Italy intensifies pressures for migrant returns to Libya

Rescue boat Sea-Watch served with notice of stiff fines after Italians raid vessel

A migrant wrapped in a blanked waits on the deck of the Sea Watch 3 NGO vessel on January 31, 2019 off southeastern Sicily coats, as the ship sails towards Catania to disembark the 47 migrants onboard. - 47 rescued migrants aboard the Sea Watch NGO vessel were expected to disembark in Catania after Italy and France, Germany, Malta, Portugal, Romania and Luxembourg agreed to take them in. The fate of the migrants has been at the centre of a standoff between Italy's far-right Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini -- who has closed the ports to migrants and demanded Europe take its share -- and the German NGO Sea Watch. (Photo by FEDERICO SCOPPA / AFP)

Activists demanded Italy on Monday reverse a decision to turn away a rescue vessel that picked up 53 migrants fleeing north Africa across the Mediterranean as concern grew over the fate of those onboard.

Matteo Salvini, the Italian deputy prime minister and interior minister, gave permission for only ten of the rescued to disembark on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, which lies between the Italian mainland and the north African coast.

However he warned the rest should be returned to Libyan territorial waters and off-loaded in Tripoli, the capital of the war-torn state.

The stand-off has renewed sniping between the European Commission and Rome over how to handle the plight of those who put to sea in flimsy craft only to be picked up in difficulty.

"Ships flying the European flag are obliged to respect international law and the right to search and rescue at sea which entails the need to bring people to a safe place or port and the Commission is convinced, and we continue to say even today, these conditions are not found in Libya," a spokeswoman added on Monday.

The Sea-Watch 3 rescue boat has said two pregnant women, three children, a woman, two sick men and two companions were cleared to put ashore.

The vessel rescued 53 migrants drifting in an inflatable raft off the coast of Libya last week.

The Sea Watch crew has said it will continue to search for a safe port and that the option of turning them over to Libya does not exist.

"The government is taking a dangerous position from the constitutional point of view and international relations, for which it is acceptable to bring survivors back to shipwreck in a country at war," a spokeswoman said.

''We will not return to Libya'', a message on social media said.

The German-based group reported that a raid by Italian officials on the boat took place on Sunday night. The Italians served notice of a new law coming into force that gave them the right to impose harsh new penalties on voluntary rescue missions.

''Last night the interior ministry sent a finance police ship to be 100 per cent sure that our captain and mission chief were informed of the new decree of minister Salvini that provides for a fine of up to 50,000 euros to bring rescued people to safety,'' it said.

"I have just signed a ban on the entry, transit and berthing of Sea-Watch 3 in Italian territorial waters, as provided for by the Security Decree," Mr Salvini announced ahead of the raid.

The 18-article decree would bring fines on the captain, owner and operator of a vessel "entering Italian territorial waters without authorisation".

Mr Salvini has seen his popularity soar in the last year after taking a hard line against migrants, including forced returns to Libya.

More than 12,000 people have died since 2014 trying to flee Libya to Europe.