Italy’s interior minister has sparked a new migration crisis in the Mediterranean by barring two rescue boats from bringing refugees to shore, a week after the Aquarius was prevented from docking.
“Two other ships with the flag of Netherlands, Lifeline and Seefuchs, have arrived off the coast of Libya, waiting for their load of human beings abandoned by the smugglers,” Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigrant party the League, wrote on his Facebook page. “These gentlemen know that Italy no longer wants to be complicit in the business of illegal immigration, and therefore will have to look for other ports [not Italian] where to go.”
Italy’s closure of its ports to the migrant rescue ship Aquarius, which was carrying 620 people, triggered warnings from aid agencies of a deadly summer at sea for people trying to cross the Mediterranean.
Axel Steier, the co-founder of Mission Lifeline which operates the Lifeline ship, said his crew had rescued more than 100 migrants off Libya on Friday in an operation with a US warship, and transferred them to a Turkish merchant vessel.
He said his ship was too small to make the journey from Libya to Italian ports and that he always transferred migrants to other ships, but insisted those craft should have the right to land in Italy.
“I am sure there is an obligation for Italy to take them because its closest safe harbour is Lampedusa. We hand over migrants to Europe because of the Geneva convention,” he said.
Vessels chartered by an assortment of European NGOs have plied the waters off Libya for three years, rescuing migrants from leaking boats and transporting them to Sicily.
Following Salvini’s decision to prevent the Aquarius from docking, however, Malta quickly followed suit, leaving the vessel stranded at sea until Spain offered to take the ship. It is due to arrive in Valencia on Sunday.
Crews of the NGO boats say Salvini’s port closures leaves them without anywhere close by to take the people they rescue, and that the move will prove counterproductive.
“It will not stop people coming,” said Ruben Neugebauer, of the German charity ship Sea Watch. “They will come anyway, but more of them will die.”
Sea Watch refused last week to take 40 migrants rescued by the US navy ship Trenton off Libya, fearing a fate similar to that of the Aquarius. Trenton waited four days before being allowed to dock in Sicily.
Charities say the NGO boats are a vital lifeline, rescuing more than 88,000 people in the past two years, but critics say they are a pull factor, encouraging people to make the dangerous sea journey.
More than 600,000 migrants have made the crossing from Libya to Italy in the past four years, and Salvini’s stance reflects frustration that the rest of Europe refuses to take its share of arrivals. At least 13,000 people have drowned trying to reach European shores.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, accused Salvini last week of cynicism and irresponsibility, but at the same time refused to allow the Aquarius to dock at French ports.
“Malta and Italy didn’t open their ports, but then most other European governments didn’t help either,” said Izza Leghtas, a senior advocate at Europe for Refugees International. “They are all passing the ball among themselves.“
If the NGO boats are unable to land the people they rescue and cease to operate, Operation Sophia, an EU anti-smuggler mission patrolling the Mediterranean, may take up some of the slack. NGOs, however, say its warships operate too far out to sea, given that people traffickers favour towing rubber boats full of migrants to the edge of Libya’s 12-mile territorial waters before setting them adrift.
Italy’s port closures come despite an 85% fall in migrant crossings since last year. The decrease is in part the result of the EU and Italy training and funding Libya’s coastguard to intercept vessels.
This piece originally appeared here