday morning.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said, “The behavior of the commander of the Sea Watch is of unheard-of gravity.” He told reporters on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit meeting in Osaka, Japan, that the case had moved “from the political to the judicial sphere” and should be handled by Italian magistrates.

Mr. Conte added that diplomatic discussions were continuing with the Dutch government.

But even as the stalemate off Lampedusa dominated the front pages of Italian newspapers on Thursday, migrants continued to land on Italian shores. At dawn, 10 people — including a woman and a minor — arrived on Lampedusa, docking near the port authority’s office.

More than 300 migrants — traveling mostly on small boats — have landed in southern Italy in the two weeks since the Sea Watch 3 has been in its standoff with the Italian government.

Under new legislation promoted by Mr. Salvini, rescue boats that bring migrants to Italy without permission could be fined up to 50,000 euros, or about $57,000, and the ships can be seized.

Italian officials could also charge the crew of the Sea Watch 3 with aiding and abetting illegal immigration, a crime introduced by a previous center-right government that has not generally been applied to rescue ships.

On Wednesday, Italian financial police officers boarded the Sea Watch 3 and checked the crew’s documents, Captain Rackete said in her Twitter post.

The government’s hard line has spurred some protest. For more than a week, Lampedusa’s parish priest, the Rev. Carmelo La Magra, and some residents, along with occasional tourists, have been sleeping in the churchyard in protest. They have pledged to sleep outdoors until the migrants aboard the ship have been allowed to disembark in a safe port.

This week, the archbishop of Turin, Cesare Nosiglia, told the Italian government that he would take in the 42 migrants at the Roman Catholic Church’s expense, but there was no immediate information about whether he had received an answer.

Haidi Sadik, a cultural mediator on the Sea Watch 3, said in a statement, “We have people onboard that have gone through horrors in Libya, that have been heavily tortured.”

“Any person rescued at sea, by law has to be brought to a place of safety,” she added.

After the Sea Watch 3 picked up the migrants, the Libyan Coast Guard asked the ship to transport them back to Libya, identifying the country’s capital, Tripoli, as a port of safety. But many international commentators and organizations say that conditions of safety do not currently exist in the North African country.

The European Court of Human Rights this week rejected the humanitarian ship’s request to oblige Italy to allow the migrants to disembark.

On Thursday morning, Sea-Watch again urged the European Union to weigh in.

The organization wrote on Twitter: “Yesterday, we drove into territorial waters of #Italy out of necessity. We already had the coast guard and the customs on board. We waited one night. We cannot wait another. Desperation of people in need is nothing to gamble with.”

Source : Nytimes