ROME, JAN 23 — Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on Tuesday denied entry to a humanitarian vessel with 47 rescued migrants on board and nixed an appeal from the United Nations (UN) over the plight of refugees and asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean.
The vessel, run by the German humanitarian group Sea Watch, rescued the migrants on Saturday off the Libyan coast, and has been sailing ever since without being allowed to dock anywhere in Europe.
“The umpteenth vessel run by Sea Watch NGO would like to reach an Italian port. The answer is no,” Salvini, who also serves as deputy prime minister, said in a Facebook video. “It is the only way to stop the human traffickers, who also bring arms and drugs into Italy.”
Earlier on Tuesday, the Sea Watch crew tweeted that “we are on day four on the high seas since the rescue of 47 people in distress. Still, no state has answered our requests for a port of safety.”
Also on Tuesday, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) issued a statement expressing “increasing alarm (at) the situation on the Mediterranean, where over the past few days we have seen two shipwrecks, numerous other rescue incidents, a merchant vessel disembarking rescued individuals to Libya, and reports that the Libyan coast guard itself has been unable to respond to incidents within its designated search and rescue region of the Mediterranean because of shortages of fuel.”
Close to 170 lives are believed to have been lost in the two shipwrecks, the UNHCR statement said, warning that “in Libya’s current context, where outbreaks of violence and widespread human rights violations prevail, no rescued refugees and migrants should be returned there.”
UNHCR also said “it has become urgent for states to take action to reassert effective rescue capacity on the Mediterranean by increasing coordinated multi-state rescue, restoring rapid disembarkation in a place of safety, and lifting impediments to the work of NGO rescue vessels.”
Salvini’s reply to the UNHCR appeal was simple. “More arrivals, more money for human traffickers? My answer to the UN is NO,” the minister, who leads the right-wing League party, wrote on Twitter.
Also on Tuesday, the German news agency dpa reported that Germany is suspending participation in Operation Sophia, the EU naval deployment to counter human trafficking across the Mediterranean, citing Italy’s hardline policy against NGO vessels.
Launched in 2015, Operation Sophia is tasked with fighting smugglers, training the Libyan coast guard and enforcing a weapons embargo on the conflict-ridden North African country.
Today’s request for help from Sea Watch follows on the latest tug-of-war over migrants, which saw Europe refuse access to 49 rescued men, women and children left stranded aboard two German NGO vessels for three weeks over Christmas and New Year’s.
It was resolved earlier this month after a deal was reached for them to be distributed among Germany, France, Portugal, Malta, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Italy, Romania and Ireland. – XINHUA