Italy threatens to turn away foreign NGO ships with rescued migrants

Alvise Armellini and Naveena Kottoor — DPA International June 28, 2017

Italy is poised to instruct its ports to turn away foreign ships carrying rescued migrants unless other EU countries agree to greater burden-sharing on refugee arrivals, a senior government source said Wednesday.

The threat would apply to ships run by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) but not to foreign state units operating under EU border agency Frontex and EU naval mission Eunavfor Med Sophia, the source told dpa.

The same source said Italy’s ambassador to the EU, Maurizio Massari, was sent to meet EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos to deliver the message that “Italy is dealing with a serious situation and Europe cannot turn the other way.”

“The ambassador highlighted that Italy’s efforts have been enormous and well beyond international obligations [and] under the current circumstances it is difficult for our authorities to allow further disembarkations of migrants,” an Italian diplomat added.

It was not immediately clear whether the ban against foreign NGO ships could be enacted legally. It could affect several German vessels operated by German sea rescue charities, such as Jugend Rettet and Sea Watch.

“We are a bit worried by this idea,” said Michele Trainiti, sea rescue coordinator for the Doctors Without Borders (MSF). The medical charity operates two boats in the Mediterranean, including one with a non-Italian flag.

He said diverting vessels to France, for example, “would require many more days of navigation with people in very precarious situations,” which current MSF rescue vessels “are not equipped for.”

Rome’s hard-line message filtered out following the record rescue of nearly 10,000 migrants since the weekend, and in the wake of Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni’s failure at last week’s EU summit to convince partners to take in more asylum seekers.

It also came in the wake of a Sunday local election rout for the ruling centre-left Democratic Party, which several commentators blamed on public discontent with rising immigration and government proposals to grant citizenship to children of foreign residents.

The opposition Forza Italia party of former premier Silvio Berlusconi – seen as one of the winners of the local elections – said the government had responded to its urgings for a tougher line on migration.

Avramopoulos, the migration commissioner, sided with Italy and said that the situation on the route from North Africa to Italy had become “untenable.”

In 2015, the EU agreed that 160,000 asylum seekers should be relocated from Greece and Italy to other member states, in the name of burden-sharing. As of early June, only about 22,500 have actually been transferred, according to the European Commission.

Italian Interior Ministry data, last updated Wednesday, showed that 76,873 migrants had landed on Italian shores since the start of the year, a 13-per-cent increase from 2016. Arrivals are expected to increase further during the warm summer months.

“In everything we do, we all have a humanitarian obligation to save lives. Of course, we cannot leave a handful of EU countries on their own to deal with this,” Avramopolous said.

The EU border agency Frontex said the arrival of high numbers of boats from Libya was “extremely worrying.”

“This year we are witnessing levels never registered before in short periods of time,” Fabrice Leggeri, the executive director of the European Union’s border agency Frontex said.