Photo Credits: Wikipedia
As The New York Times reports, the impasse came days after Italy announced fines of up to €1 million — more than $1.1 million — for ships carrying unauthorized migrants attempting to dock in Italian ports without permission. Italy ordered seizure of such ships, and arrested the captain of one.
Those ships, operated by charities, provide the only search and rescue operations in the international waters where often-unseaworthy boats packed with people attempt to cross from Libya to the nearest European country, Italy.
Since Friday, 251 people had been rescued from three boats in distress by the vessel Ocean Viking, operated by the international aid group Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym, M.S.F., and SOS Méditeranée, a European maritime rescue charity. Then, on Monday afternoon, another 105 people were pulled from the water as the flimsy dinghy they were traveling on burst, according to M.S.F., bringing the total number of people onboard to 356.
Italy’s interior minister and a deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, has been the main architect of policies that seek to close the country off to further migration from the Middle East and Africa. Mr. Salvini contacted the ship on Friday to warn that it would not be allowed to dock in Italy.
Another ship, the Open Arms, run by a Spanish charity group, had 151 rescued migrants and refugees and was denied entry into Italian and Maltese ports. Famous actor Richard Gere went abroad the Open Arms vessel late last week in an attempt to call attention to the situation. “Since his friends from the NGO have 180 immigrants on board, I am sure that the generous millionaire will host them all in his villas,” Mr. Salvini wrote on Twitter. “Am I wrong ???”
The Italian government position does not match those of the humanitarian organizations since last year, when the new government formed by the League party and the Five-Star Movement banned vessels carrying migrants to its ports. Within days of taking office, the government refused entry to a ship carrying more than 600 people rescued at sea, which ultimately docked in Spain.
The United Nations has criticized the Italian policy of turning ships away and Charlie Yaxley, a spokesman for the body’s refugee agency, said the ships played an “invaluable role in saving the lives of refugees and migrants attempting the dangerous sea crossing to Europe.” The NGO says Spain and Malta also have refused to open their ports, and the EU Commission only intervenes by request of a national government.
The crew now plans to head north and attempt to dock. The rescue vessel certainly would not return people to Libya, wracked by civil war, because of safety concerns. “Many of the people we have rescued recount horrific stories of violence, torture, extortion, sexual violence and forced labor in Libya, as well as arbitrary detention in inhumane conditions,” M.S.F. said in a statement. “We know that migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers experience alarming levels of violence and exploitation in the country.”