Hundreds arrive on Italian island of Lampedusa amid latest rescue boat dispute

Former interior minister condemns new arrivals as hundreds more remain at sea

Migrants disembark a coastguard vessel, after arriving on packed boats in their hundreds packed, on the Italian island of Lampedusa, Italy this weekend. Reuters
Migrants disembark a coastguard vessel, after arriving on packed boats in their hundreds packed, on the Italian island of Lampedusa, Italy this weekend. Reuters

More than 1,400 migrants arrived on the island of Lampedusa at the weekend as NGOs running rescue ships prepared for a new legal battle with the Italian authorities.

The mass landings sparked calls from far-right politicians for action to stem the flow, with a number of rescue ships that operated in the central Mediterranean already forced to tie up in Italian ports.

Some 15 boats arrived on Lampedusa from Saturday night onwards, Italian news agencies reported, one of them with almost 400 people of different nationalities on board, including 24 women and children.

The arrivals were condemned by Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right League party who is facing trial in Sicily for refusing to allow migrants to disembark while he was interior minister in August 2019.

"With millions of Italians in difficulty, we cannot think of thousands of illegal immigrants," he said, demanding a meeting with Prime Minister Mario Draghi to discuss the issue.

Charity Alarm Phone, meanwhile, appealed for help to pick up five boats carrying more than 400 people in distress in Maltese waters, warning: "The situations on board are critical ... Rescue is needed now!"

Migrants approach Lampedusa aboard a search and rescue boat. Reuters
Migrants approach Lampedusa aboard a search and rescue boat. Reuters

Italy is a prime entry point for Europe-bound migrants, and more than half a million people have landed on its shores since the start of 2015, the International Organisation for Migration said.

The stretch of water between Sicily and North Africa is also one of the world's deadliest migration routes.

Between January 1 and April 21 of this year, 8,604 people arrived in Italy and another 65 in Malta, while 359 people perished, the IOM said.

Numerous charity ships operate in the area, trying to save those who end up in the water after crossing in packed or leaky boats. Some activists accuse authorities of letting them drown.

But the NGOs in turn have faced accusations of colluding with Libyan migrant traffickers to bring people to safety on European shores – charges they strongly deny.

Judicial authorities in Sicily this weekend reinstated a detention order against the Sea-Watch 4 vessel, run by Germany's Sea-Watch organisation, which had kept it in Palermo for six months until March.

The rescue ship returned to an Italian port earlier this month with more than 450 rescued migrants on board. It remains at the Sicilian port of Trapani and cannot leave until the legal dispute is resolved, the NGO said.

The order followed a safety inspection that found too many life jackets on board and deemed the ship's sewage system insufficient for the potential number of people it would rescue.

It is one of a number of ships held in Italian ports over bureaucratic issues which activists say are designed to cost time and money and dissuade the groups from continuing their missions.

"It's completely for political reasons," said Mattea Weihe, a spokeswoman for Sea-Watch. "We saw Salvini very proactively speaking out against the rescue ships.

"We now see with the new government the whole process has introduced more administrative factors but it has the same effect. It means ships being detained but not as visibly as before."

Another vessel, Sea-Watch 3, was impounded by the Italian coastguard in March in the Sicilian port of Augusta, again over safety issues. Ships run by Spanish and Italian groups have suffered the same fate.

European and Italian courts are now considering the issue, which could make the legal status of the rescue missions clearer, activists said.

Updated: May 10, 2021 04:19 PM

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