Migrants remain at sea as Italy-Malta standoff escalates

Remigio Civitarese
Giugno 13, 2018

Malta has accused Italy of violating worldwide norms by instructing a migrant rescue ship with 629 people aboard to stay at sea while a diplomatic standoff plays out over where it can dock. But he quoted Macron as telling Tuesday's weekly Cabinet meeting: "If any ship was closer to France's shores, it could obviously dock on the French coast".

The passengers, with many migrants from Sudan among them, were apparently unaware of they had become pawns of sorts in Europe's new political equilibrium.

Following up on his campaign promises, the new Italian interior minister and deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing League party, said the ship would not be allowed to dock in Italy and suggested that as it was closer to Malta, it should dock there.

On Sunday, when Italy told the Aquarius not to proceed to ports in Sicily, Salvini first pushed Malta to accept the vessel, saying that the tiny European Union island country - in the middle of the Central Mediterranean migration corridor - routinely closes its doors.

The standoff marked the first inevitable clash over migrant rescues with League leader Salvini, now running Italy's interior ministry.

But efforts to break the stalemate between Italy and Malta are expected to continue.

Spain unexpectedly offered on Monday to take in the migrants, who were picked up off Libya's coast over the weekend, but the Aquarius had still not moved more than 16 hours later, as Italian authorities work out the logistics of the trip.

Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said his country had "asked for a gesture of solidarity from Europe and this gesture has been made".

"By closing their ports, Italy and Malta have not only turned their backs on more than 600 desperate and vulnerable people but also on their obligations under global law", Elisa De Pieri, Amnesty International's Italy researcher, said in a statement.

"My aim is to guarantee a peaceful life for these youths in Africa and for our children in Italy", Mr Salvini said, using a Twitter hashtag which translates to, "We are shutting the ports". Another 21 patients suffered severe chemical burns from exposure to sea water mixed with fuel, while others risk pneumonia and yet others need immediate surgery for orthopedic issues.

Porro said: "At the moment we are like an ambulance that has been stopped and we don't know where to go".

"We call on all involved to contribute to a swift resolution so that the people on board the Aquarius vessel may be safely disembarked as soon as possible".

In an attempt to ease the stalemate, a number of mayors of port cities in Italy on Monday said that they would allow the ship to dock in their cities.

The U.N. refugee agency rejects the argument that boats run by private organizations should stop making such rescues, as they are simply providing an incentive for migrants to make perilous overseas journeys.

The 629 migrants, including pregnant women and scores of children, have been at the heart of a huge row between Malta and Italy since their maritime rescue by French charity SOS Mediterranee on Saturday.

"This was a first important signal that Italy can not go on alone supporting this huge weight", said Salvini, who threatened to bar additional rescue vessels.

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