Italy’s firebrand interior minister threatened Sunday to return to Libya 177 migrants who have been aboard an Italian coast guard ship for days following another standoff with Malta.
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini demanded that other European countries take in the migrants after his Maltese counterpart, Michael Farrugia, insisted that the “only solution” is for the Diciotti ship to dock at the Italian island of Lampedusa.
The Diciotti, working under the EU’s Frontex Mediterranean rescue operation, has been off Lampedusa after rescuing the migrants Aug. 16.
Italy asked Malta to take them in, but Malta refused, saying the migrant boat wasn’t in distress and that the migrants declined Maltese assistance, preferring to continue toward Italy.
In a tweet Sunday, Farrugia accused Italy of rescuing the migrants in Maltese waters “purely to prevent them from entering Italian waters.”
Salvini, who has refused to allow aid groups to dock in Italy, shot back: “Or Europe decides to help Italy concretely, starting with the 180-odd migrants aboard the Diciotti, or we’ll be forced to do what will definitively stop the smugglers’ business: bring the people recovered at sea to a Libyan port,” the ANSA news agency quoted him as saying.
If carried out, Salvini’s threat could pose legal issues for Italy, since the Italian government has already been faulted by the European Court of Human Rights for using its own ships to return migrants to Libya.
Italy has gotten around that 2012 court ruling by helping Libya’s coast guard better patrol its own coasts to bring migrants back.
Italy’s transport minister, Danilo Toninelli, demanded that Europe open its ports, and tweeted Sunday that Malta’s position was “worthy of sanction.”
Malta has defended its actions as entirely consistent with international law.
According to Reuters, the dispute was the latest example of how “politically fraught” the issue of dealing with migrants is for EU leaders — and especially those on the front lines of the crisis.
“There have been other stand-offs between Italy and Malta,” Reuters reported.
“In July, Malta rebuffed Italian pressure to aid a boat carrying hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean.
“Flows on one of the main migration routes into Europe – across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy – have tapered off as Libyan factions have cracked down on people smugglers.
“But people are still dying at sea and summer is peak season for migrants attempting the crossing, often in overcrowded, unseaworthy boats.”
Since June, according to Reuters, “Salvini has led a campaign to stop the activity of humanitarian rescue ships out of Italy’s ports and has toughened the stance on allowing ships to dock in the country’s ports.”
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