An Italian coastguard ship carrying 522 migrants has docked in Sicily just a few days after the new far-right interior minister banned rescue ships from the country’s ports.
UNHCR Italy said the migrants had been rescued from the Mediterranean Sea in seven different operations over the last week and were in urgent need of medical care and psychological support. A dozen particularly sick migrants, including six children, had already been fast-tracked to the island of Lampedusa and taken into care by the Italian Red Cross.
The operation followed the diplomatic uproar last week after Italy and Malta both refused to allow a rescue boat to dock in its ports. The Spanish government ended the standoff and allowed the Aquarius to dock at Valencia.
Interior minister Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right League party and one half of the new ruling coalition, has been the key player behind Italy’s new anti-migrant approach and stepped up his campaign with calls for a closer scrutiny of Italy’s Roma minority.
He came under fire Wednesday after pushing for a census of Roma in an apparent attempt to force some to leave. The announcement was coupled with plans to deport those not holding Italian citizenship.
Just more than half of the Roma in Italy are said to not hold Italian citizenship, but those who do would “unfortunately” have to stay Mr Salvini said. After strong criticism of the proposal, Mr Salvini claimed that the policy was simply meant to protect Roma children.
The call for a census of Roma led to the first disagreement over policy with Mr Salvini’s partner in the coalition. Luigi Di Maio, leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, said the plans for a census of the estimated 150,000-strong Roma community was unconstitutional.
The Roma people live largely on the margins of Italian society in unlicensed settlements on the edges of cities. The Union of Jewish Communities said the plan evoked policies of the fascist Italian government led by Benito Mussolini, who in the 1930’s discriminated against Jews and the Roma.
It described it as “worrying and awakens memories of racist laws and measures of just 80 years ago and sadly ever more forgotten."
Former Prime Minister Paulo Gentiloni also criticised the proposed measure. "Yesterday refugees, today Roma, tomorrow guns for all. How hard it is to be bad," he wrote on Twitter.
The rescued refugees were landed as European leaders prepared to discuss a new deal on the fate of migrants to Europe. Those rescued included 42 people saved from a rubber dinghy, which started to sink off the Libyan coast on June 12. Survivors said another 70 were believed to be missing from the same dinghy.
Crew on the US ship that carried out the original rescue, the Trenton, said they saw at least another 12 bodies floating in the water but had been unable to retrieve them. A boat run by NGO Sea Watch offered to help transport the rescued migrants but was refused permission to offload them at an Italian port.