Italy criticized for stance on migrant rescues

Italy criticized for stance on migrant rescues
Migrants wait to be transferred off a boat during their rescue in international waters in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 14 April 2020

Italy criticized for stance on migrant rescues

Italy criticized for stance on migrant rescues
  • Many feared to have drowned over Easter weekend while heading to Europe from Libya

ROME: Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are urging Italy’s government to rescue migrants in distress on boats and dinghies off the shores of Sicily, amid fears that many may have drowned over the Easter weekend as they tried to make their way to Europe from Libya. 

While criticizing Italy’s decision to close its ports, NGOs have also accused EU member states of abandoning people at sea after failing to respond to information that boats carrying migrants were in distress in waters between Malta and Italy. 

On Saturday, Malta’s government banned rescue ships from bringing migrants to the country because of COVID-19. 

The decision came a few days after Italy’s government declared its ports “unsafe” for migrants while the country struggles to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Rome said it will block the arrival of migrant rescue ships until the crisis is over. 

Libya, where thousands of migrants are kept in detention camps in coastal areas, closed its ports in March. 

But as the weather improves and the sea is calmer, migrants are still attempting journeys from Libya.

On Sunday, Italy’s Transport Ministry ordered the 159 men and women on board the Aylan Kurdi, a ship run by German NGO Sea-Eye, to be moved to another vessel, and to be tested and quarantined there rather than be permitted to disembark in Sicily. 

“It’s a fair decision,” Roberto Ammatuna, mayor of the Sicilian town of Pozzallo, told Arab News. “We don’t have enough ICU (intensive care unit) beds in Sicily to cure our own people; go figure out if we can help migrants too … Better that they’re checked aboard ships before landing here. People are scared.”

In a letter addressed to Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, 23 Italian MPs and three members of the European Parliament in Brussels wrote: “We implore you to act quickly to help those who need to be rescued at sea. We hear news of a shipwreck, of boats laden with humanity, desperately trying to reach the European coast. We ask the Italian government to intervene before it is too late.”

Gregorio de Falco, one of the signatories, told Arab News: “This is the time of year when migrant arrivals increase as the sea is usually calmer after winter. In addition, bombings have been reported in Libya in areas very close to the coast, where migrants are kept in detention centers. Both these circumstances are pushing migrants to try and leave.”

De Falco, who was an Italian coast guard captain before being elected to Parliament, strongly criticized the government’s decision to close the country’s ports to migrants. 

“It’s really ignominious. Coronavirus is being used as an excuse to say Italy and its people wouldn’t be safe for shipwrecks or for migrants in general,” he said. 

Malta’s Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo wrote in a letter to all EU member states: “The only sustainable and realistic option to avoid this humanitarian crisis is for the EU to launch an immediate humanitarian mission in Libya.”

He said the EU should distribute food and medical supplies worth at least €100 million ($110 million). 

Bartolo estimates that there are “over 650,000 people waiting to leave Libyan shores for Europe as the rate of departures accelerates due to conflict, disease and lack of basic needs.” 

Malta’s Foreign Ministry said delivering aid to Libya is “the quickest way of alleviating and minimizing the difficult circumstances that migrants are living in.”