Some 177 migrants who have been on an Italian coastguard boat for five days were not allowed to disembark yesterday, despite their ship having reached overnight the Sicilian shore.
It was the latest act of defiance by Italy’s populist government, which, since being sworn in June, has taken drastic measures to curb migrant arrivals.
The Diciotti vessel rescued the migrants on Thursday in Maltese search and rescue waters, and was initially denied port docking rights by both Italy and Malta.
On Monday, Italy agreed to let the Diciotti arrive in the port of Catania, but Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is not letting anyone get off until other EU nations agree to take in the migrants.
Italy should “demand explanations from Brussels and other European governments” about their lack of help, Salvini, a far-right, eurosceptic leader, said in a statement.
He recalled a similar situation in mid-July, when Italy accepted two rescue ships with 450 migrants, after a deal was reached to redistribute some of them to other EU nations.
Since then, Salvini charged, only France kept its word, taking 47 out of an agreed quota of 50.
Germany, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Malta, all due to take 50 people each, accepted none, he added.
Salvini also called on the EU to investigate reports from migrants that the Maltese navy intercepted, but did not rescue them, instead escorting them towards Italy.
The Maltese government has said the boat the migrants were originally travelling in was not in distress and that migrants told Maltese officials that they wanted to reach Italy.
In Brussels, Alexander Winterstein, a European Commission spokesman, said that efforts to broker a new burden-sharing deal for the Diciotti were “ongoing”, but declined to comment further.
Salvini’s hardline stance has earned criticism from human rights associations and watchdogs, including the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR and Italy’s commissioners for the rights of minors and detainees.
It has also raised questions over the legitimacy of trying to bar an Italian coastguard vessel from reaching an Italian port, and of leaving of the rescued migrants, including children, in a confined space for days.
“It is incomprehensible. Even embarrassing,” coastguard official Antonello Ciavarelli told the Corriere della Sera newspaper on Monday.
“The Diciotti is a military ship of the Italian state and it is being forbidden to moor in an Italian port,” he complained before the permit was issued to reach Catania.
Magistratura Democratica, a left-leaning association of magistrates, said that nobody should “remain silent” over Salvini’s violation of “the values and the rules of the [Italian] Constitution”.
According to internal coastguard documents published on Twitter by Alessandra Ziniti, a journalist with Italian daily La Repubblica, there are 34 children among Diciotti passengers.
“We are very worried about the conditions of these people,” Giovanna Di Benedetto, a spokeswoman for the Save the Children charity, told SkyTG24 news channel.
Reporting that many aboard had spent 12-18 months in Libyan detention camps, Di Benedetto said that denying them assistance was “inadmissible”.
The Italian coastguard originally took on 190 migrants but 13 people in need of urgent medical attention were taken on Thursday to the island of Lampedusa for urgent medical treatment.
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