Italian PM Giorgia Meloni is considering banning all humanitarian rescue ships from Italy’s waters as she demands Germany and Norway accept refugees instead. Three NGO ships, flying European flags, have rescued around 1,000 migrants in Mediterranean – but Ms Meloni have branded these “pirate ships” and demanded they be sent elsewhere. Germany had called on Italy to accept the refugees after they were left on the charity-run boats for more than a week. However, Ms Meloni said the specific flags being flown by the ships meant the refugees should be taken to those respective countries, even suggesting they were not in line with national security rules, border control and the fight against illegal immigration in an email to the German and Norwegian embassies.
In comments that will be included in a book by an Italian journalist, Ms Meloni said: “If an NGO ship flies, let’s say, the flag of Germany, there are two possibilities: either Germany recognises it and takes care of it, or that ship becomes a pirate ship”.
The ships are operated by charities Doctors Without Borders (MSF), SOS Mediterranee and SOS Humanity. The humanitarian organisations appealed to Italy and neighbouring Malta to be allowed to disembark the 1,000 people rescued across three ships.
According to Reuters, the German embassy in Rome had recorded 104 unaccompanied children on the ship flying the German flag. The embassy statement, issued on Wednesday evening, said: “Many of them need medical care. We have asked the Italian government to provide help quickly.”
SOS Mediterranee said it had received no response from either Rome or Valletta and that it was facing “a complete blockage in high sea and an implicit ban from entering” Italian ports.
The vessel it operates, Ocean Viking, is carrying more than 230 migrants. The company has since reached out to Greece, France and Spain for help, warning that the weather was set to worsen.
MSF added that their Geo Barents vessel is carrying 572 men, women and children. These include pregnant women and the elderly, with some forced to sleep on the floor.
Caroline Willemen, MSF Coordinator on the Geo Barents said it was “absolutely necessary” that they are able to disembark soon.
To the Italian government’s accusation that the ships were not in line with national security rules, the German embassy replied saying its government believed “civil organisations” rescuing migrants at sea “make an important contribution to saving lives in the Mediterranean”.
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The statement added: “Rescuing people in mortal danger is the most important thing.”
But Ms Meloni said the charity organisations breach international law, accusing them of acting as a “shuttle” between North Africa and Europe.
Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigration League party, echoes Ms Meloni’s sentiment, repeating the idea that NGO vessels in the Mediterranean should take migrants to the countries corresponding to their flags.
He said on Twitter: “A message for the traffickers of human beings and their accomplices – as we set out in the election campaign, Italy will no longer tolerate the business of clandestine immigration and out of control landings. Foreign NGOs will have to adapt accordingly.”
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Italy’s interior minister Matteo Piantedosi added that the country cannot take in migrants rescued by “foreign boats”. According to interior ministry figures, 6,383 other migrants have been brought to its shores by Italian authorities over the last week.
Migrant arrivals by sea to Italy are rising this year, to 85,991 so far, compared with 53,825 in the same period last year. However, these figures are still well below peak arrivals in 2014-2016.
European Commission spokeswoman Anitta Hipper said the commission is aware of the 3 ships, but emphasised that the organisation does not coordinate operations at sea or landings.
She told reporters: “Saving lives at sea is a moral duty as well as a legal obligation for member states under international law, independently from circumstances which have led people to the distress at sea.”