The migrant rescue organization Sea Watch has accused Italian authorities of inventing safety code violations to prevent it carryout out rescue missions of migrants in the Mediterranean.
The Dutch-flagged Sea Watch 3 finally disembarked 47 rescued migrants, including 15 children, in the Sicilian port of Catania on Thursday and had been floating with nowhere to dock since January 19.
“Until they are resolved, the vessel cannot leave the Catania port,” the coastguard said. It's likely the Sea Watch 3 would have departed for the Libyan shores in anticipation of another rescue.
The crew said they had expected the vessel to be detained or impounded as a show of strength from Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who says charity rescue boats aid illegal migration.
"As assumed, we are blocked for political reasons! There was high pressure on the coastguard to find a reason to chain us," Sea Watch International said on Twitter.
Mr Salvini has taken a no hardline approach to migration drawing up plans to bar non-governmental organisation rescue ships from Italian waters by designating them as a national security threat.
Mr Salvini has hinted the crew of Sea Watch 3 could be prosecuted and their ship impounded. “I foresee that there may be problems with the authorities," the NGO’s mission head Kim Heaton-Heather had previously told AFP.
Should the ship be impounded, it would take the last rescue charity ship operating in the central Mediterranean out of action, though there is one more charity-run surveillance boat that aims to spot migrants in distress but is not equipped to help them.
The interior minister said smugglers reinvested their profits in drugs and weapons, and accused those who have a “welcome them all” policy of being “morally complicit”.
"We have to go to Catania now. That means, we are moving away from a port of safety, towards a port where there is a prosecutor, known for his agenda regarding sea rescue NGOs,” Sea Watch tweeted. In March 2018 Catantia’s prosecutor Camelo Zuccaro impounded the ship of Open Arms, another migrant rescue NGO.
He ships encourage human trafficking across the Mediterranean Sea. His ministry said those that did would be seen as a “risk to national security.” While vessels have been banned from docking at Italian ports, blocking them from territorial waters would take Mr Salvini’s anti-migration approach a step further.
“Mission accomplished,” Mr Salvini tweeted upon the news the migrants would be distributed across Europe. He is also deputy prime minister and head of the League party that forms part of Italy’s populist government.
“I have been a minister for eight months: The landings have been reduced from hundreds of thousands to a few thousand,” he told Italian station Rai according to his Twitter page.
“We are working to prohibit the entry of ships not welcome in Italian waters. It cost me insults, complaints and investigations, but I’m happy with what I did. I’d do it again.”
Mr Salvini was accused last August of abusing power and holding people against their people after he refused to allow an Italian coastguard ship to disembark migrants.
His approach has won him plaudits among many Italians. With most migrants embarking from Libya, he has advocated empowering the North African country’s coastguard
Critics of Mr Salvini point to Libya’s appalling human rights record, where migrants face a raft of dangers including torture, extortion and sexual abuse. The interior minister has hit back and questioned why NGO ships do not disembark in Tunisia as the nearest safe port, rather than Italy.