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Italian interior minister declares war on Spanish NGO rescue ship

Matteo Salvini says that crew of one of the few vessels still working to save migrants in the Mediterranean will “only see Italian ports in postcards”

The wreckage of the boat found on the Mediterranean.
The wreckage of the boat found on the Mediterranean. AFP

Italy’s deputy prime minister and interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has already imposed an anti-immigration policy in his own country, and he is well on his way to doing the same elsewhere in Europe. He faces very little opposition on land, and out at sea, where one in seven migrants died on their Mediterranean crossing in June alone, there are increasingly fewer ships to get in the way of his no-entry policy.

This is the direct result of not letting us work in the Mediterranean

Oscar Camps, head of Proactiva Open Arms

This week, Salvini has lashed out against the Spanish non-profit group Proactiva Open Arms, which recently brought a group of migrants to the port of Barcelona after Italy refused them entry. Via his Twitter account, the federal secretary of the League party asserted that Proactiva “will only see Italian ports in postcards.”

Two ships operated by the NGO were in the central Mediterranean at the time, trying to save migrants in an area where there are practically no other rescue boats left. One of the ships, the Astral, found the remains of a rubber dinghy and the floating bodies of a woman and a child. The only survivor was another woman who had been clinging to a piece of driftwood for 48 hours.

According to Proactiva, there is only one possible explanation for this scene: the three migrants refused to go back to Libya with that country’s Coast Guard, and the latter destroyed their boat and left them to their fate. A merchant ship that was passing by allegedly also refused them aid.

“I want to report a failure to provide assistance by the cargo ship Triades, which left a vessel to its fate in the middle of the night, and by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, who got there two days late and left people to their fate,” said the head of the Spanish non-profit, Óscar Camps. “This is the direct result of hiring armed militias to make the rest of Europe believe that Libya is a safe state with a Coast Guard able to deal with this. This is the direct result of not letting us work in the Mediterranean.”

A crew member of NGO Proactiva Open Arms embraces the rescued woman.
A crew member of NGO Proactiva Open Arms embraces the rescued woman. REUTERS

Also aboard the Astral, in international waters some 80 nautical miles from the coast of Libya, was Erasmo Palazzotto, a representative for the Italian leftist federation Free and Equal (LeU), who blamed the Italian government for the deaths.

“It is responsible for the crimes that are committed by this so-called Coast Guard,” he said. “Forty-eight hours earlier there had been an announcement that a boat with 158 people aboard had been intercepted and provided with medical and humanitarian assistance. Too bad they forgot to mention that they left behind two women and a four-year-old child and that they sunk the boat because they refused to board the Libyan ship.”

Salvini is blaming the Libyan Coast Guard for the deaths. His closed-dock policy is based on the allegation that Libya’s rescue teams work efficiently, and that somehow Libya represents a “safe port,” a requirement of the maritime code for dropping off people rescued at sea. That is why the Italian Interior Ministry is trying to salvage its own credibility by defending another country. “These insults and lies from some foreign non-profit confirm that we are on the right track: reducing the number of departures and reducing the arrivals means reducing deaths,” Salvini said in a Facebook post.

The Italian government has assimilated the League’s immigration policy and closed the ports to all ships carrying migrants, even military missions. It is of little consequence that arrivals have dropped 80% from last year, and that only deaths have increased (more than 1,000 so far in 2018, according to the UN migration agency).

Last week, Salvini even questioned whether an Italian Coast Guard ship would be allowed entry unless all migrants aboard were handcuffed first. This elicited a response by the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, although the first reply came from the writer Roberto Saviano, who has become Salvini’s public scourge: “The minister of the Bad Life talks about ‘lies’ and ‘insults’ about the dead at sea. Confess, rather, how much pleasure you derive from watching innocent children die at sea.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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