Aid group ships with 500 migrants allowed to dock in Italy

Rome allows the vessels to land despite hard line against migrant smuggling operations from North Africa

Some of the 261 migrants leave the German aid ship Humanity1 at Bari, Italy, on Sunday. EPA
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

About 500 migrants disembarked from two charity vessels at Italian ports on Sunday, as the government insisted it was not backing down on its hard line against smuggling operations from North Africa.

A ship run by French aid group Doctors Without Borders, the Geo Barents, pulled into port in Salerno, near Naples, and 248 people who were rescued in the Mediterranean in recent days disembarked.

“They are happy and relieved, satisfied, and so are we,” said Juan Matias Gil, head of the mission, from the port at Salerno.

Farther north along the Adriatic, the Humanity 1, operated by the German aid group SOS Humanity, arrived in the port at Bari with 261 people aboard and all were on land by Sunday afternoon.

SOS Humanity said the migrants endured a rough journey that included three-metre waves, and that the group’s request for a closer port went unheeded.

On Friday, the Louise Michel arrived in Lampedusa, Sicily, and 33 people disembarked from the vessel, which is funded and decorated by street artist Banksy.

Migrants cross from Morocco to Spanish enclave of Melilla - in pictures

The new government of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose allies campaigned on a tough anti-immigrant stance, has tried to take a hard line against aid groups that rescue migrants in the Mediterranean.

Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi initially sought a policy allowing only “vulnerable” migrants to disembark in Italian ports and insisting that the flag countries of the rescue vessels take the rest in.

That policy led to a diplomatic stand-off with France last month, resulting in Paris suspending its participation in a refugee relocation system.

In a note this weekend, Italian Interior Ministry officials insisted that the government was not backing down but was doing its duty to save lives amid worsening weather conditions at sea.

“Saving lives will always guide the government’s decisions, even with provocative and risky actions by NGOs,” the ministry said.

Migrant children rescued in French waters - in pictures

The government accuses aid groups of incentivising illegal migration and rewarding human traffickers, who charge hundreds of euros each migrant for the dangerous Mediterranean crossing from Libya.

The aid groups deny that their rescue operations encourage migration and say they are necessary to save lives.

The aid groups and legal experts have said Mr Piantedosi’s policy breaches international law and maritime conventions, which call for people rescued at sea to be taken to the closest port of safety as soon as possible.

Migrant ship docks in France after Italy refuses entry - video

Bulgaria detains 70 migrants, with some rushed to hospital

Bulgaria has detained 70 illegal migrants in a bus at parking lot on a highway near the southern city of Sliven early on Sunday and rushed some of them to hospital because of exhaustion, the regional police office said.

Fourteen of the men, who did not have documents but said they were of Afghan origin, were sent to hospital and three will remain under medical observation until they recover, the police said.

Two Romanian citizens, one of whom was the bus driver, were also detained and prosecutors have opened legal proceedings against them.

Bulgaria is on a route used by migrants from the Middle East and Afghanistan to enter the EU.

Dramatic clifftop rescue after migrants’ boat sinks in Greek waters - video

Most do not plan to stay in the bloc's poorest member state but are looking to move on to richer countries in western Europe, using elaborate networks of smugglers.

Bulgaria has increased checks on its southern border with Turkey and across the country to battle a growing migrant influx and prove it is capable of properly guarding the EU's external border.

Sofia was blocked from entering the EU's passport-free Schengen zone by Austria and the Netherlands over security and rule-of-law concerns on December 8.

The country hopes it will be granted entry next year.

Updated: December 12, 2022, 12:21 AM